Reached your mid-life career tipping point yet? What is it and what to do if you see it coming?

Did I drive my career into a rut overnight? Hell no! It happened slowly over a couple of years of low-level dissatisfaction. Like a dripping tap. I don’t really remember when it started but I certainly remember the point at which I decided that enough was enough…the point at which I’d reached my mid-life career tipping point.

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Did I drive my career into a rut overnight? Hell no! It happened slowly over a couple of years of low-level dissatisfaction. Like a dripping tap. I don’t really remember when it started but I certainly remember the point at which I decided that enough was enough…the point at which I’d reached my mid-life career tipping point

A personal story that fills me with shame

It was on a cold Tuesday evening a few years ago after my 42nd birthday (a lady never reveals her true age).  I’d done the commute to London on the early train leaving home the moment our lovely nanny arrived. 11 hours later on returning home, I ushered my young daughters upstairs to bed immediately, speed-read a story, speed-sung a lullaby and ended up ordering them to go to sleep because “Mummy has an important call to do now!”  They didn’t complain but did everything in their power to make me happy. My shoulders have slumped just remembering it. What was that important phone call? I was interviewing a Finance Director for a UK -wide search which I was leading in my head-hunting role. 

We all have crap days. But I wish I could say that it was a rare occurrence but it happened on a regular basis.  I experienced working mother guilt leaving the office earlier than others and needed to prove to myself (more than to anyone else) that I was working hard enough by working in the evenings.  As it turned out, that particular FD was perfect for the role. I, on the other hand, didn’t feel anywhere near perfect. I had priorities questions in life. I had inspiration questions at work.  I had work fulfilment questions. And I had begun to have life fulfilment questions. That Tuesday was the day I reached my own personal tipping point.  

A "Tipping point" and why it's relevant to mid-life careers

Malcolm Gladwell in his book called “The Tipping Point” describes the phenomenon as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.  He uses it to describe the point at which an idea, trend or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire.    I see the career change tipping point in a similar way. A career change tipping point occurs when the wealth of evidence to make a change outweighs the mass of evidence to stay in the same role, career or profession full-time.    

After interviewing over 50 successful career changers in their 40s and 50s, one of the first patterns I noted was that they all reached a tipping point in their previous careers where making a decision on priorities was required.  There was almost always a tipping point at which their work became so unsatisfying and made them so unhappy that they felt compelled to do something about it.   Some of the quick thinkers who had begun their thinking process a little earlier described their tipping point as the point at which their new idea became so compelling that they simply felt compelled to change direction. Either way, they all hit a mid-life career tipping point.  

How doing unfulfilling work impacts us all differently.

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Being in a career rut can feel like...

 

a slowly-dripping tap. 

When you feel stuck in a career that isn’t fulfilling, it ever-so-gently ebbs the joy out of your working existence like a slowly-dripping tap. Drip. Drip. Drip. 

-       Some people can zone out from the low level annoyance of a career rut’s dripping tap and continue to do good work without thinking too far ahead and live for holidays and weekends.  Drip. Drip. Drip.

-       Some people find a way to quickly turn off the annoying tap and either change jobs within a company, move to a new company or re-train – this occurs more often during the first ten years of their careers.   Once your career has been established, your life has often been established at a similar rate. This makes mid-life a harder time to turn off the annoying tap without material consequences.

-       For others, the annoying drip becomes ever so slowly louder and ever so slowly more powerful over years - while we put our career happiness on the back burner to prioritise paying mortgages, nursery/school fees and the family holidays (needed to recover and give us the energy to go back to face the nagging drip, drip, drip).

But drips taps and career ruts don’t fix themselves magically.  

Sometimes the “fixing” of career ruts and drips gets outsourced (re-structuring/re-structures/closure of divisions). This can have profound impacts on the individual who has been hearing the mid-life career drips for a while. Sometimes, someone else is brought in to solve the dripping tap problem (company take-overs/acquisitions/mergers).  It appears that feeling stuck and doing work that is unfulfilling to us is very obvious to those around us, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves.  That said, I’ve known many successful professionals who were exited from their company under a range of circumstances who (after the luxury of time and an adjustment of mind frame!) were quoted as saying “it was actually the biggest opportunity of my career.”  

But many of us keep ignoring the dripping tap until the message becomes deafening or until there is some sort of crisis in our personal lives which forces us to take action.  These crises, in my experience, often come in the form of redundancy, divorce, parental illness or personal health scares. My granny was right – a stitch in time saves 9 - meaning that if we could catch our careers before the tipping point and grab them by their throats before we hit rock bottom/break/get so stuck that it makes us feel sad, things might be a great deal less stressful.   If we could lift our heads up and understand that we can design and test a back-up plan for when the inevitable happens, before it happens, we’d be in a really strong position to crack on happily earning and doing more fulfilling work that suits us for as long as we want.   

So, what can you do when you feel that your mid-life career change is approaching tipping point?

I see no other way than to think deeply first, then take one action which breeds many more. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Figure out what it is you want your work to do for you and why it isn’t doing it now
  2. Figure out what it is specifically that you do better than anyone else
  3. Using the information from Step 1 and Step 2, design possible ideas that would allow you to get paid for using your unique assets.
  4. Understand what’s stopping you & do one small experiment.
  5. Analyse that experiment in detail.
  6. Do another small experiment with tweaks from Step 5.
  7. Continue forever.

There is simplicity in re-designing your career to suit you and there appear to be lots of ways to do it.  But this is the way that I have found to be most successful.  I ask a great deal of the right types of questions and then ask clients to commit time and energy to do my “thinking exercises”.  If they do these, they will be 95% more successful at designing work that might be fulfilling, satisfying and (God forbid!) more fun than the career of the average individual in a career rut trying to ignore the dripping tap.

To get you started, I’ve published one of the early chapters of my up and coming book on patterns of successful mid-life career change.  I’ve called this chapter Dare to Hope – How it feels to be free from the trap of the wrong career.  You can download it from my website www.midlifeunstuck.com