A mid-career crisis can be a cause for concern. Good news is it’s not as uncommon as you think. According to research by Vodafone, workers within the 31-35 age range are most unhappy at their jobs. So far from the isolating nature of a crisis, you can at least take comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and this is perfectly normal.
Not being alone isn’t enough, though. The next question is: now that you’re in full-blown meltdown mode, what are you supposed to do next?
Design Your Life
Luckily for you, some design professionals over at Stanford’s d.school (Design School) have answered this riddle. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans wrote Design Your Life to show how to apply design thinking to your personal problems – career ones included. One principle, in particular, involves giving yourself low-cost, mini-experiments. Take your mid-career crisis: since you don’t know what to do next, doing mini-experiments will give you concrete data points that you can actually work with. This strategy of “building your way forward” is useful when you’re starting with a blank slate. Since you’re bridging the gap between perfect and imperfect information, you can start making more informed decisions. But how?
Step 1: Track your engaging/energizing/joyful activities in a journal
Ideally covered in a span of 3-4 weeks, write down the activities that naturally give you the most fulfillment. It can be anything from writing; spending time with your nephews; or even helping your friend organize their closet. The trick is to measure activities across 3 metrics: if they leave you more energized after doing it (energy); help you enter a state of absorption and engagement (flow); and if it left you happier than you were before doing it (joy).
Step 2: Circle in on jobs/careers that involve these activities
After tracking which activities consistently ranked high on all 3 metrics, your next step is to brainstorm on which careers entail these activities. Write down jobs that come to mind. If that’s too hard, try starting with an industry first (e.g. marketing, sales, tech). Then once you have that shortlisted, try searching through job boards to see what actual positions are out there for you to apply to that’s related to that.
Step 3: Brainstorm on relevant skills and conduct mini-experiments that can hone them
Since you’re already mid-career, we can assume you possess some well-honed skills that are applicable to your next job. It can be leadership talent (every team needs this) or technical know-how. Assess what skills you already have, then determine which skills are still necessary for you to develop.
This is where your mini-experiments come in. They’re supposed to be doable while you’re at your current job. A few examples: freelance on the side with actual clients; moonlight at gigs after your day job; or even approach an ideal mentor and see if you can apprentice for free in your spare time.
The goal is to get concrete, practical experience. This not only gives you leverage when you apply to the job, but also gives you actual data to learn if this job is something you want to transfer to.
Step 4: Measure which experiment had the best impact
Once you’ve conducted your mini-experiments, it’s time again to gauge how you’re feeling after each activity. Note that this isn’t all right-brain thinking. While emotions such as joy are sometimes inexplicable (the heart wants what it wants), entering a state of flow is a different situation altogether – it means your skills are being used to the best of their limits. This is a strategic metric in order make yourself more marketable to potential employers – not to mention in a better position to negotiate great compensation.
Step 5: Decide on a path and course-correct along the way
At the end of the day, you still have to make the decision after all these exercises. While mini-experiments are nice, you will have to choose and commit to one sooner or later.
The nice thing is that by the time you do, you would’ve had more concrete knowledge than before you started. You would’ve measured yourself in both emotional and rational ways, and you would’ve given yourself the peace of mind that you sampled different, varied options. The trick is to realize that you can always course-correct along the way. If one job doesn’t work out, you can still jump laterally within the company (maybe you got the industry right) or pursue your job freelance-style (maybe you got the job right, but not the work environment).
At the end of the day, it is our choices that define us; and before you know it, you would’ve defined yourself right out of your crisis – just like that.