I recently came across something that an old mentor of mine once wrote me as I approached my 30th birthday in the mid-1980s:
“There are three turning points in your career you will go through:
“1. Wondering if you really like what you do, at about age 30.
“2. Mid-life crisis, at about age 40, when you have a strong desire to do something else, and have a sense of losing your youth and vitality, wondering why you haven’t done more and why you’re not at the top.
“3. The end of your career, which might come any time after about age 60, when you’re ready for retirement, want to do more with your life than work, but may have some regret that you haven’t achieved your goals.”
His words weren’t the most artful description of career stages I’ve read, but they had an impact on me, and I’ve had occasion to think about these turning points over the years. He described pivotal times that I did in fact experience in my career.
We all go through our individual variations on these career stages. Our chronological age may vary some from what my mentor stated (in particular, retirement in today’s world can come much earlier or much later than age 60). The depth and severity of the emotional conflict each of us feels are likely to be different from person to person, and one turning point might hit one person harder, while someone else is impacted more by another turning point. Finally, how we choose to cope with each of these turning points will be as personal as each of us and our career paths are.
My mentor wrote this to me when I was approaching my 30th birthday and at turning point #1. At that time, he had passed turning point #2, and was beginning to think about #3. Now I’ve passed #3 myself.
In my case, I gutted my way through turning point #1. I stayed in the same career with the same company for another decade after my mentor and I discussed my disillusionment with where I was at that time. But at my #2 turning point, I switched careers, moving from law to Human Resources. And my #3 came when I was only 50—I quit the corporate world to turn to consulting and writing, which I expect to continue for many years into the future.
In my mentor’s case, he moved into management from an individual contributor role at his turning point #1. He changed careers and industries at #2, though remained in a corporate setting. At #3 he also left the corporate world and moved into a teaching position at a small college in a poor, rural community, which he continued to do until he turned 70, when he retired completely.
My mentor said one other thing to me in that letter he wrote long ago,
“Very few think about these things. They just go as far as they go.”
He encouraged me to really ponder what I wanted out of life at each turning point I faced. Perhaps that’s what started me on my journey of self-assessment.
How have you coped with turning points in your own career, and what helped you work your way through them? How have you mentored others facing turning points in their careers?