The mid-career lament: ‘I’m bored’

October 21, 2005 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Are you bored with your work? My research indicates that a good half of you would answer yes to that question.

It is a paradox of our times that we can be both overworked and under-stimulated. Although we often think it’s a lack of things to do that causes boredom, in truth the content of the work we do and the degree of intellectual challenge it provides can be just as important.

And we’ve been feeling bored for some time. The Yankelovich Monitor, a consumer survey, concluded in 2000 that we are in the midst of a “boredom boom.” Sixty-nine per cent of respondents agreed that “even though I have so much to do, I’m always looking for something new and exciting to do.”

In fact, boredom is one of the most common complaints of professionals. As one lawyer said to me recently: “You start your career conveying small, residential properties. Twenty years later, you’re still doing the same thing in terms of the skills you’re using, but now you’re conveying multimillion-dollar properties. The consequences of screwing up are much greater, but the subject of what you’re doing hasn’t changed. Sometimes I feel like that T.S. Eliot poem, measuring out my life in teaspoons.”

For many professionals, career progression is simply a question of widening their arena of influence, while staying put with the technical skills being used. So, for many mid-career workers, the prospect of spending the next 15 years doing essentially the same type of work carries no excitement at all.

Many people are motivated by a desire to learn and be stretched professionally. But by the time they hit 40, many professionals feel they have gone as far as they can or want to in their area of expertise. Their malaise is exacerbated by the fact that most organizations have truncated career ladders and are not investing in staff development.

Self-employment is not necessarily an escape route from boredom and predictability, as it often poses exactly the same challenges. If you’re good at what you do and have been doing it for some time, there is little someone can ask you to do that you haven’t been asked to do a thousand times before.

As one self-employed management trainer said to me: “There are times when I think if I have to deliver the same leadership or team-building program one more time and hear the same predictable questions and comments, I will scream.”

At mid-life, many feel a desire to do something different. Key is a desire to learn something new, be excited and take risks.

Toronto-based career coach Jeff Davidson of Boyden International sees a significant number of mid-career managers and professionals in his practice. “They’re torn,” he says. “They want to throw their hat into a new ring and test themselves in new ways, but don’t want to compromise their earning power by moving away from their area of expertise. It’s a real dilemma, especially today, when employers hire you for your ability to hit the ground running, not for what your potential is.” This push-pull between excitement and safety keeps many people in less-than-satisfying work.

But is it really boredom? These days, many of us seem to have the attention span of a gnat. We are addicted to being busy and the adrenaline of the new. We’ve become conditioned to constant excitement and stimulation, and feel flat when it’s missing.

We have also become lazy. We skim information and don’t force ourselves to really make sense of it.

So perhaps the issue is not so much boredom as it is not allowing ourselves to experience the moment, to stop rushing to move onto the next “to do” on the list.

This is the work equivalent of trying to have a conversation with someone at a cocktail party whose eyes are constantly roving the room. The result is that we shut down our experience of the experience, and never derive a sense of accomplishment.

When I was in my early 30s doing career counselling for an oil company, I complained to my mentor, Tamara Weir Bryan, about how boring it was. “You’re boring yourself,” she responded, quite rightly, I think, in retrospect. “You’re not allowing yourself to find out what is interesting about each person.”

In other words, we bore ourselves by closing down the potential to engage deeply with a person or task at hand.

It’s also sometimes true that when we say we are bored, what we really mean is that we feel empty. Then we rush to fill ourselves up, thinking another job or some other form of distraction will do it. But the problem may be not a lack of intellectual stimulation in the work as much as a restless discomfort with ourselves.

Boredom in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as it often drives creativity. When I look at the most interesting things I have done over the past 15 years, most were stimulated by boredom.

When kids complain they are bored, parents tell them that no one ever died of boredom and to go find something to do that interests them. Perhaps, as adults we should tell ourselves the same thing. Look around and you will find plenty of opportunities for deep engagement.

Overcome the boredom

Feeling bored? Here are some strategies to overcome boredom:

Heed the feeling. Pay attention to the discomfort and what it is telling you. Has your work become too small for you or are you just boring yourself? Do you need to find something new and different to become more emotionally and intellectually engaged?

Be specific. Figure out what, in fact, is making you feel bored. Is it the skills you are using, the nature of the problems you are solving, the predictability of your work? Also, consider whether there is something else missing in your life. Perhaps you are bored with your partner or disappointed in your kids and look to work to fill you up.

Find new nuances in your work. Dig down to find ways to make your work more challenging. Don’t be lazy.

Consider your expectations. Are they realistic? Do you believe you should be excited and engaged all the time?

Look outside of work. Take on one activity that scares you or provides a sense of accomplishment. At mid-career, many workers experience significant rejuvenation when they enrich their personal lives, whether by running a marathon, volunteering, learning a language or losing weight.

Think roles, not jobs. Are you a leader? A team builder? Someone who makes things happen? Incorporate these roles into your work and personal life.

Consider giving back. Perhaps, like many mid-lifers, you want to mentor younger workers or contribute to the community. Many mid-career workers cite volunteer breaks that involve giving something back in the global community as a major source of renewal.

Take a sabbatical. Do something that uses new skills, or apply your skills in a new environment. Make sure what you do is significantly different from what you are doing now.

Take a risk. Do something with an unclear outcome. The most invigorating moves have an element of unpredictability.

Be Sociable, Share!
Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment


June 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I think the boredom is the reslut of have too much of something in abundance. Time, money, food. The list goes on, but if there’s too much of it, things aren’t interesting. It’s like playing a game of poker for fun: nothing’s at stake. Once something is on the table for us to lose, we’re interested again. If it helps to make things a little more interesting, I have a koan for you to contemplate:”If you have ice cream I will give you some. If you have no ice cream I will take it away from you.”-Jack Kerouac

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *