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Getting in The Zone, The Goldilocks Zone

Content by Eve Toomey

We all know what the young, blonde, braided fairy-tale heroine Goldilocks gets up to at the Bear family home. Despite being a bit of a brat who thinks nothing about her impact on others (a discussion for another time), her name has become a byword for trying out different things, often extreme opposites, to find the right path forward, the happy medium.

Even science has got in on the act: the Goldilocks Zone is when a planetary surface can support life, it is habitable: Said another way: it’s not too hot, it’s not too cold, it’s just right.

The Goldilocks Zone is what I call the state of being when you have career-zen: you feel that you’re in the right organisation - an organisation that’s in a good state and is a place you want to be - at the right level, at more or less the right salary, working with a good group of people or even striking out on your own, and you’re working on something that interests you or aligns with your values. Sometimes this can happen for a whole five minutes in one’s career. Other lucky people can experience it for longer or more than once.

Finding your Goldilocks Zone is very personal depending on what you want to get out of your work-life.

The first half of our working lives, from 16-ish to 40-ish, we are often preoccupied with any number of things: striving to earn more, get to the next promotion, pay the rent, buy a house, have a car, raise a family, save enough for a rainy day, not get fired/made redundant, gain enough experience to be employable elsewhere, travel the world, go on holiday, have fun, support our hobbies and interests, eat nice food, keep up with our peers, achieve the same or more than our mothers could, put some cracks in the glass ceiling, have a good life or just have the life we want. The road to 40 was all uphill. But it was also exciting, challenging and it felt like we were getting stuff done - this is The Zone for many people even if it is sometimes a struggle.

We should all aim to be in the Goldilocks Zone as much as possible at work, but at minimum our workplaces should be at least ‘habitable’. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to have the basics to sustain our working life: a living wage, decent working conditions, and mutual respect and dignity. That’s about it. The rest - upward progression (if that’s what you want), feeling fulfilled, having fun - are great, but they are bonuses. I know many people who work in really boring jobs or don’t have friends at work yet they have figured out the path to the right Zone that works for them.

It’s actually all about perspective

Porridge too cold?

After 40, our perspectives about work and careers can shift significantly. What was once your Goldilocks Zone might not feel so zen anymore or may not be possible because of how you feel about your work-life balance and how your personal circumstances might have changed.

Chair too soft?

After 50, our perspectives and choices shift again. The health and wellbeing of ourselves, our families and ageing parents can become much more important. Different questions preoccupy us: should I keep dying my hair or embrace the grey and all that comes with it, do I laugh off questions about when exactly I graduated from school to avoid giving away my actual age, do I go for that promotion or raise, do I really want to work all the time anymore, is it OK to not work so hard because it comes so easily to me now, does being divorced change what I prioritise, why do I need to go to bed so early these days, or can I really put up with X or Y for much longer? Promotions, the rat race and paper achievements can seem less important by this point.

Bed too hard?

After 60, most of our choices are often entirely centred on if-or-when we can afford to retire.

The Goldilocks Zone does change location when our own perspectives change.

Instead of trying everything, make informed choices

If you should find yourself ejected from your Goldilocks Zone or discover that the porridge has been cooling for some time, you have some choices to make. The temptation might be to leap into action and try out everything, swinging between extremes just like Goldilocks. It might work out, if you’re lucky, but that’s not really a plan. Instead it’s better to spend some time thinking carefully first so that you can act with more precision and speed later. Take note, blondie.

Look out!

As you think through what you want to do next, there are two important traps to avoid. The first trap is “I stayed too long” and the second is “I jumped too soon”. They look very alike which also makes them hard to avoid.

For people in the second half of their career, the chances of falling into one of those traps might be less likely because they have more experience, but it’s not impossible and there is no shame in it.

Many of us, women in particular, get stuck in the “I stayed too long” trap. It’s a trap that ensnares the Girl Scout type in particular who always wants to do the right thing and the Eternal Optimist who thinks that things are going to work out any day now. They (we?) are the types who persevere year after year, try to be part of the solution and chip away at making progress in any way that we can, but fail to see the signs that it’s never going to change until we find ourselves in a career dead-end and hear too late the “Clang!” as the trap is sprung.

Equally dangerous is the “I jumped too soon” trap which snatches you out of a potentially rewarding career progression or interesting project that gives you loads of useful experience. It’s actually quite common for people who have been working hard and striving to fix problems to give up just when the solution is within striking distance. They have run out of energy - physical, emotional, psychological - and are so frustrated or burnt out that they fail to see the signs of progress, of attitudes changing or of a sudden unclogging. They interview in the background, a form of “quiet quitting”, and hand in their notice just as things are starting to change for the better.

Often the people who have worked hard to find solutions are the ones tasked with participating or driving the change which often can result in their promotion or gaining valuable professional experience that can be applied wherever they go next. But, if they jump too soon, they miss out on the chance to get that experience and be part of the changed organisation after an investment in solutions has paid off.

What does just right look like for me?

It can take a while to figure out where your Goldilocks Zone is now because it might look different than it did before. Take some time to think, talk to people who know you well and whose input you value, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is there actually a solution to the problem I’m facing or do I wish there was a solution when there really isn’t one?

  • How much influence do I have now or could I have in the future to change my situation? How much time have I got to wait around and see if it will change?

  • How much does it impact my work? Can I work around it or live with it? Can I stop caring about it so much?

  • Can I put up with the situation while I don’t have a lot of other options?

  • Can I participate in some way to be part of the solution? Is there some short or long-term upside for me if I find a way to participate?

  • What are my options?

    • Stay and keep engaged in the struggle to improve things

    • Stay and accept the limitations are what they are, make the best of it

    • Stay and let it slowly destroy my soul

    • Blow this pop stand and quit today

    • Carefully plan my exit and next move

Only you can judge what is the smartest move for you. There are a number of obvious considerations as you figure out which is the viable option for you:

  • What is your financial situation? That is, you do/don’t have savings to tide you over if you need it, you do/don’t have dependents?

  • What is your local economy and job market like?

  • What skills do you have and what skills do you want to get?

  • What level do you work at or want to work at? Would you rather take it down a gear and do a less demanding job or are you looking for a new challenge?

  • How confident do you feel about making a change?

  • What is your general health like and what impact the situation is having on your overall health and mental health now?

  • What age are you and does that matter? We wish it wasn’t true, but it is a cruel reality that despite legislation and other efforts to keep a lid on ageism it’s still very much an issue.

  • Who else do I need to talk to before making a change? Who can help me look at the situation and help me think through what I can or should do next?

The key is to be realistic, look at your options and aim for the right one for you. However, one thing is the same at any point in your career: if work is making you miserable, it’s time to go. Beat a path to your personal Goldilocks Zone stat and try again.

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