Mid-career and mid-life are full of competing priorities. There is a need to factor in the expectations of life partners, children, and the additional responsibility of aging parents and financial strain. How can managers and leaders in organizations more effectively work through the middle of their lives and careers?

As an executive coach, I find myself facilitating courageous conversations with leaders reflecting on their personal and career trajectories. Before, and more importantly, coming out of the global pandemic, mid-career leaders are having deeper, more reflective discussions. They are asking difficult questions such as, “what have I accomplished”, “what should be next for me”, and “is this it, after what I have worked so hard for?” They are evaluating their personal impact, legacies, and recalibrating what matters most to them.

Three Questions to Accelerate Your Returns

In the maps of the Old World, when cartographers didn’t quite know what landmasses or coastlines existed in mysterious parts of the world, they would write “Here Be Dragons” with scary images, indicating their fears of the unknown.

Looking back, we recognize the route and journey we have taken in becoming the professionals we are today. Looking forward, ‘the why’ and ‘the how’ are more uncertain. We enter the terrain where fears, risks, safety, and rewards lurk. Joseph Campbell in The Heroes’ Journey, outlined the archetypal cycle, where the individual must confront their deepest fears and trust in themselves as they address the great challenge before them. The search is always in finding yourself. In achieving your goals and hopes in the ‘here and now.’

Only you can evaluate your mid-career and mid-life satisfaction, your definition of success is the only one that matters. The point is to be intentional and deliberate. Only you are able to engage in the present, to monitor and set the course for your career and life success. If of course, you choose to.

Here are three helpful questions to move from feeling unsettled and unsure to feeling purposeful and focused again.

  • What are my criteria for evaluating mid-career success, am I there? What if I’m not?
  • Is it clear which few things are holding me back and why? How do I continue growing and learning?
  • Am I making the impact on others that I, and they, want?

What are my criteria for evaluating mid-career success, am I there? What if I’m not?

In Clayton Christensen’s book, How Will You Measure Your Life, he challenges the reader to apply business concepts to their personal lives. He asks, how is it we don’t bring the same rigor to measuring our personal lives or personal development and growth that we apply in our work? We measure and evaluate business strategies, why not our professional development and family strategies? He tells us, “You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with that strategy. In the end a strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it is effectively implemented.” You measure what matters at work. How are you taking stock of your career as you hit mid-career?

In your professional role, what are the types of challenges your current job provides? Would a new job be any different? In your organization, how would you rate the quality of people who surround you? Look at the people being promoted. Are they the type of people you want to be led by and collaborate with? As an individual, are the current work arrangements beneficial to your family? What intangible benefits does your current role or employer offer you and your family? Mapping out those benefits, networks, experiences, and opportunities, can be very useful in measuring “is this good enough?” Oftentimes, the people, experiences, and opportunities of those we get to work with, can be even more rewarding than the job itself.

Expectations management is a core competency. You are where you are. Your career and life, might be exactly how you planned when you were younger. For most, probably not. Some have had luck, others less so. Some have worked harder than others. Factors of geography, class, race, gender, economic opportunities and other influences, lead to differing trajectories. You might not reach the executive level position you aspire to, as you had hoped. Is that OK?

Usually, an evolution from ambition to aspiration occurs. Rather than being motivated by job title or position, people are more motivated by impact and contribution. Their values have not necessarily changed but are clearer to them. Reflecting on these questions, can provide clarity of intent and which metrics should be weighed more heavily in mid-career and mid-life.

Is it clear which few things are holding me back, and why? How do I continue growing and learning?

Sometimes we get in our own way. Where does friction show up in your work? Often times it is in doing more or less of a few certain behaviors which leads to outsized performance gains. There is a saying that “weaknesses are strengths overdone.” What behaviors are you over-working? Have you sought feedback and taken others’ views of your blind spots? Are you challenging assumptions and hardened personal expectations?

You spent years honing your expertise, but are you still growing as a leader, a friend, partner, and parent? As your career develops, how are you adjusting your identities, priorities, and measures of success?  Stasis can be detrimental by maintaining fixed assumptions, which have not been stress tested for mid-life and mid-career. Being reactive in the workplace, does not necessarily lend itself to agile leadership or innovative behaviors. Not being proactive in the home place, may lead to diminishing returns and a lower yield, as well. Focusing on growth can generate mid-career momentum.

It takes both risk and confidence to admit you don’t have all the answers. Good questions lead to learning and growth. Again, if you’re not taking the lead in re-evaluating the expectations and values you established for your career and life, odds are no one else is either.

I’ve come to appreciate there are greater forces than just raw talent and ambition. Organizational life involves politics, power, interpersonal dynamics, luck, timing, and opportunity. There are few moments over the course of a career when the physics of organizational life can be overcome. Letting go of some prior career expectations and being open to opportunities can relieve self-imposed pressure.

Am I making the impact on others that I, and they, want?

Early in our careers, we tend to expend much of our personal energy building credibility and gaining the confidence of others through the quality of our work and demonstrated commitment to the business. Then, as we hit our late thirties and early forties we find ourselves in leadership positions. We transition from doing things to engaging and developing others to do things. Our focus shifts to giving time, sharing skills, and transferring wisdom. The shift in mindset required for effectively nurturing and developing others is not to be underestimated. How are you maximizing your positive impact on others and on the organization’s health? Are you taking the opportunity to influence, create value, and deliver positive impact and results in both your team, organization and community?

Now in mid-career, are you leveraging that hard earned confidence and respect you’ve attained, and taking the necessary risks and behaviors to help lead your business through the challenges and change initiatives around you? Making a significant positive impact on others does not correlate to job position. It is an outcome in how you allocate your time, focus, and energy.

Finding Courage to Accelerate through Mid-life and Mid-Career

Different questions are not required for mid-career and mid-life, but courage is. The courage to introspectively review ourselves as individuals, in the roles we take up, and, in the organizations, we immerse ourselves within. These questions are helpful in nudging leaders towards surfacing the mid-career and mid-life tensions and challenges that they are working through.

Using the three questions above can be quite powerful in helping leaders recalibrate their personal compasses and expectations around life and work.  Invested wisely, the allocation of your time and prioritization may compound your returns.

Andrew Wojecki, Ph.D, supports leaders in sustaining high-performance and impact. He can be reached at [email protected].