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Getting Unstuck: Your Path Out of the Mid-Career Rut

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If you're like many mid-career professionals, you've spent more than a few years working your way up to a good-paying job with a respectable title. But instead of basking in the satisfaction of a successful career, you find yourself feeling bored, restless—maybe even hopelessly stuck. 

If you can relate, you're in good company with many other people who are wondering how they managed to get stuck in a mid-career rut, and how they can get out of it!

No one imagines this kind of detour in their career path, and it can be disappointing. But by laying the right groundwork, you can get unstuck, climb out of that rut and land the job you really want. This step-by-step tutorial will show you how to get moving.

1. Leave Denial in the Dust

You might be able to relate to a client of mine who was disappointed with her job. She had a nagging sense that she was leaving her best, true self at home when she left for work. For a year she'd been seeing enough red flags to suggest it was high time to shift in a new career direction, yet she hesitated to accept the need for a change and get moving. 

Why would anyone stay in a negative work situation like this? A state of denial is often the culprit. 

From Doubts to Denial

My client unwittingly wasted time justifying why she shouldn't make a change. It doesn't take long for your head to start spinning and anxiety to build when you get caught up in the kinds of questions she fixated on:

  • Maybe things will improve if I give it just a little more time? (They won't; time isn't a magic wand that can change your workplace.)
  • What if my new job is even worse? (It won't be because you know what you want and what to avoid.)
  • What if I'm not really cut out for what I want to do? (You are. Even if you need to develop new skills to become a strong performer, you know you'll do whatever it takes.)

Doubts often build to a state of fear and anxiety, which together fuel a state of denial about the need for change.  

Prepare for the Inevitable

Be prepared for the time when the work of forging a new career path starts to overwhelm you. Expect the "what if's" to fill you with anxiety and be confident that this is a necessary part of the journey, not a reason to fall into a state of denial. 

But how can you get and sustain this confidence?

  • Remember that doing nothing is not an option. Your well-being depends on this change. The risks of sticking with work that leaves you exhausted and unhappy are not trivial. Gallup research suggests that people who work in a negative or stressful situation on an ongoing basis have a significantly increased chance of experiencing health issues like clinical depression and anxiety disorders. That's a worst case scenario, for sure; but other impacts, like hits to your confidence, can be devastating as well.
  • Enlist family members or a best friend who understands why you're pursuing a change to help you stay centered, positive and focused on your goal. 

As you move through this process of reinvention, remind yourself often that you deserve to experience the rewards of new, fulfilling work—and that the rewards will outweigh the risks.


2. Precisely Define Your End Goal

Maybe you're like a Developer I know who became so energized when he joined product strategy discussions that he lost interest in actually coding software. Or you may relate to the Marketing Director who marked up every line of copy her creative team produced, until one writer aptly suggested she consider just writing it herself (full disclosure: that one's me!). 

If you have a parallel story, you're probably confident that you already know what you want, and you just need help figuring out how to get there. Many other people are in a fuzzier, much less comfortable place. Their dissatisfaction with their current job is clear but they haven't yet had the "a-ha" moment to crystallize what they really want to be doing.

Whichever camp you're in, I want you to take pause...just long enough to think about the problem you're trying to solve and the kind of work that will solve it

Start with the Problem

Recognizing the root problem you're trying to solve in your quest for change isn't as simple as it sounds. Most dissatisfied professionals are faced with unpacking multiple, sometimes overlapping issues with their current work or workplace. 

Powerful emotions about your job may even tempt you to abandon your current career before considering less radical but effective options. In her work on the Amazing Career Project career coach Kathy Caprino talked to many people who hated their jobs. It became clear, though, that they didn't really hate their work; they hated how they were treated and what they were experiencing while doing their work. 

Sometimes the answer to the true problem, Caprino suggests, isn't throwing out your entire career—the heart of what you do—but rather where and with whom you're doing it. You just have to be 100% sure what the problem is.

Keeping these complexities in mind, take the time now to outline the problems, issues and other aspects of your job and your workplace that are driving your dissatisfaction. Also, take note of any strong emotions pushing your need for a change. It can be helpful to order them in priority based on how much each impacts you. 

From Problem to Solution 

With the problem nailed down you can now map to a solution in the form of your end goal. What are you aiming for in making the job/career change you're about to embark on?  

Consider these possibilities:

  • Could a lateral move within your current company give you enough interaction with new people and new learning opportunities to re-energize you without requiring a leap to another firm?
  • If you're struggling with a negative work environment, might one solution be a job just like yours but in a company that invests in maintaining a strong, positive culture?
  • If you feel consumed by an always-on work culture and need more time for family, could you aim for a new role in an organization where work-life balance is a priority? Look for them to back up their words with programs that encourage employees to pursue work/life balance without negative repercussion. 

As you hone your big picture goal, make sure it's concrete and clear. Identifying that you want to move into the role of Software Engineering Manager is much different and more useful than just knowing you want to "get into Engineering." Your goal needs to be specific enough for you to determine what it will take to get there. 

When You're Just Not Sure

There are clearly lots of different kinds of people in our world with vastly different career aspirations. But the end goals that lead to professional satisfaction typically have a lot in common: They're jobs that connect what's important to you, what you're good at, what you envision yourself doing down the road. They compact aspects of your "dream job" into a single role. In the process, they present an alternative to your current work that is making you miserable or boring you to tears. That's a tall order!

If you aren't quite sure what role will be the best fit for what you like to do, and you are looking to match your talents and skills, a number of assessments and job/goal exercises are available to help hone where your heading:

Note: See the Resources section of this tutorial for additional guidance.

