Five Career Mistakes to Stop Making Now

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By Dr. Bill Dyment, Co-Author of Fire Your Excuses.

June 6, 1944. As the shadows on Normandy Beach grew longer, wounded allied soldiers shared a cigarette and a joke as they awaited evacuation and treatment.  It is said the morphine they had received on the beach was so effective in dulling their pain that many did not realize they were mortally wounded and had only hours, even minutes left to live.

It is not uncommon to meet skilled “third quarter” career professionals whose current position also has no true future.  Dulled and tired from heavy workloads, fueled by denial, and surrounded by other similarly “wounded comrades in arms,” many are also unaware of their looming fate.  Either they will become an expendable commodity as cheaper, younger employees compete for their position, here and abroad, or they will manage to retain their jobs with the sad knowledge that, for them, upward career mobility and its accompanying salary increases have ended.

Consider Matt, a mid-level manager, who has delivered superlative work for nearly 15 years.  In recent months, he has grown increasingly tired and stressed. He is now expected produce more, much more, with no additional compensation or staff. Further,  there is talk of layoffs and little reason to hope for a significant raise or promotion. At the moment, with a daughter about to enter college, he is simply hanging on. He desperately needs this job but after years of exemplary work and rewarding recognition, these days, he is feeling overworked, devalued and discouraged.

Ellen is one of many we meet who quickly volunteers that “her industry is not what it use to be.”  While she sees no job threat on the near horizon, she is restless, bored and has been passed over whenever she has applied for a more senior position. In the parlance of the Old West, her “horse is dead” and she needs to “stop riding it and look for another.”

Ellen is no longer excited to come to work or about the direction her industry and organization are headed. Yet at this point in her career, she has no idea what she would do if she left. She feels as if it is too early to retire and too late to start over. “How did she get here?” She muses.

Both Matt and Ellen now recognize what is happening but each were caught off-guard by changes within their organization and market sector.  Each believed that, like the bosses who hired them, they alone would be making the decision when either leave to take a better outside offer, or to retire at a level comfortably higher than where they find themselves now.  Instead, market forces have chosen for them.

I will never forget walking into a huge room where, in one half of the space, cubicles that one held highly-skilled workers had been neatly knocked down, row after row, like harvested corn.  Each time I returned, the inexorable march of job elimination had pushed the border of flattened cubicles a little further across the room, rendering the band of survivors ever smaller in number.  In a year, the plant, once booming with thousands of workers, fell silent altogether and its remaining operations moved out of state.

It is rare that once-valued employees are afforded so obvious a signal that their job is in jeopardy as the ever-closer border of dismantled cubicles, yet the creep of obsolescence and commoditization is very real. I have also become convinced that such a fate need not be ours. There are many who have positioned themselves as industry leaders and work into their early 70’s and beyond for the sheer love of the game.  There are remedies that we can each take to ensure our continued success, even in a crowded, international marketplace.  In addition to being skilled and having a sufficient EQ (emotional quotient) today’s mid-career professional must also develop a robust CQ, or “change quotient.” The choice is ours.

Below are five common career mistakes and five executable strategies you can use to avoid early job obsolescence or a career trajectory that fails to reach its intended altitude. These “half-time” interventions are not difficult. However, they do require a thorough, unflinching, diagnosis of our current career health and to take immediate action before we are either too bruised or too tired to act.

Mistake #1: “Sitting This One Out.”

Quick, what was the first year you used a computer in a serious way? If you are currently in the middle of your career, you may have been in your teens or older before you hopped on a keyboard to work on anything other than your video game score. Marc Prensky called those of us who were not born with a mouse in our hands, “digital immigrants.” We may be quite proficient these days in all things electronic but it is important to keep in mind that the digital world is our “second language.” In contrast, Prensky’s “digital natives” are those who can’t remember ever not using computers and the Internet to communicate.

While we are all learning new digital platforms; ways of communicating and doing business, digital “immigrants” are especially susceptible to declaring a new site, platform or media avenue, a fad, not-relevant to our industry, or my favorites, “unprofessional” or even “unethical.” These biases make us vulnerable to being isolated from where the real action is taking place in our industries, often at the new edges of technology.

Two years ago, a clinical colleague in his early 30’s praised Psychology Today’s online therapy directory while we were catching up over coffee. I had heard of it but was skeptical. Experience had cynically taught me that most paid directories only served to enrich the publisher and a few featured star performers while the hundreds of other professionals, who received little or nothing in the bargain, paid the bills. Entry was typically steep, billed yearly, and usually yielded only a lighter wallet. Reluctantly, then, I decided to try the directory for a month. I am glad I did. Today 30% of my clinical referrals come from the site. It wasn’t hard to see what was going on, the site was heavily populated by digital natives, less so by digital immigrants. The paradigm was shifting, the general rules of the game had changed, and I was late to the party.

A Challenge: The next time you dismiss a new app, site, platform, or digital trend, pause for a moment to ask, “Am I biased against this new offering because of my “immigration status?” Use wisdom, but test out the new opportunity. Don’t be afraid to be the first among your colleagues to see if it is right for you and anticipate a learning curve.

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