That nagging question of why at mid-career

I want to talk here about a career move. Not just any kind of move. The kind that when you make it, you know it’s big.

I’m not speaking about job changes — although those can be big, too. I’m referring to the type of career decision that fundamentally alters your relationship to work. The sort of change many of us want to make but seldom do. And for good reason. Just the thought of it scares the you know what out of us.

A transition to meaning

A trusted advisor who’s helped me during just the kind of move I’m describing here said my circumstances reminded her of a one-time bestseller — “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” — originally published in 1980.

Author William Bridges explained one of the profound transitions most of us face in our work life when we reach our 40s or 50s: “the transition from being motivated by the chance to demonstrate competence to being motivated by the chance to find personal meaning in the work and its results. It is the shift from the question of how to the question of why.”

That’s just the shift I began to experience during my 40s and that eventually led me to where I am today. Having ended one career and built another, I use my sometimes hard-won experience to coach executives and other professionals as they move toward the why of their work.

Reaching a crossroads

The midpoints in our careers usually correspond with the midpoints in our lives. We inevitably reach a crossroads. A point at which we’ve achieved good, maybe even great success at work. And then slowly but surely we notice something’s changed. We’re more restless, less satisfied, more depleted. All the while we’re awakening to a deepening need to make a difference, in our communities or in the world at large.

The career we’ve carefully cultivated for years doesn’t fulfill us like it once did. We’ve begun asking what if. What if we were to point our careers in a very different direction. Stop doing what is familiar but no longer meaningful. And start doing work that replenishes us, others, the environment.

We’re asking unsettling questions with no easy answers. What if I made a large change if not a complete break from the path I’ve long been on and that served me well? Am I ready? Do I have the courage? Or is the idea of walking away from what I’m good at and pays me well simply too frightening to seriously consider?

I reached this juncture a decade ago. One day the fear of leaving the firm I co-founded and my tech marketing career gave way to my desire to make what I call a different difference. Six months later I began a new journey that has led me to become a consultant to nonprofits and progressive businesses and, more recently, an executive coach.

Executive coaching born from experience

When I left tech, I had no concrete plan and no mentors to help me prepare for what lies ahead when making a career change of this magnitude. You could say I learned it all the hard way, one day, one lesson at a time. (See an earlier post: 10 lessons in a decade of professional change.)

I draw from this experience to coach professionals who are in the midst of the work life transition William Bridges describes. People who are pulled to start something new, more meaningful, more difference-making. What’s often standing between where they are and where they want to be is a plan and some support and encouragement to take the initial steps in their next journey.

If that sounds like you (or someone you know), I invite you to contact me to learn how I can be of value.

Meantime, I’m looking for stories of others who’ve followed the why of their work down a new trail. Have one to share?