Globe & Mail, August 08, 2003
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.
When I look at my clients and friends I am always struck by how some manage their careers with grace, while others seem to be stuck in a continuous feedback loop, so that even if I didn't speak to them for several months their issues and stories are the same.
Our careers have many chapters, each posing unique challenges. Managing your career with grace means facing up to those challenges, riding them through, assimilating the learning, and moving on. People get stuck when they cannot make effective transitions from one chapter to another, or when they move into new chapters with unresolved business from earlier life stages.
Cathy, for example, is an abundantly talented human resources leader. At 50, however, she is still encountering the same difficulties that have plagued her throughout her career.
Over the past 10 years she has held five senior positions in a series of tough male marketing environments. Each time there is a honeymoon period, and then after six months I hear the same story: "It's brutal here. They don't get it." She persists until the situation escalates to an untenable level and then she is packaged out, only to seek out a similar situation.
According to Cathy, the problem is that they are jerks, and as a result, she is seen as too soft and nurturing in these competitive male environments. Whether or not this is true, the underlying issue is Cathy's overwhelming desire to be liked.
Each new career opportunity offers the possibility that this time she'll get it "right" and prove that she is competent and worthy of their praise. And so an intelligent, accomplished woman with some degree of self-knowledge continues at her age to seek out environments in which she is destined to fail.
I know many women in mid- and late career who suffer from a similar motivation. They have not shed earlier programming to be liked, approved of, seen as nice. Mid-career men can be similarly trapped, but they are more likely to get stuck on issues related to achievement, recognition, and status rather than likability.
How many men do you know who still measure themselves by their number of stock options, their titles, who they are networking with, or the size of their budget? (Okay.We get it. It really is the biggest one on the block.)
In the course of a full career we make a number of transitions. In our twenties, for example, we have less understanding of who we are and where we thrive, because our experience of the world is limited. The challenge is to test ourselves in various roles and environments and ask: Where am I best? How do others see me?
By the time we are in our mid-thirties we have been exposed to an array of experiences, received feedback from the world about what we are good and not good at, and should have a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Although we are still acquiring new skills, we are also refining existing ones, becoming better at what we are good at, learning how to leverage our special talents while starting to accept our limitations.
The challenge in this first part of our life is to make our way in the world: to demonstrate our competence, test ourselves against others, understand what we are capable of. In the second half, we should be able to transcend these earlier preoccupations.
Instead of being externally driven, constantly striving to prove ourselves as worthy and acquire the trappings to demonstrate it, at this life stage we should become internally driven, allowing us to make choices free of others' views, with our ego no longer on the line. These latter career chapters should be marked by excitement, anticipation, and testing parts of ourselves previously untested, rather than about proving ourselves.
We should feel good about our achievements, and accept our limitations and disappointments, moving ahead rather than endlessly revisiting the past and decrying slights and instances of injustice. ("I should have gotten that job . . ." "I was the victim of office politics . . ." "I was hung out to dry . . ." "I shouldn't have been fired . . ." "I was the fall guy . . .").
But if we fail to make that transition, if we continue to play out the same old scripts, then as the psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed, we walk in "shoes too small." It is therefore at mid-career that failure to resolve earlier issues takes its most dramatic toll.
Of course, making the switch from following the dictates of the external world to pursuing your own personal growth agenda may be viewed as a luxury by some older workers who are burdened by debt and competing with people younger and cheaper to hire in a tough job market. Still, at a psychological level, it may not be a luxury but a necessity.
Mid-career is a time for stock-taking, for asking: What do I really need in my life to feel good about myself? What is important to me now? Even people who enjoy their work often feel a yearning for something more. Our values change. Our external life circumstances change. But often we fail to play catch-up.
Things we used to think were important, such as getting promoted, or making more money, are no longer so important -- and yet we don't recognize that because we have failed to revise outdated scripts.
One man I know, for example, was about to turn down a very attractive job offer because it represented a financial risk. But when he thought seriously about his current needs, he realized he had been operating from an ossified set of beliefs: His kids were grown up and he didn't need the same kind of security anymore. He was free to take on the work that appealed to him so much.
Sometimes having unfinished business in mid- and late career is not a bad thing.
Thinking about what still nags at us can provide important clues to how we want to invest our time now. Many of us drift away from earlier forms of engagement.
The kid who loved to paint but became a lawyer, for example, is now spending his time painting and taking courses, while reducing his workload.
For many, the second half of life becomes a time to invest in other people through mentoring or volunteering. For others, it means applying what they know in new ways and new contexts, and stretching personally to prove to themselves rather than to others that they have different talents in their repertoire.
This is why so many people in later career take up new hobbies and set personally demanding goals for themselves such as running a marathon or learning a new language.
Indeed the most successful source of career renewal often comes from doing work, paid or hobby, which uses a different part of the brain than that which they have used habitually.
One question I am asked frequently now that my book has been published and I have completed my publicity tour is: "What project are you going to work on now?" Why, I wonder, do we always have to be involved in a never-ending cycle of achievement?
Right now, I just want to serve my clients, look after people I care about, play in my garden, and enjoy the feeling of having completed something of which I am very proud.
It's not very "glam," but there you have it. In the future, who knows? I may have one or several more books in me.
But one thing is certain: Whatever project I take on, it will be because I love it, not because it's good for my career or looks good to others.