We all have times when we wonder, “Am I at the right company? Am I in the right job? And is this all there is?” These questions are especially agonizing for mid-career professionals who may be searching for fulfillment while juggling demands at home and intense financial pressures to earn. How should you address a mid-career crisis? What actions can you take to improve your professional satisfaction? How can you combat the dullness and tedium of your workaday life? And how can you tell if it’s time to make a drastic change?
What the Experts Say
Mid-career malaise runs deep. It’s much more than just an “episodic moment” of frustration or “a particularly gruesome work project” that depletes you, says Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. “It’s a protracted feeling of, ‘Am I missing something?’” This type of professional discontent is relatively common in middle age, he says. “Midlife is the time where you lose the illusion of immortality. You know your opportunities aren’t endless, and you realize that time is finite,” he says. Even people who have achieved a great deal of career success aren’t immune to these feelings, says Whitney Johnson, an executive coach and the author several books including Build an A-Team. “They question: ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?’” She says that while “it’s natural and normal to experience professional restlessness,” you must heed “the call to action.” You need to be “proactive and figure out what to do about it.” Here’s how.
Reflect and reframe
For starters, identify the cause of your professional discontent. “When you have a sense of malaise, you begin to question everything,” Petriglieri says. “But you need to break down the problem and start with the place where it hurts. Is it your job? Or the organization you’re in?” Depending on your answer, “the prescription is different.” Of course, it’s not easy to rethink your professional path in middle age, when you’ve likely got a number of nonnegotiable commitments to consider — maybe a mortgage, a spouse or partner who has their own career, and children in school. If you find yourself dwelling on what holds you back, Johnson recommends “reframing the constraints.” When you’re young and you can live and work anywhere in the world, plotting your career path is incredibly daunting — “almost paralyzing,” she says. “But in middle age, the scope is tighter.” You know you “need to work in certain geographic regions” and “earn a certain amount of money” to live. “The constraints are actually helpful.”
Make small changes
It’s not uncommon to be generally happy at your organization but miserable in your job. One possible remedy, Petriglieri says, is to consider what kinds of small “changes you can make to bring yourself more fully to your work.” Even if you cannot change your circumstances, “you might be able to change the microenvironment in which you operate.” For instance, you could seek out an exciting and immersive project, hire employees with different backgrounds, or join an internal committee or team that will stretch you in new and different ways. You could also try to negotiate different work arrangements or schedules, or request a move to a different office. Shaking up your routine and “rejuvenating your commitments” can have a big impact on your outlook and perspective. The key is being deliberate “in what you choose to do, whom you choose to do it with, and where you choose to do it.”
Focus on learning
One of the biggest culprits of middle-age career malaise is boredom. “Your life and your career is one big learning curve,” Johnson says. But by the time you hit your forties, “you know what you’re doing and you’re good at it, so you get bored.” You miss that “dopamine rush that comes with learning and achieving.” Asking your boss for a promotion — and taking on new challenges and responsibilities — is an obvious answer. Johnson, however, recommends considering a lateral move. “Ask yourself: ‘Is up the only way?’ Maybe you don’t have to climb the ladder if you can do something interesting that will allow you to learn and grow.”
If there are no appealing openings, Johnson suggests designing one of your own by “looking for problems inside your organization — and then making the case for why you’re uniquely equipped to solve them.” Ask yourself: “What challenges do my colleagues face? What frustrates my clients?” And then: “What compliments do I receive over and over again? What things do I find easy that others find difficult?” Be creative. Think about ways you could use your strengths to make or save your company money. “Then say: ‘Here’s something we as an organization ought to try.’” The bottom line: “You mustn’t wait for someone to tell you what your next job is. Go create it.”
Consciously seek meaning
The unmet desire for impact is another common source of ennui and professional unhappiness, according to Petriglieri. You may reach a point where you’re working long hours while wondering, “What is it all for?” Bear in mind that “meaning is not going to knock on the door,” he says. “It is like love — you have to keep looking for it, working at it, and you cannot take it for granted.” He suggests making a concerted effort to meet the people who directly benefit from your work, whether they’re customers, clients, or colleagues. “When you can see how your work is being used by others, it is hard not to find meaning.” Otherwise it’s easy to lose sight of why you do what you do; it can become “too theoretical.”
Consider a career change
If these strategies don’t have their desired effect, it could be a sign that you need to make a dramatic move, Johnson says. “When you have a feeling deep in your soul that you need to disrupt yourself,” she says, you mustn’t ignore it. “If you stay checked out in your job, over time, you precipitate your own demise.” While “many people say it’s the money” that keeps them in a soul-destroying job, quite often it’s the presumed “loss of prestige and status” of leaving a known career path, she says. Be honest with yourself about what is keeping you in your current position and whether some risks and experiments might be in order. True, switching careers in midlife is intimidating. But, again, remember the positives of your predicament. “Presumably you’ve got some expertise and you know yourself better — you don’t need approval from others as you did in your twenties,” she says. Use that knowledge to think deeply and carefully about what you want to pursue if it’s not your current career. In these cases, working with a career coach can be helpful, Petriglieri says.
