I recently spoke to a gathering of lawyers about navigating career crossroads at midlife. This topic arises frequently with my clients: high-achieving professionals who are experiencing malaise, frustration or disengagement in their work. Many of them assume that finding a new job is their only solution, but they often resist relinquishing the aspects of their jobs that are working for them.
Could there be a solution that involved repairing their jobs instead of replacing them?
My “a-ha” moment came when reading an article by Whitney Johnson in the Harvard Business Review. According to Johnson, career growth can be visualized as an s-shaped curve. We enter the curve at the bottom of the “s”; when we start something new, we invest our time and effort to build proficiency, often without much to show for it. “But through deliberate practice, we gain traction, entering into a virtuous cycle that propels us [up] into a sweet spot of accelerating competence and confidence. Then, as we approach mastery, the vicious cycle commences: the more habitual what we are doing becomes, the less we enjoy the ‘feel good’ effects of learning: these two cycles constitute the S-curve.”
In other words, we are most engaged and successful in our work when we are tackling new challenges and harvesting the fruits of our labor, and most disengaged once we’ve hit the mastery phase. According to Johnson, “As we approach mastery, our learning rate decelerates, and while the ability to do something automatically implies competence, it also means our brains are now producing less of the feel-good neurotransmitters — the thrill ride is over.”
To avoid that sense of burnout or malaise, Johnson recommends creating a series of interlocking s-curves; before you hit the mastery phase of your current curve, you can transition to the next new challenge. The best time to design your next s-curve is before you reach your next plateau.
Instead of looking for a new job whenever you hit the mastery phase (which can be a time-intensive and disruptive proposition) consider looking for other opportunities to engage in something new.
What are you curious about? What are some skill areas in which you’d like to stretch and grow? Consider identifying a new development opportunity within your current job or in a professional or community organization. Perhaps there’s a new specialty you’d like to develop, a committee you’d like to chair, a conference you’d like to attend, a presentation you’d like to deliver, or a volunteer initiative you’d like to champion. Identify your next challenge and commit to bringing it to fruition.
It’s possible you may conclude that for you to truly flourish, your next s-curve will point to a new job, but you may be just as likely to conclude that immersing yourself in a new challenge gives you the lift you were looking for. Whether you decide to stay or go, it’s never too late to try something new. In fact, engaging your inner learner may hold the key to your renewed professional vitality.