Setting Yourself Up for Success at Mid-Career

Maybe I’m just feeling my age this week, but this post follows up on my previous discussion regarding mid-career job hunting. Not sure how much useful advice I’ll be dispensing, but my fingers are moving over the keyboard, so let’s see what happens.

When I was in my teens and twenties I had all sorts of wild ideas about “what I wanted to be when I grew up”: work for Disney, work for the military, work in the space business. Through persistence, networking, and luck, I managed to achieve all of those goals by my mid-30s. In my mid-40s I managed to check another box on my list and become a freelance writer. Great! Two years later, I’m still working as a freelancer and living where I can stay warm and snow-free.

But to quote yet another sci-fi movie, eventually I get restless and start asking questions like, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” At my current rate of work, I’m looking at another 20-25 years of working before I consider retirement. I have customers, I have productive work to do, but where do I want to go next on this adventure?

I happen to think that goals are important for keeping an individual on track. It’s one thing to have a bunch of responsibilities you have to attend to: must eat, must pay bills, must keep the car going, must take care of the kids, etc. At the end of the day, though, wouldn’t you like to think that all the striving has some end in mind?

Regardless of your profession or stage of life, you are likely to have personal goals:

  • Professional achievements – write a book, start a company, win X award in your profession, mentoring
  • Financial attainment – ability to buy X, travel to Y, retire and live with $Z available per year
  • Philanthropic achievements – give $X (or X% of your income) to charity
  • Personal priorities – marriage, parenthood, care for parents
  • Physical goals – get in shape, run a marathon, climb a mountain
  • Philosophical/Spiritual goals – religious study, pilgrimage, meditation, fellowship, insight
  • Creative goals – writing, painting, sculpture, music
  • Experience goals – travel, time with significant other/family

Or others. You know what your priorities are, you know where you want to go and who you want to be…or maybe you don’t. That said, it’s not too late to do some personal planning for what you want to do in the future. You will always have to deal with the “urgent” issues of the day, but your personal goals are important enough that they deserve your attention, too. They are–for you–the “why” behind all the “whats” that you do. Even my mother, who’s been retired for  a few years now, keeps coming up with goals because, she says somewhat jokingly, “Eventually I’d like to know what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Goals vs. Habits

As I was in the process of writing this post, I picked up the new book by Scott Adams (he of Dilbert fame), How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win BigIn this book, Adams states that “Goals are for losers,” which was a bit surprising since I’ve enjoyed most of my successes over the past 20 years by setting goals. However, he had an interesting take on goal-setting that had not occurred to me before, but it seems to fit my general mood/situation right now:

If you achieve your goal you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

He goes on to talk instead about “systems,” what I would call good thinking habits that help you point your life in a positive direction, even if you’re not certain which direction to go. So last night I conjured the following list of thought processes that are more general but perhaps more constructive because they do not have deadlines or end states:

  • Read books that broaden your understanding of technology and philosophy
  • Maintain healthy (eating/exercise) habits
  • Write to improve your skills
  • Look for new ways to contribute to causes or activities that interest you
  • Stay positive, good-humored, and pleasant around others
  • Read, view, listen to, or experience things that are beautiful
  • Do things that make you a better, more valuable person to have around
  • Save money for the future, spend money now that will make a better future possible
  • Help preserve things that you value
  • Help make possible the changes that you want to see
  • Seek money-making opportunities that allow you to leverage your gifts for writing and learning

I think I see Adams’s point here. For example, reminding myself to read books that broaden my understanding of the world is an ongoing process–one essentially without end because there are always new books to read. However, if I stuck with my original goal of reading every book on my Amazon wish list, I’d feel overwhelmed, especially since I keep finding new books to add to it. In a similar fashion, “Maintain healthy habits” is a lifestyle change, whereas setting a weight loss goal means that I’d be forever checking myself on the scale and driving myself crazy all those times I fell short of my goal.

Note, too, that some of the habits above relate to causes or potential jobs without addressing the specific content. I love aerospace, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I’ll ever do. The emphasis of a habit is just to do things that interest or please me–whatever those things turn out to be–rather than setting a goal like, “I will give $X to the USO next year.”

Closing Thoughts

Regardless of how you approach this, I hope you can see the need to treat your life as an end unto itself and think about your work and your life accordingly. You can start with something concrete that you need to do–a goal–or you can be more ambitious and work some something you want to be–which is a product of your habits. Either way, you need to look beyond the day-to-day struggles or drudgery or even the joys and give some thought to why you do what you do and how you might make your life better.

Things to think about. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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