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Stop Worrying That You’ve Missed Your Chance at Success — Science Says You Probably Haven’t

You may have to wait a little longer, but we have some tricks for managing the anxiety of the waiting game.

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Career anxiety hits many of us throughout our lives, beginning in the early days of our first jobs and continuing through the frenetic mid-career responsibilities: Am I doing enough? Am I lagging behind other people my age? Why have I not yet achieved “success”?

A study published in the journal Nature suggests we don’t need to worry so much: 90 percent of working adults will experience a “hot streak” in their careers — a period of several years that result in an elevated quality of professional output. These streaks don’t have a time limit, either: They occur at different points for different people. And productivity doesn’t have much bearing on them, either — what defines these hot streaks is the quality of work people produce, not the amount.

So if you haven’t hit your hot streak yet, don’t panic — odds are, yours is coming later in your career. And that’s not because you haven’t been working hard enough.

The Nature study focuses on creative and scientific careers. But the lead study author, Dashun Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, told the New York Times, “the idea that most people hit a hot streak at some point in their career does translate to other professions.”

The study authors also explain that if your hot streak strikes later than your peers, you may feel yourself underestimating your potential. But you shouldn’t. We spoke with Wang, and he gave us his central advice for dealing with career anxiety while you’re waiting (and working) for your hot streak:

Don’t give up

“Keep going. Don’t give up. Your hot streak may be yet to come,” Wang explains. That sense of optimism and hopefulness, as well as faith in your work, can propel you forward towards success: “In other words, there is hope: Each new gray hair, literal or figurative, does not by itself make us obsolete. As long as you keep putting work out into the world, one project after another, your hot streak could be just around the corner.” Wang’s sound advice gets at the heart of career anxiety and the dangerous pull of the desire to give up.

That hope, however, does not necessarily come easily. Here are some concrete pieces of advice on what to do to mitigate your career anxiety as you await your streak.

Identify and accept your anxiety

The crucial first step to dealing with you career anxiety is identifying where exactly it’s coming from. “Anxiety is a normal part of career development, unfortunately — but emotions give us information,” explains Katherine Crowley, M.Ed, an author, therapist who specializes in questions around career, and host of the podcast “My Crazy Office.” Taking a good look at which part of your career is prompting your anxiety is crucial for taking steps to dealing with it.

Set goals

Don’t wait around for change to come — tackling your anxiety demands being proactive on your own behalf. Once you’ve identified which part of your work life is leading to your anxiety, you are in a position to set goals that address the anxiety.

For example, if you are anxious about stagnation in your promotion trajectory, your goal might be to take actions that will increase your likelihood of getting promoted. Crowley instructs us to ask, “What are the actions in my control that I can take to increase the chances of that happening?” She emphasizes that your answer “should be very specific.” Ask yourself if you “need to start networking outside of your company and building more connections, if you need to gain visibility by volunteering for a task force or special presentation or if you need to take a course to build your skillset.” Choose which of these goals advances your career aspirations, and resonates with you, and actively pursue them.

Find a partner in crime

This action partner could be a friend outside of the office who is also trying to advance their career, and with whom you can strategize, Crowley suggests. It might also be a mentor within your industry who can guide your career trajectory. Having someone to talk out your anxieties with can be enormously helpful.

Remember to treat your anxiety holistically

“Anxiety is energy,” Crowley says, and it’s important to channel that energy to minimize its effects on your mental health. She suggests exercise. Apps like Headspace that help with breathing, relaxing and meditating can help calm anxiety, too, and like exercise, can provide you with an immediate source of relief. Remember to take care of yourself as you are working towards your career goals and fighting to remember Wang’s words: “There is hope.”

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