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July 10, 2015

Not Waving but Drowning

Charlie Swift

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Imagine the scene. I arrived at college full of excitement and a new-found sense of freedom. I was studying the subject of my dreams and socializing in a vibrant and cultured city. The first year was a breeze: the shock came in year two. Suddenly I was nowhere near the top of the class, in fact I was struggling. It dawned on me that, really, I knew very little, and would probably remain in that position until my (surely impossible) graduation day.

As the weeks went by, it got harder to drag myself to yet another baffling class, especially when it was delivered by a professor who clearly preferred the privacy of his laboratory. Soon, I adopted an avoidance strategy for when my parents called to find out how I was getting on. And finally, I found myself deflated, demoralized and exhausted, which was all the more poignant for the contrast with my earlier pizazz.

There's a proper name for this all-too-familiar experience. I was in a "sophomore slump." But this was just one of life's lessons for growing, so I deserve no pity for experiencing it. And three things made it bearable: I wasn't alone in my pain and confusion (almost every student feels this way); there were tutors and counsellors ready and waiting to support me through my crisis; and it was temporary. Eventually, I did learn to learn again, to have confidence in myself, to build new networks, and to forge a way forward in life. (And I got my degree!)

What no-one warned me about was how likely a similarly horrible experience can be some years, maybe decades, later, in the prime of our careers. And the structures may not be there to catch us. In fact, our co-workers will often be fighting for their own survival so won't have the time, energy or generosity to attend to our concerns.

This will clearly be an issue for us as individual thinking, feeling people: we want to see a future that we can look forward to, rather than dread, and it's disheartening or even frightening if we can't. But our mid-career slump will also be an issue for our employer. The company cannot afford to have its employees present in body but not in mind or spirit! So when our performance slides, our manager is likely to want to take a firm line, even to consider capability or disciplinary action.

There is hope, however. We need to remember that, just as in college, we're unlikely to be the only one feeling this way. We need to be brave enough to put up our hand and ask for help. And, if we're the manager in the scenario, we need to honor that trust shown by a loyal employee in need, and work together to achieve something good for everyone concerned. Don't let your colleague drown!

To help spot and resolve a mid-career slump, have a look at our new article here if you're a manager, and here if you're the person suffering the symptoms. Meanwhile, share your own experiences, questions and tips below.

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One comment on “Not Waving but Drowning”

  1. I'd say that there are mid-career slumps (with an s). Today, we are likely to have multiple careers. As we move through each career, we may find ourselves in a slump until we refocus our energy for the next one.

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