Is Career Nostalgia Holding You Back?

It was the summer I got up-close to Joe Biden, future President, and the US Senator representing my home state of Delaware. It was 1984, and I worked as a waitress at Desmond’s, a restaurant in a beach town near where I grew up and that summer I also served our other Senator, Bill Roth, of the Roth IRA.

For a college student, it was a dream summer job. I had my days off to lounge on the beach. In the late afternoons I’d go into work and serve the tourists their frozen drinks and shrimp scampi. The shifts were busy and went fast. The tips were plentiful and all cash. My fellow employees were young, fun and good-looking, and we became a tight-knit crew.

My fellow employees were all young, fun and good-looking, and we became a tight-knit crew.

After work, the entire staff would make our way over to the bar next door to drink and dance to Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner and Prince. A few summer romances blossomed. Those were halcyon days. But as summers always do, it ended. August rolled around and I headed back to school. I returned the following summer hoping for a repeat but the vibe just wasn’t the same.

Have you had times in your career where everything came together perfectly for a while? And do you look back longingly? I’ve experienced a few times since that idyllic summer — smart and funny coworkers, appreciative bosses, important and meaningful projects, great perks. During those times I was happy but probably didn’t relish the moment as much as I could have. It is hard to see how wondrous the moment is until the invisible factors that make it perfect start slipping away — a new boss comes, a valued coworker moves on, budget constraints are implemented, or the economy takes a dip.

During those times I was happy but probably didn’t appreciate them as much as I could have.

I bring this up not to make you nostalgic about the good old days, but to emphasize that after those times have passed we can sometimes stay in a job out of habit and even subconsciously wait for the good times to come back. Like lightning striking the same place twice, this rarely happens. 

That’s why it’s important to recognize as circumstances change around you and make conscious decisions about your own career path rather than “going with the flow."

I once had an epiphany after working for four years at a job in my 20's. It was a great job for me — meaty projects, decent money, generous benefits, growth opportunities and more. The department head was level-headed and kind. My direct boss was smart, outspoken and a true mentor. My closest work friend was a talented graphic designer who was a delightful combination of ditziness, Midwest wholesomeness and intelligence. I loved our little gang. We did great work. I learned a lot, but in all honesty by year four, I had outgrown the job. I stayed because I loved my coworkers.

If I stayed in that job everything would change around me -- and most likely for the worst.

When my graphic designer friend got married and moved away, I was sad. Around the same time, the department leader went out on disability leave and was replaced by an aspiring young woman whose main qualifications for the job were punctuality and that she wore a suit to work everyday. Her controlling approach to management was tiresome. I saw the writing on the wall — the old esprit de corps we’d once enjoyed was not coming back.

What came next, I chalk up to divine intervention. I was sitting at my desk feeling lonesome and bored. I had a sudden revelation that if I didn't take action soon that everything would change around me -- and most likely for the worst. That inspired me to pick up the phone and call the admissions department at the University of Maryland to check on the MBA application deadline. It was two days away. Just under the wire, I applied and got in. A few weeks later I was doing "trust falls" with my fellow classmates at the first-year orientation in the days before classes started.

 That snap decision changed my life. Earning an MBA altered the trajectory of my career, and I was able to go on to have more of those perfect professional moments where everything and everyone came together to accomplish big things -- when work was a thing of beauty.
A few weeks later was doing trust falls with fellow MBA students at the first-year orientation.

If you have experienced times when work was perfect and that's no longer the case, what are you doing now? Don’t wait around to see if those good times return. If you’ve had even one of those moments, thank your lucky stars for it, cherish that you were so blessed, and go out and find your next one.

Don't sit around hoping it will find you, because it won't. Get out and do something… network, find a mentor, go back to school, ask for more responsibility. Whatever you do, don’t wait for it because lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.


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