About a year ago, a good friend of mine bought a luxury car. He took us for a joy ride around the office block and seemed really excited. We were all happy for him but a little surprised as he was not prone to making expensive purchases, and that too on impulse. When I asked him, what drove him (pun unintended) to this decision, he remarked casually, ‘Man, I am having a mid-career crisis and I desperately need something to take my mind off it.’
Flashback to when we all started our careers. How eager, energetic and motivated we were, all raring to go. As a young adult, I recall being in awe of the corporate world — its success mantras, the hallowed halls leading up to the corner office, the formal dress code and even the jargon. Brimming with both aspiration and ambition, everything seemed new and fresh and the steep learning curve experience left me with a feeling of exhilaration. The corporate executives — who seemed to go about their business purposefully, communicating articulately, making their presence felt and getting things done — captivated me. The predominant emotion I felt was that I had arrived at last.
Many of us can relate to such an experience in the infancy of our careers. However, over the years, something just changes. On the plus side, we taste success and its positive side effects. Growing in confidence, our perspectives widen, we develop new skills and we are able to create tangible business impact, ending up as role models for youngsters. It is during this time that our self-identity gets strongly entrenched in and linked to what we are doing. Interestingly, as this self-identity develops, it begins to shape our social identity as well – we introduce ourselves by the work that we do. Our social circle defines who we are. It is as if an invisible bubble is formed around us – but this bubble cannot be pierced easily because it has assumed a role to protect us.
This success paradigm may represent an incomplete picture, which cannot be evaluated without examining the residues it leaves behind for some. Boredom, listlessness, lethargy and lack of motivation are just some of the feelings we may experience. I have often discovered that boredom in a job can break one – it can deal a lethal blow, just as much as other conventional stress triggers. We feel that we are living only for and during the weekends. The rest of the week seems like a mindless routine, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tackle the Monday morning blues. We prod ourselves and carry on, till we are exhausted and feel the frustration levels increase gradually. One of my friends aptly describes this listless state as being ‘comfortably numb’.
At the workplace, we may find that we are no longer impressed by what leaders are saying. We may hear the elegant words but at times it seems insincere, inconsistent and manipulative at its worst. What we were easily impressed by when we were juniors no longer even attracts our attention. We want more — meaning, values, authenticity, inspiration — and most importantly, wish to be led by example, not lip-service.
We feel stuck
Leaving is not an option. We have responsibilities and financial commitments. Exit comes at a high price. We try to distract ourselves. Some of us may constantly look at our bank accounts and investments (as a way of reassuring ourselves that it is all worth it), make excel sheets with financial goals and give ourselves financial milestones to reach. Social comparison increases. Conversations at dinner parties may tend to overly focus on our asset ownership and lifestyle choices (for those who can afford it). Some plan and invest in exotic holidays and luxury goods and this may become a compulsion. Still others suddenly start emphasising and articulating the importance of work-life balance, taking to running marathons and establishing other goals around health and fitness. Of course, these activities can be pursued in the normal course of life, but some people embrace these in the hope that the ennui will diminish somehow.
Very soon, it starts eating into other aspects of our life. Our mood, attitudes and opinions begin to reflect this stark reality while taking a toll on relationships. The number of bad days at work increase and each time we have one, we end up turning it into an event — ruminating on the very meaning of life, work and other macro indicators. A good day happens soon after and there is a temporary reprieve, but we feel stressed and close to burning out.
We can sense that something is amiss, but we are afraid to go down this road further.
The answers that may be revealed on this road may be scary and the choices presented may add to the complexity of our lives. We weigh the certainty of the present world against this potentially uncertain world. Certainty triumphs. Then the bad day resurfaces again and we are back to square one.
After a certain threshold, we cannot take it anymore. We realise that we are experiencing some form of a mid-career crisis, but we wonder what we can do about it.
While there are useful short-term measures, such as recharge, take a break, take up a hobby and so on, a more sustainable strategy is to re-examine our life at this point. The circumstances surrounding us are a signal to sit up and take notice.
Being in the wrong organisation could be a reason, or it could be that we are in the right organisation but a wrong role. It could also be that we are in a wrong career altogether where we are unable to use our potential and strengths on a day-to day basis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to resolving this.
Before we embark on some life-changing mission, it is critical to take some time off for a bit of soul searching. It is possible that we may have lost touch with parts of ourselves that we identified and valued a long time ago. These parts, while appearing mute, are finding an indirect way to tell us that something is wrong and that they need to be acknowledged. We may need to deep-dive and invest in self-reflection around our goals, values, strengths, personality, interests, passions and purpose. Key questions — such as ‘What really makes me happy?’, ‘What would I do if money was not a criterion?’, ‘What am I great at?’, ‘What is most important for me?’— can nudge us in the right direction. There are many qualified ICF professional coaches who can help in this journey. This continuous self-work is an essential precondition to emerging out of this crisis.
At a turning point in their personal or professional lives, the clients in season 2 of #ExperienceCoaching turned to ICF-credentialed coaches. Watch their stories to discover how turning to an ICF coach can help one find clarity and take the next step forward on one’s own journey
Even if we are in the right career, right role and right organisation this self-work is useful. It is quite possible that we may have come face-to-face with new expectations and metrics that are challenging us. When we were junior, there was a great value to efficiency, diligence, timely output and conscientiousness. As we go up the ladder, the variables become increasingly complex and our sincerity and hard work seem insufficient to deliver the goods. At a higher level, it is more about seemingly intangible and ambiguous factors (influencing stakeholders, leading difficult teams, complex problem solving, managing amidst chaos and uncertainty, and so on) and dynamic adjustments. The self-work journey can help address these critical skills and competency gaps and help us move forward.
It is quite normal to be facing a mid-career crisis. In my own life, I have had to take some difficult decisions because of new awareness emerging from personal development journeys. It is not speedy; it is not easy, and neither is it black and white. The good news is that the fog does clear after some time. We start seeing the multiple pieces clearly, pick them up one at a time and start to put them together again. A new, reinvented self may emerge out of this. Our worries and anxieties remain (in some form or manner) but this time one may feel that one is moving moving forward in the direction of one’s choosing. At some point in this process, the journey itself becomes the reward. One is neither waiting for weekends anymore nor living in perpetual hope of a better future.
You have arrived once again!
In 2020, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) celebrates 25 years as a global organisation for coaches and coaching. Dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high ethical standards, ICF provides independent certification and builds a worldwide network of credentialed coaches across a variety of coaching disciplines. Its 41,000-plus members located in 147 countries and territories work towards the common goal of enhancing awareness of coaching, upholding the integrity of the profession, and continually educating themselves on the newest research and practices.
In India, ICF is represented by five vibrant chapters, all led by volunteers — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi, ICF Mumbai and ICF Pune.
Anand Kartikeyan, the author, is an ICF PCC executive coach, mentor, organisation & change consultant and strategic advisor to a host of corporates, family businesses, start-ups and individuals. His mission is to impact organisational and personal results through people, culture and leadership interventions. Prior to his coaching practice, Anand spent 22+ years across international organisations in various leadership positions. His corporate achievements have included scaling up fledgling businesses, re-engineering strategic turnarounds of under-performing units, new client acquisition and business development, active role in strategy formulation and execution, complex transaction execution (M&A, leveraged and structured finance, etc.) and driving people initiatives. Kartikeyan is an ICF-credentialed member affiliated to the ICF Bangalore chapter.