Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Ever since I left my career in financial services to pursue my passions*, I have been reflecting back with a precision microscope on my emotions and headspace throughout my working life.
* If you are interested in the exact sequence of events which almost led to my death and now my attempted rebirth, you will have to buy my book, which I expect will be published in the coming months.
Applied to different times in my past, I ask myself introspective questions such as:
Was I truly happy?
What were my motivations at that particular moment?
How satisfied was I with my life overall and my career specifically?
While I am still in the process of conducting this intertemporal emotional analysis and searching for my own answers, I wanted to get the global LinkedIn community’s thoughts on when people were happiest and most satisfied in their careers.
So I created a poll on LinkedIn, and voila, I can take the pulse of my network on a particular issue. The wisdom of crowds, as they say.
Here is what the respondents said, in statistically insignificant yet insightful results.
I would love to hear your interpretation of this data, especially if you voted. Hearing your story inspires me to continue working to improve not only my own mental health but also our collective society's well-being.
Here is my analysis of the poll results.
Early Career: 27%
Early career was a not-too-distant third choice, and this selection would have been my answer too. I believe the popularity of this answer represents the untarnished optimism and "beginner’s mind" that comes at the start of one’s career.
As a graduating senior at The University of Texas at Austin, I could not wait to return to Wall Street, where I greatly enjoyed my summer internship despite the grit required to maintain the grueling hours and daunting workload.
Here is a picture of me in London right before I began my career on Wall Street:
During the first few years of my investment banking career, I earned early accolades for my efforts and felt fulfilled by the acknowledgment of my labors. Furthermore, I could tangibly see the results of my work in transactions completed; all I had to do was read The Wall Street Journal, and I could witness the result of my 120-hour workweeks.
In my early career, I feel I had more clarity about who I was and where I was going. You see, my vocation was more pure for me back then, as I was not yet at a high enough level on the corporate ladder to encounter the personal politics that inevitably follows once one reaches the upper levels of an organization.
The second-place answer of mid-career somewhat surprises me. Perhaps mid-career is the point in one’s life where you have some years under your belt, and your career progression is really starting to hit its stride. Perhaps you are no longer burdened by the more mundane tasks you performed in an entry-level position. Maybe the confidence of having solid work experience allows you to finally feel a real sense of achievement and belief in your capabilities.
For me, I look back on this time with fondness, as I had a strong sense of purpose. I lived in Europe and worked at a startup investment firm whose mission was revolutionizing retirement systems across the globe. However, the business ultimately failed after four years, and while I had achieved the status of Managing Director by my late 20s, I saw my hopes and dreams of outsized financial success vanish along with the entire $77 million we raised to fund the business.
Cast adrift and overseas, I scrambled to find another adequate position given my stature. In the end, I spent six months unemployed and interviewing for all sorts of positions. Eventually, an excellent headhunter found me a role in an innovation team at a large, publicly-traded, insurance company.
I absolutely enjoyed my time at Lincoln Financial Group, where the executives gave me free rein to pursue meaningful work as Director of Innovation of the company, and where I first managed a team of salespeople.
Here is a gallery of me and my colleagues in my mid-career:
I had a lot of fun tackling new challenges and managing a world-class team of ambitious, energetic and talented young people.
Yet, I could not shake off the feelings of sadness that came along with my premature departure from the world of high finance, and this personal discontent got in the way of true satisfaction.
Late Career: 3%
I find the last-place-by-a-landslide response here intriguing and strikingly paradoxical.
When society thinks about the business world, wealth, experience and power seem to be valued, and your late career is supposed to be the pinnacle of all three of these attributes. You finally get the reap the rewards of all of your hard work.
Here I am in my late career twenty years after the London photo at the beginning of my career:
Yet, this is exactly what LinkedIn professionals rebelled against.
As I sense is the case with the LinkedIn community, late career is also the time when employees are the most jaded. They know all too well how companies can operate and have the battle scars to prove it.
Finally, it is at this late career stage where you realize the full extent of your capabilities and also notice when they are not being adequately utilized, which leaves an empty hole in your life.
This was certainly the case for me.
In fact, I documented my disenchantment in a prior Social Musings by Austin article, which can be found here: https://www.socialmusingsbyaustin.com/post/why-i-quit-my-job-to-join-the-creator-economy
Wow. Given all the headlines about "The Great Resignation," I would not have expected that more of my respondents are happy with their current career path than at any other time.
I celebrate the fact that so many individuals out there feel that they are more satisfied now than they ever have been before. For these workers, they are currently “in the zone.” They feel that they have the optimal combination of compensation, challenge and continued success that makes work so satisfying.
Bravo, I say.
For me, I am happy in my life currently; however, maintaining this optimism takes effort. I am fortunate enough to be able to follow my passions, a blessing for which I am thankful.
Here is a picture of my workplace now:
Last week, I wrote about my current mindset in my new, second career in a Social Musings by Austin article, titled “When a Super-Early Retiree Searches for Serenity”: https://www.socialmusingsbyaustin.com/post/when-a-super-early-retiree-searches-for-serenity
When you make a late career change, you may experience adversity which you have not encountered since your early career. It can be difficult to rise to the same challenges which you exuberantly took on in the past. Only your passion and sense of mission can help guide you through the dark times until you find yourself back on the path of accomplishment and success.
All of which brings me to my final point on measuring a career’s success. Is it Money? Meaning? Advancement? All of the above? What provides true satisfaction?
While important, I can tell you that money is not the right metric for the long term. Despite my rapid advancement, ultimately I ended up in a place where I felt disenchanted, which I believe happens to quite a few people towards the end of their careers.
Perhaps best said in the Broadway classic, Avenue Q, our life's work may be all about Purpose:
"My purpose in life is a mystery
Gotta find my purpose
Gotta find me."
Purpose and passion seem to be the answer for me. I never understood that until now. I allowed myself to be blinded by less meaningful metrics, and it was only when these deteriorated that I was able to see what I needed to pursue in my life.
I hope this helps you find solace and contentment with your working life.
See you next week.