Hitting that mid-career slump and asking, ‘Is this all there is?’

All of us have pondered the question, “Is this it?” Usually, it comes out after the huge mental build-up and waiting period around a much-anticipated event that, in the end, really wasn’t all that we expected it to be. Think that big New Year’s Eve celebration back in 2000, or that big concert that didn’t live up to the hype.

The question also finds its way into our professional lives. The impulse to move forward, especially at mid-career plus, for excitement, satisfaction or prestige is seemingly never-ending. We can’t see a fulfilling end to our career, however, because most do not know what that end really looks like – or, more importantly, feels like. It is a regular source of career confusion for many people that I talk to.

When we begin any relationship, whether with a job or a person, it starts off with wonder and excitement, full of challenge and discovery. We want to get to the next step, and are drawn to anything that looks new or shiny. Once the novelty wears off, we then usually look for shiny and new all over again. I have never met anyone who leaves a boring job for another boring job. We leave for the promise of something better, be it more responsibility, more pay, more promotion options or less stress.

In my professional work as a career coach, it’s usually when people hit the mid-career point of about 15-20 years into their working lives where the confusion really sets in. Nothing seems shiny any more and opportunities for radical advancement diminish the further you move into the upper echelons of your profession, or within your company or department. You may have hit a maximum pay grade that is hard to match, let alone exceed, at a different company. Or, you are at a time where you know stress is not healthy and are no longer duped into believing that being crazy busy is a valid measurement of productivity or social status. Ultimately, it’s a time in your career where you at least know what you don’t want to be doing.

Yet, as humans, we crave change and the excitement that comes with it. The question is, are we looking for something in our professional life that simply may not exist anymore? And, if so, what should we replace it with?

To answer that question, we have to go beyond the relatively short-lived hit of euphoria that we’ve previously associated with changing jobs, and need to look for other measures for job satisfaction. Maybe it’s true that you’ve reached a relative pinnacle in your professional career, and “This actually is it.” But that may not be all bad if the source of your dissatisfaction is not really the job or the company, but other things that are more readily within your control to change.

So, what next? Because there are many productive years left in your working life, you need to bring a different level of awareness to your continuing career.

First, focus less on work as a source of that level of consistent change that you craved earlier in your career. The reality is that your workplace may never be able to keep up with your need for constant stimulation. Even the best and most engaging workplaces need you to play a part in managing your emotional curve, and be patient about the next opportunity. This may be the perfect time to work at deepening your expertise and skill, rather than applying it in a new area.

Second, examine how factors like workplace flexibility, low levels of stress or other things that are of personal value to you can be seen as tangible benefits. These can help you form a new benchmark for measuring and attaining a different level of career satisfaction. Not everyone will reach the coveted corner office, but that doesn’t mean that the role you’re in isn’t a good one. For example, your current role might not have you needing to work on the weekend, thereby allowing you to enjoy hiking, skiing, golfing or something else outside of work that makes you feel great. Satisfaction in your personal life has a direct relationship to the person you bring to work every day: It will show up in the way you approach your work.

Is this it? Perhaps – but likely not. What is certain, however, is that the way you’ll measure your progress from this point in your career forward is likely to change and be much more nuanced than the criteria you used when you started out.