Bouncing Back From a Career Plateau
Stop and think about how you felt at the start of your career. Chances are, you were excited about the possibilities that lay ahead, and keen to develop your skills and expertise. You were full of ideas, and you probably set ambitious goals to keep yourself moving forward.
Towards the end of your working life, there’s a good chance that you’ll feel satisfied and rewarded by how far you’ve come. You’ll hopefully have had ample opportunities to develop your knowledge and skills and, as a result, you’ll be respected and consulted on key projects. You might also be nearing retirement and looking forward to the next stage of your life.
So, where does that leave the people in the middle, who have established their career but are a long way from retirement? They can experience a drop in their levels of motivation and enthusiasm, and they might struggle to find their work as exciting as they did when their career began.
In this article, we’ll look at what you can do to get out of this sort of mid-career slump.
Losing Your Motivation Mid-Career
Research shows that, for many people, job satisfaction is U-shaped over time. In other words, you start and end your career on a high, while slumping or plateauing in the middle. There are several reasons for this.
First, you may have mastered your current role and become familiar with your field. The excitement you initially felt might be a distant memory, and you might need new challenges to jump-start your enthusiasm.
Many people seek promotions and new opportunities at this stage. However, competition for these is often fierce, and you may find your peers less supportive than they were earlier in your career. It can also be challenging to maintain good relationships with colleagues who are just as stressed and time-pressured as you are.
Family commitments can also contribute to a lack of motivation. Many professionals start families at this time, and may feel pressured to find a healthy work/life balance. You might also be questioning the deeper meaning of your work, or your organization’s driving purpose.
Last, many professionals change jobs during this time. While this can bring exciting new challenges, it can also be incredibly stressful. For example, a new boss may expect you to hit the ground running because of your expertise, and may provide only minimal support. This can leave you feeling abandoned and doubtful that you did the right thing.
How to Recognize a Mid-Career Slump
So, how do you know if you’re experiencing a mid-career slump? Look for some of these signs:
- You’ve started questioning whether you want to continue in your field, or do something entirely new.
- You feel unhappy, unmotivated or discontented.
- You feel unfulfilled.
- You’re less productive and efficient.
- You look for excuses to take a day off.
- You feel stressed, burned out or even depressed.
Take our Self-Test to find out whether you’re at risk from burnout.
How to Beat the Slump
Use the seven strategies below to pull yourself out of a mid-career slump.
1. Find Meaning in Your Current Role
Stop and think about which parts of your job you find most meaningful or rewarding. Which tasks fill you with excitement and purpose, and which ones contribute to the organization’s mission, or to a cause that matters to you? What gives you a sense of achievement? If you’re not sure how to find meaning in your role, use the MPS Process or Schein’s Career Anchors to help you.
Once you’ve identified your most pleasurable tasks and responsibilities, develop a plan to incorporate more of them into your routine. Use job crafting strategies, or talk to your boss about how you could spend more time on these activities.
One study found that physicians who devote at least 20 percent of their time to meaningful tasks are less likely to experience burnout. So, make an effort to spend more time doing work you love, so you can find more meaning in what you do.
Keep in mind that you can often find a sense of purpose in unlikely places. For example, you might feel rewarded by helping your colleagues, or by practicing random acts of kindness at work. Working with others in this way can transform how you see your job and it can increase your feelings of satisfaction.
2. Set Meaningful Goals
At this stage in your career, it’s important to take a step back, and examine where you are and where you’d like to go. This can help you find the right career direction and develop a strategy to fulfill your ambitions.
Spend some time thinking about what you’d like to achieve in the next year, five years, or 10 years. It can also help to think about how you could improve yourself personally. For example, would you like to be more authentic or charismatic at work? Would developing your emotional intelligence help you achieve the promotion you want?
Make sure that your goals are SMART, schedule time every day to work towards them, and ensure that they are challenging enough to keep you interested, engaged and focused.
3. Add Challenge
You’ve likely gained a lot of knowledge and expertise by your mid-career point, and you may have mastered your current role. While this makes you a valuable asset in your organization, it can also make you feel bored or dissatisfied.
Add some new challenges to your routine to combat this. For example, you could volunteer for a project that you’re not entirely comfortable with, or take on some assignments that test your skills in new ways.
You might also be ready to gain managerial experience, if you haven’t done so already. For example, ask to lead a team of interns or volunteers, so that you can test your skills and identify the areas where you need to improve.
4. Find a Mentor or Coach
A mentor or coach can give you valuable insight into your experience and provide a sounding board for your ideas. He or she can also help you develop skills and break bad habits that might affect your productivity.
Start by looking for a mentor in your organization. Do you respect a particular leader? Would he be willing to mentor you? Or, would a less established team member be interested in developing a Reverse Mentoring relationship with you?
If not, expand your search to your wider industry, network or acquaintances. Keep in mind that your mentor should be someone you like and respect, and she should be able to be objective about your situation.
5. Change Role Within Your Organization
If you’re completely dissatisfied and ready to move on from your current role, consider changing careers in your organization. This can be a rewarding option because it allows you to take on a new challenge while staying with a company you’re committed to.
Think carefully about what kind of change you’d like to make. What other departments or projects interest you? Or, would you consider working abroad?
6. Define Your Happiness
Do you know what makes you truly happy? Happiness, of course, is different for everyone, and you have your own factors that contribute to subjective well-being. Identify these factors and then incorporate more of them into your life.
Make a list of the people you like spending time with and the activities you enjoy doing most. Commit to spending time each week reconnecting with these individuals, or getting involved with these tasks. You might find that your happiness outside of work can significantly affect how you feel about your job, so do more of what you enjoy in your personal life too.
Our article on the PERMA Model can help you define what happiness means to you, and think about how you can have more of it.
7. Develop Good Relationships
One study found that having an interesting role, along with a good relationship with your boss, are the two most important factors for job satisfaction. Strong links with your peers and colleagues are also important; the more connected you feel to others, the happier you’ll likely be.
Build good work relationships by getting to know the members of your team. Make an effort to connect with others by inviting someone out for lunch or an after-work drink. Show your appreciation when someone helps you out, and do your best to return the favor.
Last, try to stay positive. People enjoy being around upbeat people, and you’ll likely find that forcing yourself to think in this way will lead to positive outcomes in your career.
Many professionals find that their motivation and productivity lag when they are several years into their career. This “mid-career slump” can leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled in your role.
To overcome this, work on finding the deeper meaning in what you do. Seek out challenges by volunteering for projects or teams that test your skills in new ways. Find the meaning in your role, and a coach or mentor who can help you keep your career moving forward. Find out what makes you happy in your personal life, and try to do more of it.
Apply This to Your Life
Make a list of everything you enjoy doing at work right now. Are there any common themes? What strengths or abilities do you demonstrate? How can you use these attributes more in other tasks or projects?
Make an effort to connect with a colleague this week. Ask them out to lunch, for a quick cup of coffee, or for a drink after work. And consider getting to know someone you don’t often talk to.