Most people who come to me to figure out and work on what they want to do next, don’t do so because they hate their jobs. Most have always enjoyed their work and found it challenging and interesting.
They come to me because they’re at a stage where they’re starting to feel less satisfied. They’re enjoying their work less. They want to feel more fulfilled. They’re usually in their 40s or 50s and this feeling has often been around for some time. They often describe it as being “at a crossroads”. In fact, something is often shifting or changing within them, even if they’re not fully aware of it.
There a number of key reasons why how you feel about your work often starts to change around at this stage of life.
1. You’ve been there and done that
Your first big acquisition. Your really big deals or wins. Your big successes with clients. Those major, high-stake presentations or pitches. Those major changes in the business. All of these undoubtedly involved high levels of focus, challenge, drive, adrenaline and a resulting sense of achievement when they went well. There’s pressure. You push hard. You get there and you feel great (although in truth, the buzz is usually quite short lived).
As the years go by though, you’ve been through these high challenge experiences many times and it becomes more familiar. You’ve seen it before and while the upside can be you may feel less pressure as you go through these things, the downside is you may not get the same kick or thrill from them over time. The buzz or reward becomes less. They just aren’t quite as satisfying. You might even start to recognise how quickly you move on to the next thing and how short-lived the good feeling really is.
2. Bigger or more doesn’t really cut it
The temptation then is to chase the buzz – to go for a bigger deal or build a bigger business. Go for bigger clients. Expand into more countries. This can feel like the solution when you start to feel a little less fulfilled in your work. But more or bigger is rarely the answer. Because that’s exactly what it is – more or bigger or higher stakes – but probably not fundamentally different.
And so the next big goal or challenge is rarely the answer. But it is an incredibly seductive one. It can feel like the solution to the nagging feeling of whether you’re that fulfilled or enjoying work as much any more. So you throw yourself into the next big project or new business or promotion or expansion only to find you’ve killed yourself for another year or 18 months only to find out the feeling never really went away. You just managed to numb it or avoid the feeling for a little while through busyness or distraction.
3. There isn’t an obvious goal or challenge in front of you
Early on in your life and career there’s nearly always another goal or step to take ahead of you. Getting your first job or creating your first business. Buying a house. Getting promoted. Growing the business. Perhaps having a family. Getting your MBA. Getting to partner. Or becoming the CEO. Selling the business and starting another one. Saving for a nest egg. Putting money aside for your pension etc.
But often there comes a point in your life (especially if you’re the achieving type), where you’ve achieved a lot of the goals or milestones you wanted. And the next ‘thing’ isn’t so obvious. For goal-oriented, results-driven achievers this can create a lack of direction, focus or challenge – all of which can contribute to you not feeling as fulfilled or as happy in your work as you’d like.
Not having an exciting or challenging next goal in front of you can also lead to more awareness of, and less tolerance of, the sacrifices you make by being so busy and focused on your work which can also impact your happiness.
4. You can see the finishing line
As we reach our 40s and beyond, we typically have a growing sense that time is not finite. This can also be exacerbated by personal experiences of the death or serious illness of a parent, friend or work colleague (which of course we are more likely to experience as we get older). We often have a growing sense of our own mortality and that we do not have forever to live the way we want to live. To be happy. To make a difference. To do what we really want to do.
Rather than thinking you’ll be happier in your job “someday” or things will be less busy “at some stage”, you may start to get a growing sense that this time is now. That you don’t have all the time in the world left to change things and this can cause you to question “Am I really happy?”, “Is this what I really want to do for the rest of my life?”.
5. The outer isn’t the answer
In the first half of our lives our focus is often outwards – on achieving certain goals like jobs, creating businesses, money, security etc. But as we reach midlife and as we achieve many, if not all of these milestones, we often start to realise that money, success, status, outer achievement – the things we may have chased for so long – now we have them, do not make us truly happy. Or may not be enough. Or may start to be having too much of a cost.
A very successful and wealthy entrepreneur who was highly regarded for what he did, for example, was a three out of ten in terms of happiness when I first met him. A good example of the fact that money, success and status does not equal happiness. Despite what we may have been conditioned to believe, and despite what we might have spent a lifetime chasing.
So another reason we can start questioning things at this stage in our lives is we can begin to have a greater awareness that happiness doesn’t actually come from the things we thought it did. Lasting fulfilment or joy is not ‘out there’ or about chasing external goals. It’s really about finding what is meaningful for you and what brings you joy, and creating and shaping your life around that as much as possible.
6. Wanting more meaning
Along with having achieved key milestones or perhaps a certain level of security, as well as a growing sense that time is finite, often comes an increasing feeling that we want our work to mean something.
As one of my clients said to me, “If I’m going to work this hard, I want it to matter”.
Many of my clients at this stage of life say to me that they want to use their talents and skills for a purpose or they want to give back in some way.
We all want to matter in life. Around this stage of life there is often a greater inner shift from ‘Success to significance’.
7. Our lives have narrowed
When they first come to me, many of clients struggle to fully answer the question “What brings you joy?”. They can usually tell me they enjoy time with family and friends, traveling or things like playing tennis, watching rugby or cooking etc. But after that they often start floundering. In fact, they’re usually quite surprised that they don’t really know what brings them joy anymore.
I always reassure them that it’s extremely common for hard working, high achieving people to lose touch with this. And that’s because over time, the demands of work often mean that you sacrifice certain things or eliminate things along the way that don’t seem that critical in the short term. Perhaps it’s that night out with friends the night before the big board meeting. Or that game of tennis that you’re too busy to play. Or you keep gradually missing your book club night so you eventually stop going.
What often happens is that people gradually drop or lose some of the seemingly ‘optional’ parts of their life and then the free time that they do have may be spent catching up on family time or things they didn’t get time to do all week. So life can become more focused on the essentials and there’s less space left for the spontaneous, the random, the unexpected, the whimsical or things just for fun.
Reaching a point where you’re enjoying your work less than you used to is extremely common at this stage of life. It’s normal and natural. And the reality is this feeling is unlikely to go away.
You may dampen it down for a while with another goal or project, but that’s not going to solve the real issue.
What most people start to crave at this point in their life is more meaning – to feel like your work matters. That YOU matter. That this next phase of your working life is true to who you really are and want to be.
Many high achievers lean towards binary or black and white thinking. For example, assuming they can have a fulfilling job OR earn good money. Or if they want fulfilment they have to leave their job. But the reality is life is much more grey and nuanced. We can increase the amount of joy or fulfilment we feel no matter what our job.
So if this resonates with you, you may find some of my other blogs helpful like ‘5 ways to be better not busier’, ‘Knowing your fuel’, ‘How to have more fun: The Fun 50 challenge’ , ‘What got you here won’t get you there‘, ‘A simple practice that can change your life‘, ‘Living without regrets‘ or ‘Quietening your inner barking dog‘.
Work takes up more of your life than any other activity other than sleeping. So if you’re not enjoying it as much as you used to, changing the way you work, what you do at work or changing your role to suit you better can literally change your life.
I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve walked the path and come out the other side. And so have so many of my clients.