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Psychological Issues at Mid-Career

Herminia Ibarra, one of the Thinkers-50 most influential business thinkers in the world, discusses how mid-life is the time to become and express oneself more uniquely and fully.

HARRIS FELT STUCK. At age 39, he’d had a successful career as a regulatory affairs expert. Although at the top of his function in a celebrated biotech firm, something was missing. He yearned to run a business, to manage a profit and loss. He wanted challenge; he could do his job in his sleep. His mentor asked him (again) to be patient. His wife, at home with two young children, cautioned him against leaving for a risky start-up; he was the breadwinner after all. For him, it was now or never. In the interim, he was working night and day on a new drug introduction without a clear idea of what to do next. 

Susan’s job as the head of the change management practice of a leading consulting firm fell short on two important counts: she wanted more meaningful work and a better work-life balance, with more control over her travel schedule as a single mother. At age 42, status and money, she concluded, didn’t matter so much any more. After careful planning and saving, she finally quit to search for a new career option. Two weeks later, a headhunter brought her what she called “the perfect job following the relentless logic of a post MBA CV.” She accepted. No sooner had she started that she realized she’d made a big mistake. 

Gary’s CV ticked all the boxes: blue chip jobs in investment banking and consulting and a top US MBA. But behind the success, at age 35 he felt uneasy. None of his past roles were active choices but rather default options meant to keep his doors open until he figured out what he really wanted to do “when he grew up.” Two events in close sequence — falling in love with a woman while being engaged to be married to another and getting a first-ever negative performance appraisal — warned him that time had come to take charge of his life and career. 

Harris, Susan and Gary share much more than their obvious career dilemmas. All three have come to a turning point in their lives and the decisions they face involve much more than a job change. Having had a certain measure of career success, they must now ask themselves if they want more of the same or something different. 

Complicating matters are tight links between their personal and professional lives. And, underneath the surface lurk psychological issues that, if left unexamined, can keep them from making good choices. 

The real questions concern not what job but what kind of life they want next. Psychologists who study adult development provide a useful perspective on their, and your own dilemmas, by calling attention to the mid-life transition that many of us traverse around age 40, and that can spark or, alternatively, inhibit, and facilitate or block important career changes. Of course, that is not to say that we are all predictably alike. But awareness of common psychological dilemmas is often helpful in identifying and resolving our own. Psychologist Daniel Levinson is credited with having popularized the terms ‘mid-life crisis’ and ‘seven year itch’. His theory of adult development, first published in Seasons of a Man’s Life, has become a classic. His core idea was that our life evolves in alternating periods of stability and transition. 

During periods of stability, which typically last about seven years, we build our lives around a few key pillars, usually our work and family life. Key decisions we have made about our careers and intimate relationships become the life priorities around which we organize and fit in (or leave out) everything else. During periods of transition, we question the choices we have made, explore alternative possibilities and plant the seeds from which might grow a new period of relative stability. Levinson’s point is not that change is always better but that we grow through alternating cycles of commitment and doubt. When we commit to a life path without ever questioning whether it is the right one for us, we foreclose on options that might be more rewarding. But, when we question endlessly without ever committing to a career or relationships, we also forego the possibility of mastery and maturity. 

To be a growing adult means to make commitments that are informed by prior questioning. A person may entertain doubts, however, and then conclude that he or she is on the right path, or, make changes that are not visible to the outside world. Levinson argued that every decade — our 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. — has its unique issues and transition periods. But he found that the most turbulent transition period for most is around age 40, or between 35 and 45. There are several reasons for this:

  •  Professionally, most of us have by then acquired experience with at least one if not two career paths. We now know more about what we like and don’t like. We have lived and changed and begin to want different things. 

  • We also know more about what is possible and not possible. For many people, the transition is made harder by coming to the realization that one will not achieve, or no longer want to achieve, a goal we held dear earlier in our lives. For many of us, professional success is proving elusive, and we come to the realization that the elite layers of organizations and business circles are probably unattainable. How to deal, around age 40, with the feeling, not of failure, but of irremediable incomplete professional success? 

  • We begin to feel our mortality. By age 40 we may have experienced the death or serious illness of a parent or friend. We may yearn for children if we have none, and we feel the clock ticking. At the same time, we are living longer, so there is also a long stretch of career ahead. We want to do something meaningful with it, something we enjoy. 

  • In our pursuit of key priorities like work and family, we have not devoted time and attention to other things that are important to us, for example, our spouses, children, service, fitness, leisure, community, friends, hobbies, creative pursuits and the like. The parts of us that we have ignored for some time start clamoring more loudly for attention.

Until the late thirties, argued psychologist Carl Jung , a person’s life is of necessity rather one-sided and imbalanced because many important aspects of the self have been neglected or suppressed. At mid-life, the task is to become and express more uniquely and fully oneself. According to Levinson, this process includes three parts:

1. REAPPRAISING THE PAST. Near 40, people can make some judgment regarding their relative success or failure in meeting the goals they set for themselves earlier. They can also step back to appraise whether their goals have changed. 

