How To Get Unstuck From a Mid-Career Plateau
It’s not uncommon for many of us to come out college, full of ideals and ready to change the world. What is uncommon, however, is to see that kind of idealism as a mid-level manager well into his mid 50s.
Often I meet people who are kind, able, and competent, yet they’ve been stuck in the same job for nearly a decade, and they start to “check out.” They don’t want to, but they’ve lost a spark for their work. It seems to me there are at least four reasons why people plateau out in mid-career and get “stuck.” And there are at least four good ways to get “unstuck” from a mid-career plateau.
I’m Stuck #1: We’ve become technicians. It’s a common career path: go to college, perhaps get a professional degree, and reach a management position – but no further. Many become highly competent as business managers, senior engineers, or perhaps as a partner at a law firm, but become limited by highly specialized education which has prepared many of us to be technicians – competent in one, narrow area, but ignorant of most of the world.
John Gardner, the architect behind the White House Fellows Program, lamented the myriad of well-paid professional training programs that drive potential leaders further down the road of specialization. Academia, government, and public corporations all tend to isolate departments and disciplines from one another, creating silos that prevent broad understanding. Gardner said, “Leaders have always been generalists. Tomorrow’s leaders will, very likely, have begun life as trained specialists, but to mature as leaders they must sooner or later climb out of the trenches of specialization and rise above the boundaries that separate the various segments of society.” Why? Because the higher you go in an organization, the more need there is to be a generalist. Senior executives must know not only their company and product, but also something of finance, cultural trends, ethics, psychology and political processes or current events that affect a large corporation.
Technical competence can get you a good paycheck – but if we’ve become only technicians, our careers are sure to plateau.
How to Get Unstuck #1: Adopt a “liberal arts” perspective.” I recently interviewed Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, on his new book View From the Top. The book is the the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. One commonality he found among many of them was that they had developed a “liberal arts” perspective on life. That is, they made a regular habit of cultivating perspectives and viewpoints different from their own.
For instance, Michael told me the story of John Mendellson, one of the world’s best cancer researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. “He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview,” Lindsay, recalled, “he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center.” I replied, “It’s so rare to find people like that.” And Michael exclaimed, “But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.”
A liberal arts perspective is a conservative willing to watch MSNBC, and a liberal watching Fox News. It’s a botanist reading philosophy, and a mechanic reading history. It’s a Kindergarten teacher attending lectures on foreign policy, or a member of congress attending a ho-down in rural Nebraska. The first way to get yourself “unstuck” from a mid-career plateau is by reaching way outside your area of expertise, and to start learning from the wider world.
I’m Stuck #2. We’ve overlooked the centrality of emotional intelligence in career development. Our traditional educational and managerial programs tend to treat people like repositories of information that is to be downloaded through webinars or PowerPoint presentations. As a result, we have scores of would-be influencers who are loaded with data, but lack the soft skills necessary to lead.
Recently The Economist did a a major study asking corporations and large employers the most important skills they needed from graduates. The top three responses were all soft skills, (1) Critical thinking/problem solving, (2) Collaboration/Teamwork, (3) Communication. All three of these require significant emotional intelligence. An ability to listen to people, understand other’s needs, empathize, and build positive energy among a team are the rarest of qualities, it seems, yet the most needed.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen dozens of “smart” people – people who always excelled and got good grades and the right answers – who never advance in their career because they are nearly oblivious of the people around them and how they make their co-workers, employees or even bosses feel. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what we told them, but they will never forget how we made them feel.”
How To Get Unstuck #2. There are two angles to getting unstuck here.
(1) Spend time with emotionally mature leaders. Emotional intelligence can’t only be learned from books or articles. It must be caught rather than taught. Find people who motivate, inspire, and make you personally feel like a million bucks. It’s likely that they’re high on the EQ quotient. Find time to buy them coffee, go visit them in their office, invite them over to your house for pot roast on Sunday afternoon. This is the best way to improve your EQ.
(2) Get an honest 360 degree evaluation. I have a friend who’s an executive coach. He does this for all his clients. He not only asks them what they’d like to improve, he also asks their employees, co-workers, board members, spouses, friends and even kids what they see needs improvements. Hearing this type of feedback can feel like taking a huge bite of humble pie, but self-awareness is invaluable. And it is a necessary step in getting unstuck from a mid career slump.
I’m Stuck #3. Our work has become stagnant and boring. This is by far and away the most common problem I see among mid-career professionals. Though millenials tend to be highly optimistic about their career prospects, over time, something changes. Today, over 70% of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged from their work. Globally the numbers are even worse – it’s 87%. Work for most is a grudging set of tasks to be completed; for many it is simply a necessary-evil that pays the bills.
