The magic number is 40.
Yes, it is at the age of forty that many smart people realize that they are stuck. I am not saying that smart people don’t get stuck some other time but 40 is the age where I have heard about “getting stuck” a lot more than other ages.
I first wrote about this in my book “Beyond Code” (foreword by my hero Tom Peters, free download) but it’s worth revisiting again.
Here is what I think happens. The first 10-15 years of working life seems like progress for most people although what is typically happening is general upward adjustment of salary that marketplace offers to pretty much anyone that is doing reasonably well. Exceptional people are getting a premium even during that period but the delta between exceptional people and good performers are not big enough to catch anybody’s attention.
It is also during this period that some of the greatest life changes are happening in the life of a professional – first job, marriage, kids, first home buying and so on. Adding to that, there is a constant change in what is required to keep ahead in the marketplace. In summary, there are big changes at work and there are big changes outside of work – there is change everywhere. Unless someone is consciously learning how to deal with change and be a step ahead, activities to keep up with change will seem like making progress.
What most smart people forget is that there is no premium paid to someone adapting to change. If you want a premium you need to adapt AND thrive in the face of change. Adapting to change is mandatory for survival. If you want to stand out, you need to adapt AND thrive.
Let me highlight three specific problems that will
1. Entering the road less traveled
When all this is happening, it is not uncommon for many smart people to forget that the there are lesser number of seats in the upper parts of the pyramid. In the early years of one’s career, the person may be pushed up to the next level after a few years on the job but as they move higher up in the pyramid, they are entering a road less traveled whether they like it or not. Even many smart ones are not comfortable taking the road less traveled.
2. Shining locally, invisible globally
Many smart people forget that there is a world out there beyond where they spend most of their working time. They are so busy and focused internally within the company that they forget it is their responsibility to go out and network outside the company. These people are a classic case of those that shine locally but are invisible globally. Apart from gaining leverage when the time comes, networking outside will help bring fresh outside-in perspective making the person more valuable within the organization.
3. It’s the limelight-induced inertia that hurts
If I have to choose one, this is probably the hardest to detect. a limelight-induced inertia is nothing but a smart person’s voluntary act to continue what he or she is doing because that will keep him or her in the limelight. In other words, they let themselves get “boxed” in the wrong box that will let them move sideways for a long time. They have hit the plateau but they just don’t know it. Then they get comfortable living in that box until something or someone shakes them up big time. Unfortunately many people don’t experience that shaking up until it’s too late.
Of course, there are more than three reasons and I don’t want to write the entire book here but the above three are good places to start probing when you or someone you love have hit a plateau and are looking for a breakthrough.
Photo Courtesy: Chica and Jo on Flickr