We’ve all heard of the “midlife crisis”. However, there’s a similar phenomenon that affects many successful professionals, known as the “mid-career crisis,” that gets hardly as much attention. Harvard Business Review reporter Kieran Setiya explains it like this:
“In 2008, the economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald found that self-reported life satisfaction takes the form of a gently curving U, beginning high in youth, bottoming out in our mid-40s, and then recovering as we get older. The pattern is robust around the world, affecting both men and women. And it persists when we correct for other variables, such as parenthood.
The curve is gentle but significant: The average contentment gap between age 20 and about 45 is comparable to the drop in life satisfaction associated with being fired or getting a divorce. The data on life satisfaction is consistent with earlier research specific to work. A 1996 article based on a survey of more than 5,000 British employees found that job satisfaction also took the form of a gently curving U, although the nadir came earlier, around age 39.”
Whether you feel yourself in the throes of this ennui or want to prevent the mid-career crisis before it begins, here are a few useful suggestions for getting yourself through the challenges associated with this issue:
1. Reframe the way you experience career-related regret.
Mid-career crises often begin with an accounting of the past and the regrets that inevitably follow. What should I have done differently? What experiences did I miss out on? What choices should I have reconsidered?
These reactions are entirely natural. But a more productive way of encountering your past decisions involves a bit of restaging. Setiya reminds readers that regret isn’t always indicative of a mistake made in the past. After all, “the only way to avoid regret entirely is to care about just one thing, one metric to max out. But that would impoverish your life. Remind yourself that feeling you’ve missed out is the inevitable consequence of something good: the capacity to find worth in many walks of life.”
Think about what your decisions have brought you rather than thinking of the opportunities you may have lost out on. Remember that everything has an opportunity cost, even spending your time regretting your career moves. And remember, like Setiya suggested, that a rich life requires give and take.
2. Focus on the concrete ways in which your career choice has brought you happiness, even in an unexpected fashion.
If your mid-career crisis prompts you to view your “mistakes” as bigger deals than your triumphs and encourages you to put serious weight on your “wrong” career decisions, try focusing instead on the positive results of your chosen professional path.
According to Setiya, “we live in details, not abstractions. Against the nebulous fact that you might have had a more successful career, you can place the concrete ways in which your actual career is good. As well as attachment to people, there is attachment to particulars — the interactions and achievements you would not have experienced in another life. When I think I should have been a physician, not a philosopher, and begin to regret my choice, I am ignoring the texture of my work and the countless ways in which the value of what I am doing is made vivid to me as I do it—in a student’s progress, say, or in fruitful conversation with a colleague. It is the specifics that count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived.”
Go ahead and make a list of your real-life professional triumphs. Allow this list of concrete, fact-based evidence to boost your career-related self-esteem.
3. Make time in your life for “feel-good” activities.
Setiya argues that mid-career crises often happen as a result of a workload that’s too heavy on “ameliorative work” (the putting-out-fires tasks necessary to keep larger projects moving) and too light on projects with “existential value” (the types of jobs that attracted you to this field in the first place). Even if you don’t see opportunity to change that workplace imbalance in the near future, you can use your time outside of the office to fully engage in activities and projects that bring you unadulterated joy.
Setiya advises you to “make time for feel-good activities either in the office—for instance, by starting a pet project you’ve been putting off for years—or outside it, by reviving a favorite hobby or taking up a new one. This advice may seem mundane, but it has depth. Salsa dancing and stamp collecting are probably less critical than your job, but existential activities have value that ameliorative ones do not. You have to make room for such pleasures in your life.”
4. Broaden your perspective when settling in for a work project.
The focus that many professionals in different industries place on “projects” can inadvertently spur on a bout of mid-career crisis. Setiya reminds readers that focusing solely on achievements will impede your ability to feel a holistic sense of satisfaction at work. Instead, it helps to view work tasks in two separate categories: telic (tasks designed to come to a clear conclusion) and atelic (tasks that continue on indefinitely and are “fully realized in the present”).
As Setiya puts it, “at work we engage in both telic and atelic activities. You are, for example, writing an HR report (telic) and taking feedback from colleagues (atelic). Most telic work activities have meaningful atelic aspects: When you’re working on that deal, you’re furthering your company’s growth strategy; when you’re hosting that conference, you’re engaging industry stakeholders. So, you have a choice. You can focus on either the fixed activity or the ongoing one—the project or the process. By adjusting your orientation to become less project-driven, you can defeat the sense of emptiness in the present, without changing what you do or how efficiently you do it.”
5. Don’t be ashamed of your crisis.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that a mid-career crisis doesn’t need to inspire shame within you. In fact, Forbes writes about the mid-career crisis as a natural result of maturing and becoming more aware of what you really want and need from your professional life.
“Instead of treating this life change as a crisis and something to avoid, we should welcome it and plan for it as something that may happen in our careers, and certainly as nothing to be ashamed about," Forbes insists. "You can choose to use it to your advantage to advance your career and your happiness, unlike so many who might choose to ignore their career confusion and stuff it down in fear. Recognize it for what it is: a sign that you've been evolving and that your current situation no longer suits you."