No matter where you land in your definition of the "big picture" career goal, make sure you have a clear sense of the reasons it's time for a change and exactly how the end goal you've defined will satisfy the need.  

3. Closing the Gap

Let's assume at this point you've figured out how to articulate your end goal. What now? How do you get from here to there?

Well...it depends. The answer depends on how "far" away your big picture goal lies from where you are today. 


You might measure that distance in terms of your function (like moving from Marketing Communications to Engineering or Finance) or job level (like advancing from individual contributor to VP). You could be looking at a small-scale change like a lateral move or a radical shift to a new cross-functional area in a new company. As the degree of change increases, so typically does the gap between where you are today and where you want to go.

What Does the New Role Require?

Start by carefully considering the job you ultimately want and study job descriptions for similar roles. What are hiring companies looking for in those candidates? Look at:

  • degrees/educational requirements
  • specific experience, like a certain number of years in a specific function or industry
  • knowledge and skills, like people management or understanding of agile development methodology
  • specific technical skills or software skills, like proficiency in Adobe Creative Suite
  • language skills
  • licenses or certifications, like PMP

A simple table or spreadsheet can help you keep track of hiring companies' requirements, identify the gaps you need to close between where you are now and where you need to be and plan the specific steps you'll take to close the gaps. 

Bridging the Gap

Download our planning spreadsheet (shown below). It is structured to help you outline exactly what you need to do to bridge the gaps (competencies, skills, education, experience...) between your current career and your new one.

You can get started by listing the requirements of your goal position in the left hand column of the spreadsheet. Then take a deep breath and start assessing, as objectively as you can, where you stand on each skill or requirement.

Graphic Designer Example

Let's say you covet the lead designer role at an agency. You have the experience. But they want advanced skills in Adobe Creative Suite and you're only at the high-intermediate level. You've now identified a proficiency gap, so your next step is to identify a course that will help you close that gap. Notice that for every goal you set, you should also set a clear deadline. 

Graphic Designer Example
Graphic Designer Example

4. Mapping a Longer Path

When looking at your gaps you might find that they're big—too big to close quickly and get to your dream job in one quick leap. That's okay. You just need to consider a longer-term, tiered career plan with multiple steps on a path that ultimately leads to your end goal. You might have to step down the ladder to land a role in a new function, for example, and then work your way back up to your current level. 

This is when I also suggest getting creative in thinking about how to fill your gaps. Consider consulting or working part-time in the new field in parallel with your day job. Volunteering in your personal time can also be a great way to gain the specific experience and new competencies that the next job in your path demands.

Creative Director Example

Imagine Ashley is in a Creative Director role now and wants to move into account management. Ideally, she'd jump right into an Account Director role at her current agency, but it requires one to three years of account management experience that she simply doesn't have. She can't go straight into that role, no matter what training she gets or whom she knows, without a move in the middle as her point of entry into the account management function. 

The table below shows that she has identified taking on an Account Manager role in her firm as the most efficient way to get the experience the Director job requires. But the Account Manager role requires sales experience, and Ashley doesn't have it. 

You can see that Ashley next entered volunteer experience as a way to bridge the gap and get her to the intermediate goal in her career path, the Account Manager position. While volunteering at the Humane Society she plans to focus on fundraising and donor relations—activities that clearly help her check the "sales experience" box. 

Creative Director Example
Creative Director Example

Using the Spreadsheet...and Other Planning Resources

You can use our spreadsheet template—along with ample shares of work, time and patience—to set tiered SMART goals or action steps that get you immediately moving in the direction of the career you want. The spreadsheet helps you define these steps clearly and granularly enough to be specific, measurable, achievable and timely. 

By the time you're done with the exercise you'll know what you can start hitting right now, what your more intermediate goals look like and where your long-term dream job comes into reality. As you identify intermediate goals/steps, like Ashley did with the Account Manager role, remember to also map out what it will take to achieve those mid-steps and identify any gaps you need to close on the way.

The downloadable spreadsheet is a really simple tool that doesn't require you to be online. I like that in the process of identifying your gaps and how to close them you're also defining a development plan to support your career change. Generally, the simpler the plan, the more likely you are to stick with it. But there are many other flavors and formats that you can check out to see what you think would work for you:

  • Monster has launched a relatively new online career mapping tool, still in beta, that allows you to enter your starting point (current job) and where you want to land. It then maps out the most common steps that people take to get there. You can click on any step in your path and the tool shows you the role, similar positions that are currently open with live links to job descriptions and BLS data about that job.
  • Check to see if your current employer offers an automated career planning tool as part of its Talent Management System. While it will be geared specifically to roles within your company, these tools can still be useful in helping you lay out possible career steps and what you'll need to move into each one.

Other Career Planning Resources

  • The Muse is loaded with articles on exploring career paths and how to progress once you've settled on one.
  • If you're looking for a Myers-Briggs Type assessment, knowyourtype.com offers the Indicator Instrument online and emails you a results report (for a fee).
  • CareerMaze's assessment helps you refine your career direction and matches you to jobs that could be a good fit (for a fee). A free option in the same vein is JOBehaviors.
  • The Career Key matches your skills and likes with "best fit" jobs and information on the outlook for those jobs (for a fee).
  • Some tools, like CareerPlanner.com and Sokanu, strive to go deeper to help you find your life's purpose and identify the perfect career for not just your skills but also your interests and values.

The specific planning tool and exact steps you take don't matter nearly as much as the investment you make in the process. It can feel impossible to make a change and get out of a career rut, especially when you're breaking away from a position you're good at and trying something different. But thoughtful planning can get you unstuck and into the career you want—probably even sooner than you thought possible. 

Graphic Credit

Paper-Airplane icon designed by Uri Ashkenazi from the Noun Project.

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