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What are the mid-career blues and why should you embrace them?

Voco Team

Is hitting the midpoint of your career the lifetime equivalent of the Wednesday ‘hump day’? Possibly not. In fact, the middle of your career can offer you the opportunity to stop striving and start sculpting what you have into a better, more enjoyable working life.

When it feels like your career is in recession; you’ve got nothing new to learn and you have achieved at least most of what you set out to, it’s easy to lose enjoyment and motivation. Even if you are doing something you value, or even love. The antidote for many is to make big, sweeping, career or life changes. Or at least feel the pressure to do so.

But, according to Harvard professor Arthur Brooks in his new book, ‘From strength to strength’, you don’t need to start a business, quit work entirely or buy a yacht to experience the second half of your life as more fulfilling, fun and joyful than the first. If the first half of your career is about accumulation - money, influence, experience -  the second should be about working with what you have gained so that you can move steadily and serenely forwards. It’s about enjoying the journey rather than obsessing over the destination.

A different type of intelligence

When you become an expert, work is easy, but it can also begin to feel boring. Being stuck in a situation that feels mundane is just as stressful as the high energy beginnings of your career when you were striving to ‘prove yourself’.  This slow, malignant type of stress can eat away at your confidence and resilience; making it harder to accept or instigate change, even when change has become something you desperately want and need.

Psychologically, when you hit this point - most often at the midpoint of your life and career - your fluid intelligence has started to wane. In work at least, there is nothing new for you to learn. The same old challenges rear their heads, with no new perspectives to draw from. Sinking into the abyss of ambivalence, mentally 'checking-out' or desperately seeking something new and exciting, can feel like the only viable options.

It can be hard to notice when you're in it, but this stuck-in-the-mud moment is exactly the opportunity you need to develop a second type of intelligence that can offer longer-term satisfaction than the fluid intelligence of the constantly challenged mind. You now have the chance to solidify what you know and build your crystallised intelligence. Something Brooks refers to as developing your ‘Dalai Lama brain’.

This is your opportunity to share the benefit of your experience and put it to better, or at least different, use. It’s time to stop piling up more of what you already have; the pleasure this used to bring is no longer in reach. Now is the time to start spreading your knowledge wider: who could benefit from more support? Where else might your skills be useful and valued? How could you apply what you have learned to another field, community or aspect of your life?

To do this takes reflection and recognition. In his eight years of research, Brooks discovered that those who honed this practice found a fulfilment that worked in harmony with their life position, not in conflict with it.

Letting go of the past

The first step on this path to career enlightenment is to start focussing on what you have, rather than what you want or, perhaps more pertinent, wanted to have. For most of us this is a huge shift in our thinking patterns. Up until this point our brains and our behaviours have been directed towards the achievement of a goal or set of goals. To let go of this and embrace feelings of acceptance and satisfaction challenges our sense of self.  

Having someone to develop this new focus with is essential. Having someone who is at the same career crossroads as you can be even more helpful. A peer who has also begun to question what the next phase of their life might bring and who is similarly trying to manage the inevitable malaise of the mid-career hump. This is not the blind leading the blind but rather the curious helping one another to navigate similar and shared challenges, without judgement or expectation. You experience the same bumps in the road and can support each other to get over them. Having someone older and wiser share their perspective can be useful, but can make the path feel less relatable and therefore, less achievable.

It’s hard to acknowledge what we have achieved; we have become programmed to be, at best, humble (at least outwardly) and at worst self-deprecating about our achievements. Falsely believing that development is about filling the gaps rather than celebrating and strengthening our assets. It can take the figurative gaze of another person to, without agenda, highlight our attributes and successes so that we can see them for ourselves.

To be clear, crystallised intelligence isn’t about creating a fixed mindset, quite the opposite. Acceptance of our achievements and an exploration of how we can optimise them, can create new neural pathways and practical possibilities. It is the essence of and starting point for change. Up until now, your focus has been learning. With work, support and focus, this is the time for the real development to begin.

Shedding the weight

We are all familiar with the tropes of the so-called midlife crisis. When we hit the glass ceiling of fluid intellectual development, we seek to accumulate more in the hope of compensating for the diminishing returns of our professional lives. This may temporarily satiate us but it will not nourish us in the long-term. As author and happiness expert, Gretchen Ruben famously wrote, ‘look for happiness under your own roof’. Happiness can never be achieved by accumulating more ‘stuff’. It always starts from within.

Those who have found more happiness in the second act of their careers, know that shedding any unnecessary burdens is the best way to move forward. Where is your energy focused? What in your life serves you well and what doesn’t? What do you value most about yourself and your career? Who do you value most in your life?

Cultivating new, meaningful relationships and strengthening those that matter, will serve you well and make for a happier second half. Now is not the time to bed down into old habits that make life, on the surface, easy. Now is the time to form new habits that make you feel more alive and to forge or firm up the relationships that best support these habits.

Learning more about yourself, your motivations and your values is crucial; how will you know what to keep in your life and what to move away from if you don’t know who you really are? Often we mask our true motivations and desires even from ourselves. To shed the things that matter least in our lives, we must first remove the veneer we have created that hides us from ourselves. Talking about what you really enjoy and what excites and motivates you and inviting someone else to notice where you exude energy and where you appear burdened, makes the task of self discovery all the easier.

Live on purpose

One of the take-away concepts from Brooks’s book is that of ‘living on purpose’. When you know how you want your life to be, you can create the conditions for this every day. This isn’t about perfection and often it involves trial and error but, living and working in closer alignment with what makes you happy will, well, make you happy.

For some people this may still mean a big career change. For others, this will be about building better relationships, creating conditions in current careers to share the benefit of experience, or branching out beyond a career to find other opportunities to harness the inner Dalai Lama.

Whatever this midpoint in your career throws up for you, don’t ignore it. Embrace the opportunity, sit with the initial discomfort and find your path to development - in its truest form. Above all, use this as an opportunity to find people who will help you to explore and then encourage and support whatever choices you make about the next phase of your life. Do the same for someone else and you’ll beat those mid-career blues for good.

To find the peer support you need to help you through this phase, book your free demo with Voco today.

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