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Mike Bellah

 

The great urge at midlife is to break out, to escape the vocation that we feel is responsible for our recent disappointment, depression, and restlessness.

 

 

 

 

Water is what lets a fish be itself, and maybe your job does the same for you.

 

 

 

The career that appears to restrain you, may free you instead.

 

Staying Put in Your Job

 "The man at midlife feels sorry for himself because he thinks he is a trapped man," writes Jim Conway in Men in Midlife Crisis. I suspect that Conway's words apply equally to women, and that both male and female midlifers see their jobs and careers as part of what binds them.

The great urge at midlife is to break out, to escape the vocation that we feel is responsible for our recent disappointment, depression, and restlessness. Yet, while there are good reasons for midlife career changes, escape is not one of them. Besides there are some very good reasons for staying put in a long-term career. Following are three of them.

Support

Is a fish trapped by the water in which it must stay to survive? If trapped means it cannot visit land, yes it is. But then is not all of life somehow trapped? It is no sign of weakness that a tiger must live in the jungle or a whale in the ocean to survive. Similarly, it is no sign of weakness to admit that your present job is your best hope for making a decent living. It's romantic to think of buying that ice cream shop in Vermont, but unless you already have adequate capital and entrepreneurial skills, it may prove disastrous.

Identity

The water also gives identity to the fish. Gills and fins don't make sense apart from living in the sea. When we talk of being like a fish out of water in a new career, we are saying that our interests and abilities don't fit the new environment. Instead of seeing your present job as a trap, perhaps it would help to see how it utilizes and enhances your skills. Water is what lets a fish be itself, and maybe your job does the same for you.

Freedom

Allow me to change the analogy for my final point. Is a child's kite on a breezy day restrained by its string? It would seem so to a novice observer. But cut the string, and what happens? That which appeared to hold the kite down actually helped lift it up. Similarly, the career that appears to restrain you, may free you instead. Often we explore a career change at midlife because we feel trapped in a dead-end position. We already have risen as far on the corporate ladder as we are likely to go.

But is success in a job measured only on a scale of rising titles and salaries? If so, we are all doomed to eventual failure. Perhaps the restraint of a quantitative increase in our careers can alert us to the possibilities of a qualitative increase. If we cannot look up for more job satisfaction, maybe we can look across and below. As psychologist Daniel Levinson has pointed out, many midlifers find new enthusiasm in their jobs by developing mentor relationships with younger employees. There is a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction to be gained by helping less experienced co-workers learn the ropes.

And the mentor relationship is only one of the new freedoms we are likely to find by reassessing a midlife job. There are others, and we likely will find them if we stop focusing on how our vocations trap us, and look instead at how they set us free. 

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