Yesterday, at a social event, a fellow I got chatting to shared that he felt trapped in his career. For the last 20 years, he’s worked his way through and up a narrow, vertical silo. He's had success, received fabulous recognition, and is financially solid. But now, he's restless and stuck: he describes himself as having evolved from tadpole to whale in a small pond – he wants to swim in a lake but can't bear the thought of becoming a tadpole again.
That combination he described, of being restless and stuck, is a dismal state - that feeling of craving change but having no idea what it is, or how to make it happen.
Also, did you pick up his assumption? He said, to leave the pond he must become a tadpole. And so, without any research, he's decided to change his career he'll need to start all over again. That kind of mindset will hold him back, erode his confidence, and potentially lead to a sense of career powerless. Ouch!
This story is too common, so a quick sidebar: proactive professional development and nurturing your networks are modest time and cost investments, but they will help keep your eyes and mind open to what's happening in the world, and all your possibilities. They are mitigations that help prevent you getting stuck.
But back to the real world. This fellow is 40! After 20 years on one career trajectory, he's keen to make a change. However, in the absence of knowing what to do next, he does nothing. I suggested that as he's going to be working for another 25-ish years, he's not even reached his career midpoint. I asked him to think about where he was five, 10, 15 years ago – and reflect on where he's going to be in the next five, 10, 15 years – the changes will be milestones, and there will be many milestones.
I deeply believe your energy and awareness go to wherever you put your attention. Hold the awareness that most of us are lucky enough to be in control of much of our work life - we think, we have choices, we make decisions, and we act.
So instead of talking about what we don't want, focus instead on our overall direction - even if it's fuzzy, we generally aspire to a framework of goals. How we want to feel, what we want to achieve, geographically where we want to live and work, what kind of people we like working with, the type of work we most like doing, how much we want to earn.
To avoid being beholden to external forces (ie an employer, market, random distractions); career decision making needs to move on from naive and hopeful to thoughtful and professional (LINK career plan).
My advice, which is what I would suggest to anyone in his shape, was not to rely on chance but to invest time (for him up to a year). Stay in his job, but carve out dedicated time to research, talk to people, explore ideas, learn, build a plan and start moving towards your next pond.
While these ideas are well within your capability, if you feel you might do better with company - find a buddy or a build a small tribe who might join your journey. Or talk to someone like me to assist in building some structure into your research and activity.