I believe many would be tempted to say, “You’ve found the wrong work. You should go and explore what your ‘true calling’ is.” But I think for most this is bad advice. First, any kind of work can become boring after doing it long enough – even your dream job. Second, for many with a home mortgage and bills to pay, this is not realistic. Third, this is a narrative of self-actualization, and not one of genuine service. Most people are satisfied in their work if they’re actually lost in a purpose beyond themselves, and not just feeling personally fulfilled by their job. But this disengagement is so common in America, it’s worth asking what we might do if we find ourselves bored with our work.
How To Get Unstuck #3. Here I see three paths forward.
(1) Learn new ideas by studying the best practices of peers. I believe this is usually best done through off-site training or arranging a number of off-site visits. You need to get out of your current context, and see the wide world of possibility outside the four walls of your office. Because we are embodied beings, changing the location of our bodies – and taking in a new array of sights, sounds, images, smells, ideas and feelings – is powerful. And experiencing first-hand the ideas of your peers is bound to give you a few ideas of your own.
(2) Find a new challenge or tackle a new assignment. Meeting real needs and solving real problems – either for your company, customers, community or even industry – is a fast track out of boredom. Meaningful work has its foundation in being pushed and challenged. Likely, this will need to be done alongside of your supervisor. But imagine your boss’s expression if you come into her office and say, “I’d like to solve the biggest problem on your plate right now.” You may get a snicker – or you may be a jubilant, “Okay! Here ya go!” Either way, you won’t be bored.
(3) Make space for a sabbath rest. Creativity is found in times of leisure, not high production. God created the world in six days, and rested for one. And he commanded the Israelites to observe a Sabbath day to both refocus their hearts and minds on him, as well as to renew their work, which was always intended to be satisfying and creative (like His own work of creating the universe). The Israelites were saved by God from slavery, which meant working 7 days a week, every week, a slavery many self-impose today.
About a decade ago, Andy Crouch, the Executive Editor of Christianity Today, found himself in his mid-thirties and out of a job. The magazine he was editing went belly-up, and he was unemployed for over a year. But this year was the most creative in his career, and during that time he produced the manuscript for what would become the best-selling book Culture Making. It was helpful because he used this time as an extended Sabbath, not unlike God commanding the Israelites to rest from planting one year out of every seven.
If you’re work has become stagnant, consider observing not only a one-day-per-week Sabbath rest, but build in longer times as well – one week a year, or even 3-6 months every 7 years. And don’t spend this time sitting on a beach for 8 weeks. Find ways to re-discover the liberal arts. Learn to play a new instrument. Visit a museum. Climb an icy ravine (um…with a professional guide). Read Hume or Dante. Pray on a mountain top and listen for the voice of God. Whatever Sabbath looks like for you, use it to renew the call – and your passion for your work.
I’m Stuck #4. We’re isolated. The further up you move in your organization, the harder it becomes to find peers with whom you can share and think openly. Your subordinates expect you to have the answers, and you cannot openly speak about your personal challenges or organizational issues without causing either a firestorm of gossip or, minimally, a breach of confidence. Tom Clancy, the best selling novelist once said, “I wish somebody would have told me that when you reach the top, there’s nobody here.” Nobody here. That’s how many in mid-level to upper level leadership feel. Isolated.
How To Get Unstuck #4. Find a group of peers. Generally speaking, these people should be outside of your organization, and face similar challenges, and thus be in a similar level of leadership. But a group of peers is often the necessary context for choosing paths that take you beyond the world of the technician, can help you grow in your emotional intelligence, find ideas to cut through stagnation, and get out of isolation. These peers, of course, should have similar goals. This could be a university class, a professional society, or even a group from your church. But often the most powerful learning, from Kindergarten through adult education, comes not from teachers, but from peers.
Mortimer Adler once said, “A technician is a man who understands everything about his job except its ultimate purpose and its place in the order of the universe.” He’s right. To get ourselves unstuck, we have to start asking big questions again and humbly accept life as a life-long joinery of learning. And this can by done by mechanics or stay-at-home moms, executives or elementary teachers. For those who step back to re-evaluate and intentionally renew their careers, new horizons emerge around every corner.
1. We’ve become technicians.
2. We’ve overlooked the centrality of emotional intelligence in career development.
3. Our work has become stagnant and boring.
4. We’re isolated.
How To Get Unstuck.
1. Adopt a “liberal arts” perspective.”
2a. Spend time with emotionally mature leaders.
2b. Get an honest 360 degree evaluation.
3a. Learn new ideas by studying the best practices of peers.
3b. Find a new challenge or tackle a new assignment.
3c. Make space for a sabbath rest.
4. Find a group of peers.
Image: John Gardner