Challenge your assumptions
Your feelings of professional malaise could also be a sign that your job looms too large. Perhaps “you are being suffocated by a culture that wants to keep you in a state of being perpetually obsessed with your career,” Petriglieri says. “Maybe your malaise is due to the fact that you have all your eggs in one basket.” It could be that you need to seek self-worth and life satisfaction outside of work — perhaps through your family or faith, a charity you support, or a project, hobby, or sport you’re passionate about. True, it’s not the way most ambitious and “successful people” are conditioned to think. “You are supposed to find meaning through work, otherwise you are stigmatized,” Petriglieri says. To get over that stigma, “you have to forgive yourself. You also need to surround yourself with supportive people” who won’t judge your desire to break free from the traditional trappings of success. After all, “your time is no longer forever, so postponement feels costly. If not now, when?”
Principles to Remember
- Diagnose the problem. Ask yourself: Is it my job? Or the organization I’m in?
- Seek meaning by making an effort to meet people who benefit from your work.
- Consider a lateral move. It’s a good way to take on new challenges and learn.
- Discount the power of making small changes to your routine and environment.
- Wait around for opportunities. Look for problems you want to solve and then design a new job.
- Put all your eggs in your professional basket. Think about ways to derive satisfaction through your family, faith, or a project or hobby.
Case Study #1: Make small adjustments to your environment, and look for ways to enhance your job description
Joel Hendley, the Director of Engineering, North America, for Liferay, the California-based software company, speaks from personal experience when he says that “making a significant change” is not always the answer to “weathering mid-career anxiety” and discontent. “For some individuals, changing careers may be the best bet, but for most people — myself included— even small, seemingly insignificant changes can greatly bolster a sense of purpose and satisfaction.”
A few years ago Joel experienced a degree of professional malaise. He had been in his job for 20 years and felt that he wasn’t able to make the difference he wanted. The work seemed repetitive and there were no real challenges on the horizon that excited him.
“I felt stuck doing the same things, holding the same meetings, and solving the same problems over and over again,” he says. “I was in a rut and I didn’t see an obvious opportunity to enhance the pattern of my work.”
Rather than wait for things to change, he decided to do something about it. “I needed to put the onus on myself.”
So he decided to try his hand at job crafting. “A colleague of mine suggested the idea as a way to better my own career and transform how I approached my work,” he says.
First, he identified what he was passionate about and what he was exceptionally good at. Second, he thought about new ways he could bring those passions and skills to bear.
In Joel’s case, his interests and abilities centered on connecting people and ensuring that the people on his team and others work well together. “I really love problem solving with a team,” he says. “I have five kids and see the benefit of good communication and working to serve each other whether at home or at work.”
With this in mind, over time, Joel changed his management style. “No longer was I focusing solely on what I could get done as a manager,” he says. “Instead, I began to approach my job as one in which my success was judged by whether or not my colleagues began to adhere to a vision of excellent communication, servant leadership, and team success. This made me more people-focused than process-focused, but it allowed for process improvements in the best way possible, by enabling people to excel.”
The results were successful. “After I expanded the boundaries of my job, I was much more engaged in my work,” he says. “It really helped to inject purpose and happiness into my career and those of my colleagues in engineering.”
Case Study #2: Look for meaning outside of the traditional professional realm — and be willing to take a risk
James Partridge conquered his midlife professional blahs with a complete career do-over. A trained lawyer, James spent more than 20 years working in the legal industry in various capacities. Earlier in his career he was an attorney in a private practice; later he was an in-house corporate lawyer for a bank and then a director of large consulting firm.
“Eventually, I joined a company that wrote articles about legal operations and management, but I was incredibly bored and frustrated,” he says.
James didn’t feel that his work had any impact. “When I finished an article, it went into the library of resources,” he says. “I didn’t know whether I was helping anyone or if the work had any value. It felt completely meaningless. But I felt trapped and didn’t know what else I could do.”
To cope, James became engrossed in a hobby: attempting to revive the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. The festival was founded nearly 50 years ago but hadn’t been held since 2006.
During the latter part of 2016 and much of 2017, James, a music lover, helped plan and raise funds for the festival. It was held last August. “And we got rave reviews. It was one of the most satisfying things I had ever done.”
James felt invigorated. This year he continued planning and organizing, and eventually his hobby became all-consuming. “I had to make a choice: The festival could become my career, or I could abandon it and resume my ho-hum existence,” he says.
Finances were a consideration. “College tuition is coming at me like a freight train, and like most people, I’ve got a mortgage and a car payment,” he says.
And yet James also reflected on his good fortune and stage in life. “My wife has a good job, and we’ve been prudent with our finances our entire marriage,” he says. “We never lived extravagantly and have always maximized savings opportunities.”
He decided to listen to the voice inside his head and leave his old career behind to start a new one as the executive producer of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
James readily admits that his new role is hard work — and the pay is paltry. “There are days I wonder if I’m better off going back to the legal industry,” he says.
But he also feels that his work has meaning. “What I do now makes people genuinely happy,” he says. “When I was a litigator, on my best day, half the people in the room hated me. Now, when I walk around the festival grounds, people are singing, people are dancing. Even the performers are getting paid to do what they love. How could that be anything but satisfying?”
Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.