Sooner or later it happens to most of us: We feel a little uncertainty or confusion around our careers. This can come as a surprise — after all, we’re good at what we do and enjoy doing it. So why the dissatisfaction?
This isn’t an uncommon issue. I have a lot of conversations with people who feel like they’ve hit a plateau or are slumping a little, and research has found that many people hit a dip in career satisfaction right in the middle of their careers.
Honest answers and some self-assessment can help you find clarity about what to do next. Here’s where to start.
Figure Out What Is Making You Unhappy at Work
Stephen Glomb coaches executives and MBA graduate students at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. He says he asks people to “talk out loud about jobs they've held in the past that truly made them happy.” “Often you will start to hear clear themes that emerge, such as an inspiring leader, or a fun, close-knit team,” Glomb says. This exercise can help you pinpoint what’s missing in your current role, and the features you should prioritize as you make a change, or strike out on your own.
People’s work-related unhappiness tends to fall under three categories:
- Career trajectory: Where are you in your career, and are you happy with that? Have you advanced on the path you expected?
- Type of work: Are you challenged by your work? Do you feel fulfilled and motivated? Are you learning and growing?
- How you work: Are expectations about when, where and how you work interfering with your personal responsibilities and priorities?
Once you know why you’re unhappy and what you want, start talking about it.
Talk to Your Manager
If you know you’re ready to be independent, don’t waste any time! But if you want to keep a foot in the door with your current employer, one person you should consider speaking with is your manager. You might be able to reconfigure your job to change the parts you don’t like, career coach Nancy Burke says.
“Put together an initial plan that highlights the advantages to your organization of supporting your move — how might this benefit your company, or at least not incur any risk,” she says. “I recently had a client who did just that. He loved parts of his job, but he really wanted to escape the parts he didn’t like. After a couple of discussions with his manager, they worked out a plan to improve his fit by changing his job. He was able to delegate the budget to an assistant, who was thrilled to get more responsibility, tap other staff to attend some of the meetings he hated, and negotiate more time to work from home. He didn’t expect such support or flexibility, and he now has a new outlook on his job — and his boss.”
On the other hand, if you decide to leave your organization, your soul-searching should have given you a list of qualities to look for (and avoid) in a new job or things to be sure to keep an eye on as an independent. Instead of applying for any job you’re qualified for, return to your decisions about what you need to be happy and let them guide you.
Seek Out People Who Made the Shift You Want to Make
Think of networking as learning from others who have what you want. People who love their job want to talk about it. It’s why I happily give advice to marketers and independents who are stuck. I created a career I love, and I want to help others do the same.
Burke suggests thinking of networking as “research, not sales.” “Approach people with genuine curiosity and an interest in learning more about who they are and how they got where they are,” she says.
Seek out people who have a career they love. Ask questions and listen. How did they structure their work? What did they look for in an employer? Get their story.
One way to find those people: Take a class or join a group that focuses on your interest area, Burke suggests. “This will get you in touch with people who have similar interests, and give you something to talk about as you build new relationships,” she says.
Don’t give them your resume at the end of the conversation. Just thank them for their help and think about how you can apply the lessons. And, most importantly, stay in touch with them to keep the relationship going long term.
Invest In Yourself
Ask yourself what training and development you need to advance. What are your skill gaps?
It could be a quick course or certification, a conference or an advanced degree. Maybe it’s making time every week to review blogs and podcasts about your industry. You are your biggest asset, and you need to invest in yourself to grow over time and avoid stagnation in the latter part of your career. When you’re trying to make a shift in your career, you don’t want to be out of date. If you’ve been in a bubble at your company, it’s time to get current.
The bottom line: If you want to be happy and fulfilled at work, it’s up to you to start the change. Decide what you want from your career and look for people and resources to help you.