I was interviewed last week by U.S. News and World Report on the subject “The Financial Implications of a Midlife Career Shift.” The answers I chose to give the reporter related less to the financial implications than it did to the broader set of issues involved in contemplating a midlife shift.

In this post I will elaborate a bit on two of the issues to be considered in contemplating this topic.

1. Dissatisfaction with one’s current career naturally leads to thoughts of shifting, but insufficient attention is generally paid to ways of improving one’s current career experience.

Here are two examples:

– “I thought I’d enjoy being a lawyer, but as the years go by I’m finding it’s all about billable hours and seventy hour work weeks.”

This is a common complaint that I hear. It may be possible to tweak the situation at one’s current job to add some more meaning to work (volunteering to lead a “social responsibility” initiative of the firm’s) while examining ways to increase your productivity so as to reduce the time spent on the job. Questions to ask yourself: Are you taking full advantage of the possibilities of delegating? Could you be better organized? If you’re a perfectionist what can you do to ease up a bit? Have you asked peers or superiors who are more satisfied for their suggestions?

– “After fifteen years of being a policy wonk I am tired of seeing my ideas and my hard work wind up in a report buried on someone’s desk rather than leading to action in the real world.”

Yes, policy work most often winds up with no, or very very long-term, impact on reality. And even if that impact that occurs it is difficult to track one’s contribution to it.

Presumably one specialized in an area of policy because of a deep interest in an issue. By focusing less on the impact of one’s work and more on the intellectual interest of it, while at the same time seeking opportunities outside of the workplace to have an impact, you may find a sufficient level of fulfillment to shift your overall life satisfaction.

2. Money is the most common, and most easily measured, mark of career success. But its importance is generally overemphasized.

We live in a consumerist society. Money (income or assets) can be counted. The benefits of it can be easily visualized (a big house, a fancy car, an exotic vacation). But when it comes to work, how does one “count” the value of autonomy? How can one visualize the advantages of feeling that the work one does has a valid and meaningful purpose? How does one measure the satisfaction of knowing that one is growing and learning?

Beyond work, relationships and experiences are the things that generally contribute the most to most people’s overall happiness. Throwing around a football with your son, watching your daughter perform in the school play, a family vacation at the beach, or the surprise birthday party given by your friends, are contributions to life’s richness that money simply can’t buy.

The key point here is that the tradeoffs involved in a career shift need to be weighed fully and carefully. Yes, they involve money and time, but don’t overlook status, or variety, or geographic flexibility. What’s more, career choice can impact health and longevity: what is the fitness that comes with the ability to exercise regularly, or the extra year of life that reduced stress can bring, worth?


Please note that while the interview and article focused on midlife, the principles I articulated apply to career shifts both earlier and later than midlife. Questions about one’s career path may generally crop up more frequently at midlife, but any significant change in life circumstances (e.g. divorce, illness, a spiritual awakening, the empty nest phenomenon) can trigger such questions.