Have you hit a stage of your career where you feel like, “I’m not sure what the next milestone is,” or “This isn’t what I thought it would be,” or “I don’t want to do this forever?” These thoughts or questions may be a signal that you have arrived … at mid-career!
I believe there are several life stages to a professional career, each with its own hallmarks and sometimes roadblocks to surmount. Just like children who experience developmental milestones like crawling, laughing, talking, walking, and learning to socialize, adults continue to experience developmental milestones and tasks, too. We just don’t talk about them very often.
In a guest post on Dr. Mira Brancu’s wonderful blog, I have written about challenges specific to the early stages of a career. In this article, I want to share some ideas about the hallmarks of mid-career, and the developmental tasks to be accomplished during this time of peak activity, growing success and some fairly predictable challenges.
Key characteristics of mid-career
I separate mid-career into a “front half” and a “back half.”
Mid-career Stage 1
As professionals reach their first significant marks of success (perhaps being named partner in the firm, getting tenure at a university or winning a first major grant or big project leadership role), they may begin to feel that they have climbed the mountain, and there are no foreseeable goals to reach, or clear markers for success going forward.
Sometimes it feels like “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life?” If there has been a professional crisis, recognition may dawn that the rules for success may not always be applied fairly. It may also become apparent that the rules for success as taught by others may not be professionally beneficial.
There can also be a deepening understanding of personal and professional goals for yourself. Over-commitment reaches full bloom as a habit and as a potential barrier to success. New or first leadership roles may be offered and undertaken at this time. Often, folks begin to achieve some recognition of their professional success internal to their organization and beyond.
Developmental tasks in this stage of a professional career include:
- Learning to say the “strategic yes”
- Clarification of professional goals for mid-life, particularly in light of competing professional and personal interests
- Learning to effectively manage personal responses to potentially unfair application of rules for success
- Mentoring of early-career professionals
Mid-career Stage 2
As we move through the early part of mid-career, clarity begins to develop regarding our own goals and primary professional endeavors, independent of what others may have told us about how to do things or what steps to take. These professionals begin to see significant recognition of their success at senior levels of their organization, and often beyond the organization in national or organizational leadership roles. They begin to consider succession planning for their professional endeavors — asking the question, “who will carry on my work?” Mid-level leadership roles may be offered and undertaken here.
Developmental tasks in stage 2 of mid-career include:
- Developing and securing professional reputation
- Mentoring of early and mid-career professionals
- Succession planning
Charting a path through mid-career
As a coach, I sit with people in mid-career frequently. There are often predictable “syndromes” that point me to think about these developmental tasks and milestones.
I see people who have achieved that first big milestone and who then hit a period of depression because they can’t see a clear path for measuring success going forward. They may be bored with something they thought they would love — ennui sits in.
If they have experienced a negative or toxic professional situation, they may first try to make it work, or they may want to fight against the system that created unfairness. Then, depression sits in when they realize that some unfairness may be inherent, or that the world is really not built as a meritocracy, and following the rules doesn’t always mean you are recognized for your achievements or seen as successful.
After a period of grief, people begin to explore what in their situation they want to change, and they move to a creative process of crafting their professional goals and career course for themselves. They may consider leaving an organization, changing roles within an organization or changing careers altogether.
In the end, if there has been grief and anger, people often move through those emotions and emerge with a creative and exciting plan for their career that they can be deeply excited about. These people are likely to become independent thinkers about their careers. They will seek organizations and situations where that creativity can be rewarded and where their core personal values will be supported at best, and where, at a minimum, those values will not be violated.
These people can become some of the most successful and accomplished professionals in their field. Their stories are often instructive, and many of them want to pay it forward by helping others through this challenging mid-career transition.
As a coach, I am a “keeper of stories,” and some of the most fascinating stories I encounter come from courageous people navigating mid-career.
How have you recognized or managed your own mid-career? I’d be interested in your story.
Last updated April 30, 2019