When we first start our careers, promotions come quickly, which changes as we rise up the ranks and start taking roles with greater responsibility. If you happen to take a big risk and jump industries or tackle a major geographical relocation, you can also probably plan on a little more time until your next promotion.
So what do we do with this career stretch in the middle? We’re not completely brand new to the working world, but haven’t quite become senior enough in our current chapter to be on the verge of promotion. Interestingly enough, the “middle” is where all the good things happen — it’s where we learn, become experts, meet new colleagues, and develop secondary skills that can come back to play a great role later in our careers. It’s also ironically where we end up spending the majority of time in our careers, so getting comfortable with the in-between and learning how to make the most of that time is an essential career skill.
How do you know if you’re in the middle? You might feel like you finally have a strong command of your job on a day-to-day basis. Colleagues come to you for answers and you’re seen as a core part of a team that you’re on. You may have just nailed a developmental goal that your management had for you like bolstering your public speaking skills or taking on a large project. And you’re probably still learning new things, think your work is intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding, and find that most days of the week you go home feeling satisfied at the work you’re doing.
If you’re feeling all of these things but know that you’re not quite ready — for any number of reasons — to tackle responsibilities at the next step on the ladder, consider how some of these goals can make your middle more meaningful:
The perfect time to pursue a new chapter of education is when you feel like you’ve got your day job under control. You might be itching to learn something new slightly outside of your direct work jurisdiction, or maybe you just need the extra mental bandwidth to pursue that industry certification that would really take your career to the next level.
Educational pursuits can be a little daunting, so break down the goal like you would any other office objective. Plot out mini milestones and mark them in your calendar alongside work goals; that might look like researching schools, defining your course timeline, or figuring out a compelling narrative to help get your employer pay for school.
Reflection and Visualization
The middle is also a perfect time to start some serious career reflection without the pressure of immediate action. As the saying goes, the best time to start looking for a job is before you need one! Without necessarily having an end in mind, start some active visualization around what your next chapter looks like.
Don’t be terribly concerned with the exact details of what title might come or exactly how you’d make it happen. Instead, do a thoughtful audit of your current job. What tasks do you love doing? What parts of your job do other people say you’re great at? Do those line up with what you actually enjoy?
With your arms more squarely around your “today,” start routinely visualizing the future. What are you creating in your next job? How is it fulfilling the other goals in your life? Taking the time to go through these visualization exercises and actually writing down the things that come up for us can help shape that reality into being. It makes you more attuned to opportunities as they arise and gives you a useful point of reference to go back to that was created outside of a pressure-filled decision point.
Live The Life Outside
Even at our most driven, our job is only a single part of our entire lives. What is it for you that lives outside of the workday that could use some attention? If you are in middle-mode at work, think about the other hours of the day that could be filled with more focused effort around relationships, hobbies, family planning, or wellness.
As more of us get comfortable with the idea that the perfect ongoing state of work-life balance is a bit of a myth, take advantage of this life season over the work season. In the same way you may otherwise aggressively goal yourself to take home work or set aggressive objectives in your day job, apply that same rigor at home. Commit to reading a book two nights a week instead of your usual pile of expense report review. Schedule bi-weekly lunch dates with friends you haven’t seen in a while instead of work-related conferences. These personal moments add up and will refuel your sense of self when you have to put your foot back on the gas at work.
The most powerful networking you will do is when you are not on a job hunt. It allows you to be your most authentic self, and connect with people simply for connection’s sake. For us introverts, networking is a stretch anyway, so this can be a perfect time to get in touch with new people. It’s an awesome opportunity to tap experts in your field without feeling like you have a veiled job hunting objective.
Take some risks in your outreach. Did someone interesting pop up in your suggested contacts on LinkedIn? Drop them a note pointing out something interesting or a shared aspect of your backgrounds and ask if they’d be open to a 15 minute phone call to hear more about their work. Many of these cold pitches will go unreturned — but either way, this outreach grows your courage muscle!
What Not to Do
If you’re a real go-getter, taking some time to just be grounded in the present can elicit its own sort of panic. Feelings can creep up that you’re not enough, or that you’re somehow stalling in your career not taking an ultra-active path toward the next step. (Guilty.)
In those moments, we can ground ourselves with the reminder that most of life happens in the middle. Beginnings are fun, but certainly come with their own scary stressors; endings often feel a little nostalgic as we part ways with a previous chapter. Being able to spot the middle point of a career moment and make the most of it is a skill that can serve us our entire careers.