When I went to college, I had a very vague sense of what I wanted to do with my life. I had ideas of where I could go, who I could work for, and what my work life might be like. I knew that I would be studying journalism and what that would entail (mostly I knew I wouldn’t be making a ton of money and would probably have to live in a big city). And I knew that the possibilities, though expensive and scary, were endless.
Most college graduates know the possibilities are endless (that’s why we all went to college, right?) and since some are ready to tackle their future headfirst, they do. There are people I went to college with who are working wonderful jobs where they love what they do, even if it isn’t their “dream job,” and others who are working in their dream roles. So it made me wonder: what happens after that? If I’m struggling to figure out my next steps just because there’s no syllabus or graduation plan for life, how are my peers content in a job where they do the same thing for months and years on end, even if it is their ideal position?
Not everyone is going to get hired for their dream job at their dream company right away; some people will end up working for years until they find a position they truly love. I feel like I’m one of those people right now, so it’s easier for me to understand myself when I begin to feel uninspired, unmotivated, and stagnant.
But what happens if you do get your dream job? How do you even begin to tackle feelings of a plateau if you’re working in the role you always wanted? How do you work through it and keep your life moving? The first step is going to be to give yourself the same grace you would if you were “trusting the process.” But you may also need to figure out where you really want to be professionally and how to get there. I spoke with a few experts to help you work through your professional plateau.
- Figure out why you've hit a plateau (or if you're just burnt out)
I imagine hitting a professional plateau when you’re in the job of your dreams is more disappointing and disheartening than anything else. You've spent years networking and trying to gain the right skills to even get your foot in the door, let alone actually get the job you have, and now you’re starting to ask yourself, “Is that it?”
The first thing you need to do when you realize you’ve hit a professional plateau is to figure out why it happened.
“It’s important to first understand if your plateau is driven by something internal or external,” Jim Pendergast, senior vice president of altLINE Sobanco, says. “An internal plateau happens when you’re no longer feeling challenged by your role, while an external one might be the realization that there’s little upward mobility left at this organization.”
If you don’t immediately know whether you’re being internally or externally let down, take some time to sit down and realign yourself with any specific goals and values you have. This may require you to journal, or to have some hard conversations with the people around you.
Journaling or talking with trusted peers will give you time to truly think and reflect on what you want out of your job and your life. Do you just want to help people? Do you care about the salary you’re making? How does the role you have fit with what you want out of your job? Though others may disagree, as long as you find value in what you’re doing, it’s worth doing — even if that’s only making sure you have food on the table.
Regardless of why you’ve hit a plateau in your professional career, please remember that nothing in life is perfect. Even the most exciting things we do will sometimes have their more boring moments.
“Whether [you’re] working at an animal sanctuary or editing a fashion magazine, even your dream job will have extra work and hard times,” Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of OnlineDegree.com says. “Accept that it’s all a part of the bigger picture to achieve your goals.”
- Stop the boredom and expand your skill set
If you start to hit a professional plateau, it may be because you’re feeling bored or unchallenged. If this is true for you in your current position, there are a couple of different things you can do.
Ask your boss for new tasks or projects.
There’s always a new project or task that can be done within the job you already have. See how you can go above and beyond for a client you’re working with or if there are any tasks your boss could use your expertise for.
“Your career is as dynamic as you make it,” says Kate Tudoreanu, a career coach who works with people in their 20s and 30s. “Create your own projects [and propose] them to your manager or other key stakeholders.”
If it turns out there aren’t any projects that your managers or bosses want you to work on, see if you can help someone else. There’s bound to be at least one person who could benefit from everything you have to offer.
It’s important to keep yourself engaged in and connected with the job you have. I find that once I’ve created a division between myself and the work I should or could be doing, it’s difficult to break it back down and refocus.
Learn a new skill.
With all the changes in the world right now, you’re probably sick of hearing about how important it is to learn new things to make yourself stand out. Well, not only is it important to make yourself stand out, but it’s also a good way to keep yourself motivated and interested in the job you’re doing (or want to be doing).
“Right now, I’m taking a photography course to learn how to use artificial light in food photography,” says Elizabeth Thomson, food blogger at I Heart Vegetables and professional food photographer. “It’s different than anything I’ve learned before, so it feels new and exciting, but it’s something that will help me continue to grow my business.”
If you’ve hit a point in your career where you’re feeling stuck, turn it into a great opportunity to learn something you’ve always been interested in. Go take that floral arrangement course. Learn how to knit. Take the communications course and improve your skills (you can never be too good at communicating). Even the most mundane course can have a positive impact on how you view your job and future career goals.
Max Woolf, a career expert at ResumeLab, says that it’s also important to make it a point to upskill on a routine basis. He suggests absorbing as much industry-related information as you can. This could include TED Talks, industry articles, and online courses related to the job you’re doing, or the one you wish you were doing.
“Once you’ve created a framework that lets you devour knowledge on autopilot,” Woolf says, “You’ll rake up new skills that might potentially help you transition into a more exciting and challenging role.”
And, even if you don't get a more exciting or challenging role immediately, at least you learned some super cool stuff.
- Set boundaries and make sure you're taking time away from your job
I think a big reason that people hit work plateaus and feel burnout is that they aren’t taking time for themselves and creating the boundaries they need to. The truth is, you may be perfectly content with your job and are just feeling overworked. Don’t feel pressured by articles like this to just up and quit your job if you don’t think you need to (personal reflection is the only way to know if that’s what’s best for you).
“It’s also fine to not want to make any changes in your career,” Tudoreanu says. “Sometimes you have to find things outside of your work to strive for, like hobbies or community service.”
Maybe it’s time to write that book you’ve always wanted to, or start to learn a new language. You can even take enough time away from work to spend time volunteering. Whether you’re in love with what you do on a day-to-day basis or just tolerate it, taking this time away from work is incredibly important.
“I feel so lucky to do something I love as a job,” Thomson says. “The challenge is setting boundaries so I’m not working all the time. I try to disconnect from my laptop in the evenings and on weekends and I’ve looked for other hobbies outside of food and technology, which help me recharge.”
For a lot of people, taking a short vacation is the reset they need to get their head back in the game. I know that long vacations are difficult to come by for some, since getting time off work and the finances to make it happen can prove to be near impossible, but even a couple of days can be enough to get you back on track.
Just find a hobby or activity that gets you out of your work mindset. And no, that hobby does not need to make you money. You need to spend time for yourself, even if it’s just a 10-minute walk outside.
- Find a mentor (or just someone to connect with)
Do you ever wish that you had someone outside of your friends, family, and coworkers to talk to about work or things going on in your industry? Most of us do. If you’re feeling burnt out, or think that you may be hitting a plateau, maybe it’s time to find a mentor (if you haven’t got one already).
Find someone you don’t work with, but who knows your industry. You’re going to want to connect with someone who’s able to answer your questions and give you advice that’s impartial to the situations you’re in.
“Your professors might be able to connect you to an alum who graduated a few years before you,” Rachel Perkins, founder of Venturesome, a podcast and blog about all things professional, says. “A mentorship relationship can be informal. [Y]ou can email and ask one or two very specific questions or ask to get on a phone call or Zoom to get their insights.”
When it comes to finding a mentor, it’s also important to know who you’re reaching out to. Some people are going to respond better to a more formal approach, rather than informal.
- Make a point to practice mindfulness
In addition to finding a mentor to connect with, it’s also important to keep your mental health in check and take care of yourself. One of the best ways you can do this is to keep a journal.
“I also recommend jotting down a few things you learn in your new job every week,” Perkins says. “You might jot down a reminder on something you keep making a mistake on or a bit of insight a coworker shared with you.”
Not only can a journal be a fantastic place to write down any lessons learned, but you also now have a completely safe place to vent after a bad day at work or at home.
Let your journal be a safe space for the good days as well! Write down all the things that made you happy and helped you find joy in what you did at work. Did a coworker compliment the work you did? Did you have a client reach out to you personally? Write those things down. It’s nice to have something positive to look back through when you’re having a bad day.
Another easy way to practice mindfulness and get yourself in the right headspace is to meditate or spend a few minutes every morning in silence. During that time, you can come up with a gratitude list and think about the parts of your life that bring you peace. I would also take this time to think about the fact that you’re where you once wished to be. Remember that when things get hard.
As with every other job-related topic, nothing is one-size-fits-all. Any situation I’m facing is going to vary from something that you’re facing; the most I can do is give you advice (both from me and those with much more experience) on how to work through it.
The most important thing to remember is that sometimes plans change. The job you wanted as a child may not be the same job you want (or have) now and the same goes for the job you think you wanted (or want, for all my current college students) once you graduated. Just be gentle with yourself and actually take the time to understand what you’re feeling.
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