Despite my departure from the business world, I still receive the Harvard Business Review.
Because of my departure, I have time to read it.
There, just when I needed some perspective, I found the article “Facing Your Mid-Career Crisis: Should You Cope or Quit?” written by Kieran Setiya, a tenured philosophy professor. This was of great interest to me as I had just left a career that I spent 20 years building and was transitioning into the creative writing life.
Setiya described in himself the very dissatisfaction I had with my own mid-career. That after working so hard, and achieving the career he had battled for, he had found himself trapped in endless drudgery with no joy in sight.
He went on to use the lenses of boredom and regret to help those of us in similar situations to better understand the issues at hand and closed with musings about course setting for the future.
To quote the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”
Setiya accurately portrayed the crushing boredom of being mid-career. When we were striving to achieve our chosen careers, we were too busy getting there to be bored. Once we were established, we became mired in repetitive task completion. We spent more and more time with scutwork than with interesting and fulfilling enterprise.
Setiya suggested mitigating this by finding ways to purposefully reintroduce meaning to our work—instead of just putting out fires take on a project that lights you up. If that is not possible, at least engage in meaningful activities outside of work—do things that nourish your spirit. He reminded us to enjoy the process of getting things done and not just focusing all of our attention on outcomes.
I have found that enjoying the team I work with has helped me in this regard. Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose our work families and can find ourselves stranded behind social enemy lines, further hollowing us out.
We all have some anguish about those doors we have shut to achieve our current place in life, and indulge in wondering “What if?” Sometimes in an unhappy mid-career, these regrets are hard to ignore and can increase our dissatisfaction.
Setiya cautioned that the regrets for those paths not taken in life don’t necessarily mean we have made mistakes in our choices. Instead, these regrets showcase that we are complex beings with varied interests.
He urged us to be careful about allowing these normal feelings of wistfulness to unrealistically suggest that change is necessary. In fact, every fork in the road comes with its own set of regrets.
This resonated with me, particularly because I had long ago given up creative pursuits for economic security in a business career. But here’s the thing: While the life I might have lived as a writer would have been very different than the life I have lived so far, it still would not be perfection. It would just have a different array of highs and lows. To me, there is comfort in recognizing that we will have regrets regardless of which path in life we ultimately select.
And as I had already made my big career change, moving into the unknown world of a writing life, and already felt regrets about that, I was doubly comforted.
Should You Change Course Mid-Career?
Setiya charged us to explore if our mid-career dissatisfaction is something we can change through reflection and purposeful shifts in our focus during work.
Maybe changing our perspectives, and creating new meaning, will bring satisfaction back to our established careers.
Maybe that won’t be enough. Perhaps we require a vitalizing disruption and a whole new direction.
This decision will be different for everyone. Mileage may vary.
How It Turned Out for Me
I needed a disruption but was hesitating. I was really good at what I did. I had sunk so much time and effort into my career path. The thought of starting over was terrifying. Then I was recruited to a new role where my problems escalated from boredom and regret to existential agony and burnout. From there, the swan dive into the unknown was an act of hope and defiance.
The unknown, in turn, provided me with renewed vigor, revived intellectual curiosity, and a rekindled spark of joy. Every time I run into an acquaintance who gasps “You look so good … so healthy … so happy,” I am reminded that, indeed, the writer’s life is for me.
Where are you in the continuum of making more room for your writing?
Let’s discuss it in the comments below!