I recently spent the weekend with a close college friend, Brian. My university buddies are scattered around the country and world, so any chance to spend a few days with them (as individuals or a group) is rare and cherished. During our time talking and catching up, Brian and I realized that, as we both approach our mid-thirties, we’re each feeling a sense of stasis, a stagnancy that’s hard to pinpoint but is clearly present. It’s a professional stagnancy, it’s a personal stagnancy, it’s a combination of both.
Both of us have good jobs we enjoy. We are both married to awesome people. We have supportive families, good homes, plenty of books to read and music to listen to, a college football team that’s finally doing well again…so what’s with the complaining? Fair enough.
We realized this stagnancy comes from reaching the end of that first ladder, the “young professional” ladder, and not knowing where to climb next. As scary as being a young professional can be—with all of its requisite challenges and uncertainty—I’m realizing that entering mid-career territory comes with its own set of difficulties. I’m no longer worried about getting my first job, or paying my rent with a meager entry level salary, or learning how to move from operating in an academic environment to a professional one.
Rather, in an unexpectedly ironic way, the principle challenge in mid-career territory thus far seems to be finding new and fresh challenges. Brian and I realized that getting into our respective professional grooves was satisfying and rewarding, but ultimately encouraged a certain kind of stasis. Paraphrasing Seth Godin, Brian described it as “heading toward the melt.” Because once you’re in a situation about which you have no complaints, why would you upset that beneficial status quo? But when you avoid upsetting the status quo, you find yourself melting into a stasis and stagnancy.
What Brian and I are coming to realize is that career evaluation and growth can and should be a constant endeavor. As young professionals, getting to a place of comfort, to a level where we feel some kind of permanency and success—that’s a good thing. As mid-career professionals, though, we can’t be content to dwell in that success or comfort for long. We have to purposefully push ourselves to find challenges and continue to grow.
As I left Brian to head back to DC, he texted me: “Enjoy your adventure this week.” I’m not 100% sure what he even meant (Brian is renowned for his esoteric texts and emails). But based on our conversations of the weekend, I took it as: give yourself a goal of a weekly adventure, of seeking out and embracing at least one new challenge every week, starting now. And in my interpretation, these can be simple adventures: reach out to a colleague or friend you keep saying you should get lunch with but never do; do something in a professional environment you wouldn’t normally do (like, for me, asking a question at crowded conference session); make time for an activity at work that will be beneficial but always gets put to the backburner (like reading a long document you know you’ll enjoy and will be beneficial but isn’t absolutely urgent, or taking a colleague out for coffee to talk through goals or strategy for the coming months); make time for an activity at home that will be beneficial but always gets put on the backburner (like seeing a movie or going to a concert).
I don’t have a solution for staving off or reversing the mid-career melt—believe me, this will continue to be on my mind. But right now, I like the idea of enjoying my adventure this week as much as any.