You have a reasonable job but don't love it, so you wonder if that's all there is for you.
For purposes of this discussion, I'll assume a prototypical situation: the person is 40, has a spouse, two kids, is living a middle-class lifestyle, and is a middle manager in a medium-sized organization.
PERSON: Unless I quit this job, I won't have the time and energy to find something better.
ALTER EGO: You can do it after work, a bit at a time.
PERSON: I wouldn't even know what to explore. Creative careers might be fun but are risky. Besides, I'm not that talented. I'm not willing to expose my family to the risk of having to live in a dump in a bad neighborhood with bad schools so I can play around with creativity. That's what I did when I was at summer camp making lanyards. Not now.
ALTER EGO: Okay, fine, do your creative stuff as a hobby and if it takes off, great--then your risk of making it your career or at least your sideline is lower. Or forget about artsy careers. There are options that pay, like if you got a CPA, became a rainmaker, or started a business.
PERSON: Too risky and I'm not sure enough I'd be that much happier in any of those to justify having to start all over. Plus, I'm not sure I'd make a bigger difference. Just think about Joan who works for Planned Parenthood and while she believes in the cause, her day-to-day is so removed from the cause that she's not exactly orgasmic about her career.
ALTER EGO: Life isn't an orgasm. If that's what you hope to find, you'll be waiting for Godot.
PERSON: I don't expect a lifelong orgasm but I do want to make a bigger difference than I currently am. Yet, somehow starting at some nonprofit--It just doesn't feel likely enough to work.
ALTER EGO: Is your malaise simply internal, having to cope with the reality that life just can't be that great? You have a job that isn't too hard or too easy, which means you're engaged most of the time. The work is ethical, your boss is reasonable, you have at least some job security. After work, you have fun with the kids, with sports, with your friends. So is the answer to be grateful for what you have?
PERSON: It feels too early in my life to settle. That would feel like giving in to wearing golden handcuffs tying me to a mediocre existence for decades. I just can't be like people in earlier generations that did whatever it took to bring in the money. I'd rather live on a lot less in exchange for doing something that didn't feel so meh.
ALTER EGO: But it's not all about you now. You chose to marry, agreed to have kids and gave every indication you'd keep bringing home the bacon. You made a long-term commitment to be responsible to your family.
PERSON: Does that trump the responsibility to myself to live a better-than-humdrum life? Do I really have to be that self-sacrificial work machine, cash cow, beast of burden? I really should have a talk with Sandy (the spouse) to discuss options. Maybe Sandy, who claims to love me, will agree to make greater efforts to contribute to the family income. Maybe Sandy will embrace the wisdom of allowing both of us to explore the full range of career and life options. And wouldn't that be good role-modeling for the kids to see: that the traditional path shouldn't be assumed as the correct one for all people at all stages?
ALTER EGO: That's wishful thinking. More likely, Sandy and maybe even the kids will view you as sophomoric and irresponsible.
PERSON: I've always been a responsible person and want to be but should responsibility trump all other factors?
ALTER EGO: No. Like most factors, it needs to be weighed against other considerations.
PERSON: Maybe this can't be resolved by an internal debate. Maybe I need to chuck it all to give me the space to allow something new into my life. If I hang out in new environments with the sorts of people that intrigue me, maybe something good will emerge that I just couldn't think of in the abstract.
ALTER EGO: That seems too risky. You know a number of people who chucked it all so they could "explore" and years later, still weren't clearer. Remember that guy who quit his accounting job and spent a year traveling to find his place in the world? He had a good time and spent a lot of money but he's still searching. And what about the guy who went to Nepal and came back to become a Buddhist monk! And what about your sister who loves fabric, color, and style, and refused to take more than a part-time survival job hoping that would leave space to find a fashion career. She's now 34 and still working for $12 an hour, no benefits at a boutique--and with huge pressure to close her fat-cat customers or she'll lose even that!
PERSON: Maybe I need to try some low-risk actions, like think about how to tweak my current job. Or consider what I'd do if I took a one-month sabbatical. Or what I might say to Sandy to open a conversation that doesn't devolve into a fight, passive-aggressive withdrawal, or even a divorce threat. I don't want that. Bringing it up scares me.
ALTER EGO: Perhaps instead of telling her what you plan to do, ask what she thinks would be wise. Maybe she'd even get involved in your exploration or new initiative?
PERSON: Maybe, but I'm still scared to bring it up yet until I have a clear, defensible plan.
ALTER EGO: So keep it to yourself for a while. Try some low-risk actions like googling, doing informational interviews, visiting people on the job, volunteering, whatever. Concretize your reflections on those experiences by journaling, blogging, and/or talking to your parents or friends. Maybe some clarity will emerge, and if not, you've lost nothing.
PERSON: Rationally that makes sense but a part of me craves to, for once, be irrational.