Working on Meaning and Purpose: Mid-career Shifts and Decisions

Posted by: Sally Halliday on October 19, 2012 4:00 pm

Working on Meaning and Purpose: Mid-career Shifts and Decisions

Is it me? Is it the job? Do I stay for the security or should I do something completely different? Do I even have a career?

Questions like these are the ones I most often hear from clients who are in mid-career, and I can often sense, if not see, the tears welling up, the anger held in the jaw, and the head slumped with embarrassment. Career counselling for those who are unhappy at the work they have invested in for over a decade have a lot on their minds. How can we support a client who feels the panic of time running out, and who says that they feel like they have never even made a real career decision before? And what if I leave, or I stay, and I never get to realize my dreams?

My teaching and private practice work with mid-career shifters was a natural draw for me, having made my own career change from journalism to counselling. My academic research and current practice focuses on mid-life changes and transitions, providing a lens that helps me support the deeper questions about life and career, values and meaning, and how to realize our full potential before we die.

So the first re-frame I might offer to a client who often say they haven’t really made a career decision before is that you did, indeed, make decisions before, ones that were career-oriented, and based on the influences and information that were relevant then. And then to validate that as we get to know ourselves more through our work and lives, we have the opportunity to truly make a conscious decision.  William Bridges (2004) puts it in another way, saying that earlier on in our careers, the focus is on competency, on proving ourselves. It may be to please a parent, or to just get out of the house, but proving our worth in the world is important. Later on, according to Bridges, job shifts and career changes are more about meaning and purpose.  The way I hear this from a client is that the job itself used to be important, or the specific company (status) or the profession itself.  Now, this same person is more interested in how they are working, not so much what the job is. They are curious about who their colleagues are, what the company stands for, or how he or she will get along with the boss. The definition of job satisfaction has changed. And there may be a yearning, as Carl Jung discovered, and David Whyte (2009) articulates so well, that as we age, we want to be more authentic, and be congruent in ourselves. As a counsellor, I can engage them to become more aware of whether they want to bring more of themselves into the workplace, which may mean asking for what they want. If congruence is about aligning our inner selves more with the outer world, then certainly our work is one way we can express that.

Which brings me to values. And goals.

In my experience, people in their mid-30’s and beyond may feel embarrassed about feeling as stuck as they feel. I’ve learned to stop asking questions about their goal for counselling during the first session (unless it’s obvious that the client wants to clarify it). Why? Because often the sense of panic and embarrassment clouds the question, and they usually say they don’t know, they just know that they are not happy at work.

What I trust now is that the real answer to that goal question becomes clear when we do a values clarification activity. It’s often during this exercise about values that we really get somewhere about what is not working well, what really matters now as it relates to meaningful work, and how that can clarify the goal and even the decision to be made. More details about values in a future blog post.  

As career counsellors, we all know that a lot of our job, in addition to helping clients to evaluate or re-evaluate key values, transferable skills, interests, personality, labour market information etc. is to help clients to expand their current perspective so that they have more genuine confidence and resilience to make those next career moves.

With that in mind, let’s get back to what mid-career shifters come in with and where to start. I begin  with four questions I provide to clients. These questions were crafted some years ago with my colleague, Howard Askwith, and I use these questions with individual clients in my private practice. Often, I send a sheet of the questions below ahead of our first session.

  1. What are you questioning right now, in terms of your career?
  2. What is it that you want to re-configure in your work life?
  3. What, if any, decision do you want to make?
  4. What do you hope to learn through this process that will help you with the above?

So, why these questions, and what do they achieve for clients?

What are you questioning right now, in terms of your career?

The purpose is to provide some time to reflect and focus on the real question. After working with mid-career shifters for awhile, I used to wonder if I really understood their issue, and instead of diving into clarifying their key values and transferable skills, if we could slow the process down a little, to allow them to think out loud about what they are really asking in their cloud of dissatisfaction.

The answers range from: Should I stay or should I go? What do I want to do for the next 25 years? Should I just work for the money, and look for meaning elsewhere? Should I make a complete career change? What makes me deeply fulfilled?

What is it that you want to re-configure in your work life?

People sometimes ask what the word ‘re-configure means. It means re-arranging something. This question is another way of asking the first question.  The ‘work life’ language also gives permission to talk about life beyond a job.

Clients most often do clarify more what is at stake, both the tradeoffs and the deeper desires: e.g. “I want to travel more”, “I want more time to look after my dying father”, “I want to focus on desired projects more”, ”I want to be more true to my values”.

What, if any, decision do you want to make?

