The Early 30s Career Crisis

IMG_20140212_193805 (2)
Are you on the right track?

A little while ago, I started noticing a pattern among a lot of my friends. Let’s for now call it the “Early 30s Career Crisis”. What seemed to be happening was that people were reaching levels in their careers where the costs from changing track (“starting again” on a lower salary, re-training) and doing something else were approaching the costs of continuing (being generally unhappy, frustrated and under-utilised). In other words, it felt as if a “crunch time” was approaching. If I really didn’t want to be a recruiter / lawyer / accountant / engineer my whole life, I had to get out now or I would be “stuck” doing it forever.

If you feel like this at any age, you’re not alone – many people at all different ages could be in a state of turmoil about the direction of their life – and there are many stages in life where a person feels an overwhelming sense that change must happen. Most of my direct experience is among friends, clients and colleagues who feel a sense of crisis around the 28-35 age bracket. I’m still (just!) in this age bracket, and went through something similar myself.

The common factors seem to be:

  • A sense of deep frustration and anxiety about work.
  • A tendency towards binary-type thinking e.g. I never ever want to be an accountant again (or anything even resembling it).
  • Some sort of career progression already – and perhaps with that, a realisation that what I thought would make me “happy” hasn’t actually done that. (When I became a registered X I thought it would be better than this!)
  • A feeling of confusion about purpose in life, and the link between that and work.
  • A drive to find answers – in particular, a need to find someone to help provide direction and purpose. I only have to look at all the self-help books I bought and the experts I consulted during my little crisis time, to see that I took finding answers very seriously!

Life can precipitate bringing on this crisis – in my experience, having a particularly challenging job, relationship troubles, health problems, even having kids – can entail a lot of soul-searching. What happens – if anything – out of all this is a uniquely individual question. For some, the crisis might be rationalised, put away and minimised. Others could take wild and hasty action – leaving a job suddenly, going overseas, making dramatic changes to their appearance – that could have unexpected results and not all good.

I’m only a frustrated psychologist (not a real registered one), and so I’m not going to go into the ‘why’ of the Early 30s Career Crisis in terms of developmental psychology, but I do have some guidance that has worked for me and others in developing their career which might help the crisis become a productive time and not a destructive one.

  • What you think, drives your behaviour, which creates outcomes – basically, what you think doesn’t just influence your life – it IS your life. A bit deep for some perhaps, but true. Many people don’t actually know what they think. A great way of finding out, is to talk to someone else who you can talk to openly and honestly and can feed back to you what you’re saying (as what we say is one good indicator of what you think). Is all of what you currently think really helping you? Are you limiting yourself unnecessarily? What have you told yourself lately that you can’t do? If you are someone with a tendency to be hard on yourself, talking to someone with your best interests at heart and is a good listener is highly recommended!
  • Your beliefs about values are important. At some stage, if you are working in an organisation and/or with colleagues who don’t share similar beliefs to you, you will get annoyed and frustrated, even exhausted – and want to leave. Some of the most crucial beliefs we form in terms of our relationships with others, especially in organisations, are in relation to the values of Trust, Love, Honesty, Fairness, Dignity, Trust and Courage (these human values are from a body of models called “Systems Leadership Theory” – here is a link to learn more). We all see and judge behaviour through these values. Very simply, when we share these beliefs, we start to form a “culture”. We all see the same things slightly differently – just reflect on your views about disciplining children compared to other people – what do you think of the views and behaviour of those you don’t agree with? In the workplace, it’s just the same, people make judgments about behaviour all the time, and sharing of those judgments with others is the start of a culture (“Oh did you see how that Claire disparaged her team in the management meeting? How unfair was that!”) Where your beliefs are will largely determine if you fit in or out, and therefore if you are accepted and comfortable or feel alienated and want to leave.
  • If you are looking for the right role, industry sector or profession, you might be asking the wrong question. Instead, think about the essential character of work that you really, really enjoy. For me, there was a pattern in what I was going that was linked to the complexity of my work. Do you enjoy working on discrete, and short-term technical problems with little oversight from others? Do you prefer working on very wide issues with no straightforward answers and a lot of ambiguity? A mistake I made was trying to “be” a “profession” that would be the best fit for me. Margaret Thatcher said once “It used to be about trying to do something. Now it’s about trying to be someone.” The truth is, all professions can suit many people – but people are frequently unhappy in their work because they focus on the “being” part of their work e.g. being a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, rather than the work they really like “doing”.

If you want to get serious about the opportunity that a career crisis presents, get to know yourself, your thoughts and beliefs. Try to understand ways of working that will help you be around people who share similar beliefs. Get to know the complexity of work that appeals to you. And finally, have a plan that will support you to succeed. Thankfully, no-one is going to do it for you.

Floreat Consulting Australia creates a positive and sustainable future for organisations and early career professionals. We help build organisations that are great places to work because people are engaged, challenged and happy in roles that fit them well. We help individuals succeed* through solid career planning and a deeper understanding of their own potential.

*New Individual Career Development packages now available!