January 11 2008: 9:28 AM EST
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Beat the mid-career blues

Bored, burned out or, worse yet, been fired? Fortune's Anne Fisher explains how to revitalize your career.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer


(Fortune) -- Maybe it's partly the post-holiday blahs, but my mailbox these days is stuffed with laments from people who don't like what they're doing for a living, but aren't sure what they would rather do instead.

"I've been working my way up in this company for 21 years, and I just don't see any room for growth ahead of me," writes a finance manager in Ohio. "I'm so bored I could scream - but I guess I should be glad I have a job."

Another reader confides: "After 14 years of 12-hour days 'paying my dues' at a big commercial bank, I got laid off at the end of 2007. I don't want to go back into banking, but I don't know anything else. Any thoughts?"

Charles A. Buck (www.charlesbuckassociates.com) has a few. Co-author (with Marcia L. Worthing) of a new book called Escaping the Mid-Career Doldrums: What to Do Next When You're Bored, Burned Out, Retired or Fired (John Wiley & Sons, $18.95), Buck was a successful advertising executive who, like our friend in Ohio, climbed to a fairly high level in his field and then hit a solid wall of boredom.

"I was doing well, but I felt limited," Buck recalls. So he started his own executive-recruiting firm, and now spends most of his time counseling people who want to make a change.

"You don't have to completely reinvent yourself," he says. "But you do have to tap in to your real skills and interests, and get over your preconceived notions about what is possible." Some excerpts from our recent conversation:

Q. In the book you say that being bored, burned out, retired, or fired is inevitable for most of us, sooner or later. Why is that?

A. Anyone who works for a corporation inevitably gets into a rut. Some of us are lucky enough to get moved around to different areas, or promoted into more and more challenging roles, but most people are in jobs that become routine, and any routine will eventually get boring.

For so-called Type A personalities, the bigger problem is burnout. You begin to feel you are running faster and faster on a treadmill, and sooner or later you just can't keep it up. Many people reach this point in their 40s or 50s, and it's a common problem among baby boomers now. But it can occur much earlier - really at any age.

Q. What are the symptoms?

A. The main one is going in to work every day totally unenthused. No one is saying you have to be jumping up and down with excitement all the time, but you know when you have lost all interest in what you're doing.

Another sign is, if you start getting irritable and losing your temper at work.

Or there's clock-watching, just putting in the hours waiting to leave the office every day - or counting down the time until you can retire, the years, months, and days.

What I call the TUBB Syndrome is sure sign too - TUBB stands for Things Used to Be Better, feeling like the good old days are over, and getting weary and dismissive of new employees with new ideas.

Q. Let's say I'm bored or burned out - how do I start to figure out what to do now?

A. The first step is to sit down and really analyze why you are frustrated. You don't necessarily have to quit your job. You may be able to enhance it and make it interesting again by looking around the company for other opportunities. But it may turn out that you do have to change companies or even industries. Maybe you're doing the right thing in the wrong place. Sometimes it's useful to do some "blue sky" thinking: "If I could do anything I wanted, what would it be?"

We also recommend looking carefully at your activities and interests outside of work to see if you can build on those. This can be tough because it requires people to be imaginative and to take what they perceive as a risk.

I had one client who got fired from a finance job and, because he spent every spare waking moment on his boat or hanging out at one marina or another, I suggested he think about doing something for a living that would be related to boats. It was clear that he'd be much happier that way than going back into finance. He had plenty of money, so that wasn't the issue, but he just couldn't envision it and he ended up taking another finance job, where he now faces the same problems he had before. I spend a lot of my coaching time trying to help people to see that old dogs can learn new tricks.

Q. What if one of your outside interests is a nonprofit? Many baby boomers these days seem to reach a point where they want to do something full time that gives back to the community, even if it means taking a pay cut.

A. Yes, and that's great. I always caution people, though, to ease into it and be realistic. Volunteer for a while and look closely at how the organization operates. So many businesspeople seem to view the nonprofit world as this wonderful altruistic environment where there are no corporate politics. In truth, however, the political maneuvering can be just as bad or worse.

Q. What's the biggest obstacle to making the kind of change that could jumpstart a career? Is it money?

A. Certainly as people get older they have more financial responsibilities. When you're 30, you may not have kids or a mortgage yet, so you feel more inclined to get out of your comfort zone and try something new.

But the sad thing is, even when people are financially secure enough to make a change that would make them happier, they usually have preconceived notions that prevent them from even trying - like "It's too late now, I'm too old" or "I don't have the right personality to do what I'd really like to do." We wrote the book partly to help people get over those.

It's important to realize, too, that making any big change in your life is probably going to take time. It's a gradual process. There isn't necessarily a "Eureka!" moment, but rather a series of patient steps that will get you where you want to go.

Readers, are you bored or burned out at work? What career do you wish you were pursuing instead? Have you ever made a big career change? How? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page