During transition periods, it becomes important to ask: “What have I done with my life? What do I reallyget from and give to my partner, children, friends, work, community — and self? What is it I truly want for my self and others? What are my central values and how are they reflected in my life? What are my greatest talents and how am I using (or wasting) them? What have I done with my early dreams and what do I want of them now? Can I live in a way that that combines my current desires, values and talents? How satisfactory is my present life and how shall I change it to provide a better basis for the future? 

Many managers, for example, come to terms with the realization that their youthful idea that being more senior would imply more power and more freedom was wrong. Rather than being liberated by their promoti ns, they feel increasingly constrained and unsure about how to measure their success. 

Others may feel they have lost (or are at danger of losing) their ‘soul’ pursuing power, money, status or social approval but start to conclude that the price is too high: they have had to give up pieces of themselves that might have made the pursuit more their own. 

Still others find themselves giving much to organizations and bosses whose values are not congruent with their own. Mid-career is a time to step back in order to prepare the way for a more satisfactory future.

2. MODIFYING OR RENEGOTIATING CURRENT COMMITMENTS. After reappraisal, some people make significant changes in the externally apparent aspects of their life. For example, divorce, remarriage, or major shifts in occupation and life style. Others may question their past choices and, on reflection, recommit to their current path.

For example, a manager considering starting his own business may end up deciding to remain in his current job but take on a more entrepreneurial role in his company. From the outside, it may look like not much has changed, but in fact his relationship to his job, boss and company has changed significantly. Likewise, people may question their choices of life partner and either separate or divorce, or, instead, renegotiate the terms of their intimate relationship so that it is more satisfying.

For many people, this is a tumultuous process — a ‘midlife crisis’. A radical examination of one’s life and career means challenging the parts of ourselves that have a strong investment in the status quo — security, certainty, comfort, perks and the like. The only way to test just how much these matter is to experiment. That is why people at mid-career actively seek out new assignments, projects, educational programs and extracurricular activities that can help them figure out what they really want.

The more people explore options, however, the more they are likely to encounter resistance from significant others. They will also often be opposed by other persons and institutions, for instance, their spouse, children, boss, parents, colleagues, the occupational system in which they work and what Levinson calls “the implicit web of social conformity that seeks to maintain order and prevent change.

The only way to counteract this normal reaction to uncertainty is to extend your network towards others in the same boat or in career roles that interest you in order to learn more about new possibilities.

3. MOVING TOWARDS GREATER AUTONOMY, INTEGRITY AND MEANING. The word ‘crisis’ in Greek means both danger and opportunity. Whether we decide to take the leap to a new company or even career, or conclude that it’s better to stay on the current path, all of us struggle to both feel part of something larger but also free enough to be ourselves. Through questioning and experimenting we becoming better able to utilize our inner resources and pursue our own aims — what Charles Handy called “a life of our own.” 

It may seem straightforward to reflect on one’s past, make some changes as a result of that reflection, and move closer to a more satisfying career and life. But research shows that the process of making changes at mid-career is rarely direct or simple. A common problem is that far into our careers we unwittingly remain the victim of other people’s values and expectations. Many people like Harris, Susan and Gary don’t’ realize until deep into a career transition that they derive much of their sense of identity from their title, employer or social standing. Harvard Psychologist Robert Kegan explains that all of us have unexamined premises or assumptions that we use in making important decisions. Earlier in our lives and careers, we make decisions based on social expectations about what is a good job, a good employer, a good marriage and a loyal employee. The task at mid-career is to understand those hidden assumptions so that we can become more ‘self-authoring’.

Susan, for example, worried that peers would think she was downshifting from an ambitious consulting career for the mommy track. When she accepted the wrong job, she got lots of validation: everyone wanted her business card, and asked her to have lunch.

Likewise, Gary admitted “If I look back over my career, I have always responded to social pressure, what others thought was the right thing for me to do... I realized that I had never said to myself, ‘You’d better be damn sure when you wake up that you’re doing what you want to be doing as opposed to what somebody else thinks you ought to be doing.” But he described changing course as “shattering for those involved with me, particularly my very staid British parents. ‘You’re doing what? You’re giving up your job? You’re breaking off your engagement? There’s another woman?’ But, I had finally crossed a bridge in my own mind, from the ‘insecure overachiever’ mindset into an ‘I will decide what to do with my life’ attitude.”

In closing

Becoming our own person, breaking free from our ‘ought selves’— what important people in our lives want us to be — is at heart of the mid-career transition process. As one of the career changers I interviewed put it, “There are two types of people. Some are always jumping. Some never jump — they settle down too easily and get stuck.” Self-renewal requires some jumping and some settling back in.

If you are feeling a sense of urgency about making a career change, chances are you are in transition. That makes it a good time to reappraise the past, explore hidden assumptions, and experiment with some modifications in your life and work in order to truly make it your own.

Herminia Ibarra is Professor of Organizational Behaviour, The Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning and Chair of the Organizational Behaviour Area at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD she served on the Harvard Business School faculty for 13 years. Thinkers-50 places her among the most influential business thinkers in the world.


This interview originally appeared in 'Thinking about Thinking III' (Winter 2014)

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