Over the past seven years, I have interviewed over 100 high performers who found fulfillment and joy after achieving significant goals. Although most of these interviewees were athletes, in many ways the life trajectory of an athlete is just a compressed version of other high-performance careers. The insights from those interviews apply to any career-driven individual who is left wondering what’s next when a career changes fundamentally. This is the point where you will need to pivot from facing your past to facing your future.
Each interviewee went through what I call a messy middle—a period of discomfort between experiencing your personal best and figuring out your personal next. If you are just beginning to make this pivot, you might feel that you’ll be able to avoid the messy middle through sheer will and drive. But although you can intellectually prepare, it is impossible to know what the emotional impact of this period of discomfort will be.
Initially you will probably experience a phase of bliss—a feeling of being free from the intensity and overwhelming responsibility of working toward your goals. After working so hard for so long, this feeling of freedom is well-deserved. But here’s the thing: your mindset has been shaped by challenge and achievement, and the absence of these elements during the messy middle may be a core reason for why you might be feeling off-kilter.
Finding new, meaningful pursuits, and becoming good at them, takes both time and patience. So, first allow yourself to unravel the loss that you may be experiencing by asking these four questions.
- Have I lost a dream? Most people leave a career without accomplishing everything they set out to achieve. When a long-sought-after dream disappears, so, too, can your motivation.
- Have I lost my daily routine? Your daily structure was a stabilizing framework in your life. You always knew where you needed to be and what you needed to work on. A newfound feeling of open-ended choices may be disorienting for you.
- Have I lost interaction with like-minded individuals? Daily interaction with other goal-oriented people fueled the flame that burns inside you. Your team members supported your goals and represented a secure base for you. But when you are off the “team,” this loss is felt keenly.
- Have I lost recognition? Everyone wants to feel that they are adding value to the world. But when you are in that messy middle, it’s the feeling of no longer being relevant that is scary.
Once you are aware of the underlying fundamentals of your situation, you can make a plan—something you are probably already good at. Using the questions above as a springboard, here are some strategies that will address these perceived losses.
- Dreams: Dreams take time to incubate so your challenge here is to move away from results—I need to find a dream—and toward curiosity. Ask yourself what you dreamt about before you became a focused high performer. Journal those thoughts and sit on them. Repeat this process for a few weeks and then pick a time to review everything you’ve written down to see if there is a thread you want to follow.
- Structure: Add structure back into your life by setting regular times to wake up, exercise, and eat meals. Avoid spending endless hours on social media or video games and try something new, whether that’s cooking or reading regularly. Rebuilding structure creates positive and forward momentum that contributes to well-being.
- Interaction: Connection to old friends is important but if they are still deeply involved in your former pursuit, spending too much time getting updates on their activities will distract you from your future. Instead, think about what type of relationships you want in your future. Are they based on discovery, well-being, or a challenge you never thought you would have time for? Figure out your wants and write them down.
- Recognition: Make yourself relevant. You may not be the star of the show, but someone or something does need you. Keep an eye out for those in need and take the steps to help them.
These strategies will help to untangle the messy middle for you, but they will not eliminate it. Reinvention takes work. Tackle it like you have with past challenges and over time you will discover that instead of thinking about your future you are living it.