Here we are giving permission to NOT make a decision, and to live in the ambiguity of the question. And, this may be the work we are doing right now, rather than assuming the work is to prepare for a job search. Larry Cochran (1991) talks about wavering as a key and necessary element of the decision-making process.  His 4-part model reframes decision-making and decisions as a process we work through, as well as an outcome we achieve. The process engages us to actively step in from being an observer to a full participant: to imagine alternatives, to act out scenarios, to research possibilities, in order to clarify what is at stake and what matters. The idea of wavering, then, becomes a positive and essential part of decision-making.  So, this question sets me up to support clients in their confusion and ambiguity.

Some answers to the question indicate the client is getting clear about what the focus of our work will be. For example “I want to create a plan. “ “I want to be ready to take the first step.” “I want to figure out if I can find new purpose in my current field, or I will need to start fresh.” “Should I change my lifestyle?”

Sometimes the person is on medical leave, or they’ve been laid off, and they begin to articulate that this is, indeed, a transition point that provides some time to make a decision.

What do you hope to learn through this process that will help you with the above?

The question is not a direct goal question, but it is meant to focus the work, and it may be revised during our work together. 

After discussing their questions, which often leads to further clarifying the work that will be useful for them now, and in consideration of time and budget, we have some clarity about outcomes. Sometimes the heart of the work is to clarify what is at stake, to identify the tradeoffs, to realize how there may be a values disconnect now, and to re-connect with what purpose means today.

I ask clients to give me the sheet with their written answers. On the back of the sheet is a final question, about what they have accomplished, which they have an opportunity to see and answer during the final session or at the end of a workshop. Often it’s insightful for people to see where they have come since that first day, or first hour, realizing that they have become more clear, and prepared to make a decision about whether to stay or go, to make a complete career change or to move into a different job role, and that, either way, this process takes time to reflect, research and act.

By guest blogger Sally Halliday, M.A., CCC, RCC

Originally posted on the Career Counsellors Chapter blog:


Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. (2nd ed.).  Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Cochran, L. (1991). Life-shaping decisions. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Whyte, D. (2009). The three marriages: Re-imagining work, self and relationship. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

4 comments on “Working on Meaning and Purpose: Mid-career Shifts and Decisions”

  1. Excellent process and questions, Sally! I am using a very similar approach when working with clients on their (self) leadership development based on the Reiss Motivation Profile. In this process together with the client we identify what motivates the client, where they draw their energy from and how this might align with requirements in their personal or professional life. The details and potential results of this process are best described by a case study that I presented in an article that is available at
    I’d love to engage in further conversations about this in the future.

  2. Linda Thompson says:

    Good morning Winifred – Like you, I also am currenting an contributing author to this CCPA Blog site and am sharing stories concerning my work. See the Emerging Field of Psychotraumatology in Canada which I hope will satisfy some of your curiosity. Have a great day. Regards Linda

  3. It’s true. People are seeking meaningful work and life when they reach mid life. Some are triggered by shocks in life. It’s an very interesting topic. Thank you for bringing it up here. I am curious to know more about your work.

  4. Linda Thompson says:

    Good morning Sally – welcome aboard guest blogger. I enjoyed your article which triggered some memory recall – my first high school counsellor in 1964 that was humorous and my second mid-life professional career counsellor in 1985 (Athabasca University), which was fabulous. She affirmed my transferable professionally learned skills sets with tons of encouragement for me to pursue my dream. I needed to enter the world of academia to obtain a bachelor’s degree at the time. The interview and assessment process with her was so good, tasl orientated and positive that I went on to obtain bachelor to PhD degrees – all at-a-distance. She launched me well and it was not a lengthy career counselling process (one interview session. I was most appreciative of her focus on the task at hand – assessment of my already achieved professional status and skill sets learned, and then, she took me into what was available concerning available on-line degree opportunities which at that time was limited, there was only one university – Athabasca.

    What I appreciated most was the degree of respect for my prior learnings, assessment and transformation into credits towards the degree program I was searching for. Because I was a mid-life professional, she not only treated me with respect, she was very cognizant of my other roles in life. Not a lot of paper-pencil activities that I had to do on my part – mostly, the university assessment of transferable credits towards what I wanted to accomplish and a way to get there. Times have changed but the process she used with me still seems duable for other mid-lifers in career transition today – the only difference is there are tons of choices now.

    My suggestion – keep this process succinct for the days and times change rapidly and time is of the essence and very valuable. Hope my flash from the past, successful mid-life career transition story, which was very positive for me, is encouraging to hear. Thanks & Regards Linda

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *