Getting unstuck in your life and career

[11/20/22: Thanks for the feedback! The current version is in this Google doc, so please comment there moving forward]

[11/9/22: This is a rough draft of what I hope will be the first chapter of the book I am writing. A lot of this material will be familiar to long-time blog readers, and I’ve linked to previous posts where relevant, but the goal of the book is to pull my thoughts together into a more coherent form to help readers go on a journey from feeling stuck to finding a way forward that fits them better.

I’d love your feedback on the ideas I share below, either in the comments or by email – what speaks to you? What doesn’t work for you? Would you be interested in seeing more like this? I’m taking to heart the idea of doing the work in public, as I would rather get early feedback than spend months writing and then find out nobody cares. This may all change in the final version (I’m a little iffy on the AEIOU process I drafted at the end), but tell me if this is useful so I know if I’m heading in a helpful direction.]

Do you feel stuck?

It’s so frustrating, right? You are pushing with all your might, working as hard as you can, and you just aren’t making any progress.

And you can’t figure out what you’re doing wrong. You’re doing what has always worked for you, the actions that previously got you into college, that got you jobs, that got you promoted.

From the outside, you seem like you have it all, like you’ve “made it”. You’re on the track that other people dream of, with the job you’ve worked so hard to get, at a company that excited you when you joined it.

And yet, you’re unhappy. You feel exhausted and drained at the end of each day. Your life feels like an endless stream of tasks and problems to handle, and you’ll never get it all done. It’s like Tetris – each time you go up a level, the game speeds up and sends more at you, and eventually you get drowned in pieces and lose.

But losing doesn’t feel like an option. So you keep getting up each day, looking at your inbox and messages, and clearing problems one by one, constantly pushing uphill like Sisyphus.

Because what else can you do? You can’t say no to the work – this is your job! Your manager and your peers need you to do this. And you can do each individual task, and maybe you even like the work, but there’s just too much of it.

You dream of something different, but you don’t know what. You’re just tired of feeling this way, but you don’t see how it can be any different.

I used to be you, working 8am to midnight each day, drowning in emails and meetings and tasks, and feeling miserable. Eventually, I came to see how I was keeping myself stuck because I had given myself so many rules to follow that I didn’t have any options. I have since created a life that I love, and am here to share what I’ve learned along the way, as I have shared those learnings with my clients as an executive coach to leaders who feel the same way you do.

The advice in this book is simple, but not easy. It has all been offered before, and so it may sound like platitudes. When it comes to losing weight, we all know the answer “Eat better, and exercise”, but how many of us actually do it? I often tell my clients that nothing will change as a result of us talking; their lives will only change if they take what we talked about and do something different. The same applies to the advice in this book; nothing will happen because you read this book, unless you do something different with what you read.

Your life will change when you change your life. My hope is that by laying out what has worked for me and for my clients, you will feel more empowered to take the first steps of questioning what is really keeping you stuck, and trying one experiment to see how things could be different. After you take those first steps, you’ll hopefully see a result, and once you break the stuckness, you’ll start to see more possibilities. Or at least that’s how it worked for me.

Do I have everything figured out? No, of course not. Each step on my journey has revealed more vistas of future possibilities. But I no longer feel intimidated by what’s ahead, as I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and appreciate where I am right now.

Let’s start with the key principles that will guide you in this journey.

The only thing you control is your next action

That may not seem like much, but let me point out why you don’t control other things:

  • You can’t change the past. It’s already happened, and nothing you do will change that. If you don’t like what happened, you can look for somebody to blame, or you can find excuses, or you can spend hours beating yourself up and wishing you had done things differently. But nothing will change the past; all you can do is learn from what happened, and take different actions going forward.
  • You can’t control the future. The world is too uncertain and complex for you to know that the actions you take will lead to the future you want, no matter how good your plan is. I had great plans for how 2020 would unfold, and the Covid pandemic destroyed them.
  • You can’t control others. You can try to influence and persuade others, but their actions are likely a response to their experiences (and have nothing to do with you).

So the only thing you actually control is taking your next action with purpose. And that can be enough if you are conscious and intentional about your actions, and notice when your learned set of behaviors are no longer serving you, aka…

What got you here won’t get you there

Marshall Goldsmith’s book title captures a common phenomenon, where we learn a set of habits that bring us success, and keep doing them even when our situation changes. To navigate the next set of challenges requires letting go of what once worked and learning a new set of skills and actions. It is incredibly difficult to let go of the mindsets and actions that have brought you success for decades, and yet those mindsets are keeping you stuck.

A few common patterns I experienced myself (and often see in my clients):

  • I must solve problems myself. If I ask for help, it will appear as if I’m incompetent or don’t know what I’m doing, so I must figure it out. This mindset leads to great success in school and early in one’s career when performance is evaluated on an individual basis. However, as we take on more and bigger challenges, it can also quickly lead to overwhelm, because we “can’t” let go of any of the problems and trust other people to solve them.
  • Working harder is the answer. We may have learned that effort is rewarded as a child, where activities like sports and music taught us that putting more work in led to a proportional amount of success – if you practice more, you get better. So when we feel stuck, we work harder because we believe that working hard will inevitably lead to proportional results. Unfortunately, the world is often far more nonlinear and non-intuitive than we imagine (a central teaching of systems thinking), so working hard on the wrong things is ineffective and may even reinforce the current state of affairs. So working hard, instead of being the answer, instead leads us to burnout, because the harder we work, the further we get behind.
  • I can’t say no. Saying yes to my manager has brought me great success so I have to keep doing it. Saying no to others may make people feel like I’m not collaborative, and may lead to hard conversations. So I say yes to everything, loading myself down with more and more commitments until I can no longer reliably deliver.

Each of those behaviors was the “right” answer for the situation in which I learned them, and they drove my success. And what I’ve since learned is…

There is no single right answer

We are trained by school to believe there is a “right” answer that we can find if we only work hard enough or are smart enough. But classes and problem sets are constrained to focus on a finite set of knowledge, where the domain is limited enough that there can be a single right answer. In the real world, we are often struggling with multiple “right” answers, and can’t figure out how to manage them all. For instance, let’s take me as I write these words:

  • The “right” answer for my coaching business is to work more, and take on more clients, so I can make more money.
  • The “right” answer for my family is to spend more time with my kids and my wife, rather than being distracted by work.
  • The “right” answer as an author is to spend more time writing, withdrawing from other activities so I can focus on this book.
  • The “right” answer for my body is to spend more time exercising, sleeping, eating better, and resting so that I can build long-term physical health.
  • The “right” answer for my mental health is to spend more time meditating and journaling, and giving myself more time to recharge rather than overschedule myself.
  • The “right” answer as a social being is to spend more time with friends who help me feel like I belong, so that I feel less lonely and stressed.
  • The “right” answer as a citizen is to spend more time getting out the vote, working on social causes, and contributing to my community.

And I could go on and on – I “should” also be keeping up with the news, and reading more books, and cooking more meals at home, and learning new skills. It’s a little daunting because…

You can’t do it all

As the last point illustrates, there is far too much to do, and there’s no possible way to do all the things I “should” do. And yet I keep getting tripped up by considering each of those realms in isolation, and beating myself up for not doing all that I “should” in each area.

The constraint, of course, is time and attention. I can’t do it all because there’s only so many hours in the day. Each individual commitment feels attainable and manageable, but in aggregate, they far exceed my capacity.

I can already hear you, the reader, saying “But Eric, you don’t understand, I really do have to do it all – I can’t let any of these things go!” I once felt that way. But trying to do it all led me to working 100+ hour weeks and burning myself out so badly that I was sick in bed for a week.

That experience convinced me that it was time to break one of my long-standing “rules” that “I must do everything my manager asks of me”. That rule had served me well in the past, but was destroying my mind and body in that situation. Breaking the rule had consequences as half my team was taken away, and my performance rating was slashed which meant I lost my chance at promotion. But I ended up being willing to accept those consequences to choose a more sustainable life for myself. In other words…

You have a choice

Reiterating the first point that the only thing you control is your next action means that with each action you take, you have a choice. You can decide to take responsibility for that choice, or you can let your actions be determined by others. Many people feel they can’t do what they want because their manager wouldn’t like it, or their parents wouldn’t accept it, or people might make fun of them, or their friends might not want to associate with them. And yet that is still a choice to defer to what others want of you.

Victor Frankl, who wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning on his experiences living moment to moment in a WWII concentration camp where he could die at any moment, had a wonderful quote in this vein: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That space is where we have a choice, to decide whether to just react as we have always done previously, or to choose a new option that might open up new possibilities of growth.

I’m not saying you have easy choices. There can be difficult consequences, and your past choices (or a lack of privilege in a biased society) may constrain you in real and unfortunate ways. If you stretched financially to buy a house beyond your means, and the economy enters a downturn, the mortgage will constrain your actions – you might have to stay in a job you hate because it’s well-paying and stable, or if you choose to leave, it might affect your ability to keep the house. There’s no good choice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t leave your job – you just can’t leave your job AND keep paying the mortgage.

I am asking you to decide what matters most to you in life. What tradeoffs are you willing to make within the reality you face? What will take priority over everything else? In my example from above, I still struggle with wanting to do all the “right” things, but I am learning to prioritize my family first, then myself, and then my clients. I feel deeply uncomfortable putting my self-care above my clients and my business, as “hustle culture” glamorizes delighting customers by going above and beyond. And yet I have learned that if I’m not taking care of myself, my clients are not getting the best experience, which harms my business in the long run.

It’s far more common for people to say “I have to do all my work, and I have to take care of my family” and then they wonder why they are burning out. They have chosen to value others over themselves, and the consequences of that are burnout, especially when many companies will not set boundaries and will constantly ask for more from its employees. And yet they don’t realize they can make a different choice, one where they set clear boundaries for themselves and don’t automatically devalue their own well-being. But to do that would mean that they have to…

Confront Your Reality

We often cling to the way things “should” be rather than confront reality as it is.

  • My manager “should” look out for me and support me in difficult situations.
  • My coworker “should” want to work with me and not stomp on my turf.
  • My company “should” look out for my well-being and make sure I’m not overworked.
  • My spouse “should” take care of me, and never hurt my feelings.

Whenever I hear one of these “should” statements from my clients, I ask them “What evidence do you have that things are actually that way?” Most of the time, they will sheepishly admit they have no evidence. They can describe in great detail what the other person will actually do that is at odds with what they think they “should” do e.g. “My manager is going to get involved and micromanage the details, when I wish they would just stay out of the way and let me handle it”.

My next question is then “So why are you surprised or disappointed by this behavior?” If it happens every time, there shouldn’t be any surprise; you’re not surprised when you let go of an object, and it falls to the ground. But we want people to be who we want them to be, rather than accept them as they are.

There’s a Buddhist idea that suffering is the gap between our expectations and reality, so the suffering comes because we get attached to how we want things to be, rather than accept reality as it is. When we update our expectations to be more accurate, we are less surprised and more calm, because then we are not constantly disappointed by the other person’s behavior, and can take actions in that reality to get the results we want. It’s never about the other person, because…

You are the obstacle

Jerry Colonna has a wonderful coaching question: “How are you complicit in creating the circumstances you say you don’t want?” He’s not blaming you, but he’s asking you to reflect on how your actions contribute to the situation. Until you take responsibility for your own actions, and recognize you can make a different choice, you will continue to be stuck.

To clarify, there may be bigger obstacles than yourself. I write this as a white-passing man in America, who was brought up with financial security and the resources to get into a great college and to launch my career. I recognize that my privilege has sheltered me from having to face external obstacles, so of course I am more focused on the internal obstacles. I do believe these principles apply regardless of your relative privilege, as similar concepts are cited by Shellye Archambeau in her book Unapologetically Ambitious and in It’s About Damn Time, by Arlan Hamilton. But I am not the right person to write about how to face structural racism or economic inequality, and I advise you to find another book if that’s what you are looking for. This book is for people who are realizing that they are getting in their own way, and want to do something about it.

As an example, most leaders know what they should do – they’ve read all the advice, and have learned the best practices. But they’re not doing them, because there is something in their own head getting in the way. Kegan and Lahey call this Immunity to Change, the unconscious commitments to how we do things today that prevent us from meeting the conscious commitments that we say we want. A startup CEO told me yesterday that “I know I should delegate more, and I know I need to give this constructive feedback, but I just don’t know why I don’t do it.”

Here’s why – it is scary! He needs to let go of the mindsets and reactions that once served him. His body and mind has learned that he gets great results when he dives in and solves the problem himself – it got him good grades, it got him promotions as an individual contributor, etc. And to do the new things, he needs to let go of those previously successful behaviors, and start over with new behaviors that he doesn’t know how to do well. He has to go back to being a beginner. Of course his unconscious mind is resisting that path! But growth requires doing something new and uncomfortable.

Jerry Weinberg has a wonderful illustration of this in his book Becoming a Technical Leader, where he writes that we think growth looks like the left graph, where it’s a steady linear up-and-to-the-right growth. But what growth actually looks like is more like the right graph, where we learn a new set of skills, plateau in performance, then fall backwards in performance by letting go of those skills and learning a new set of skills to reach the next plateau. It never feels “right” to perform worse, but that unwillingness to let go of their current performance level is what keeps people stuck.

The upside of realizing you are your own biggest obstacle is that you can do something about it! You can choose your next action differently, confront your reality as it is and let go of trying to do it all, and decide what you will prioritize.

The rest of this book is a guide to using these principles to guide you out of your stuckness, and create a life that is more aligned with your true self. Taking inspiration from design thinking, the rough outline is to:

  • Assess (aka Confront Your Reality and You Are The Obstacle). Observe the reality that you’re stuck in. Test the rules, test what consequences there are to actually doing something different, and understand your actual constraints. You will come to realize that “it doesn’t have to be this way” and “what got you here won’t get you there” (thanks, Marshall Goldsmith!) and “to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (Admiral Stockdale).
  • Experiment (aka There is No Single Right Answer). I trained as a scientist, and think the scientific method is a great process with which to learn. Come up with hypotheses of how you want your life to be different, and try a small, safe experiment to see whether that might work for you. Assess the results, learn from the experiment, and come up with a new hypothesis. Alternatively, if you’re a Lean Startup fan, this is another way of describing the Build, Measure, Learn loop.
  • Iterate (aka You Control Your Next Action). As you experiment, you’ll gain more clarity on what actually matters to you, and what works for you. Keep doing more of the things that energize you, and less of the things that drain you.
  • One Thing aka Focus (aka You Can’t Do It All). Stop saying Yes. Say No to anything that is not part of your core mission.
    • Steve Jobs once said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
    • James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, wrote something similar: “When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.”
  • Unfold your Dream (aka You Have A Choice). Once you’ve built the skills of experimenting, learning and focus, you can start to dream bigger, and decide how you want to change the world. What impact do you want to have? What legacy do you want people to remember you for? Start experimenting and focusing your way towards that intentional life.

As I wrote earlier, this will not be an easy path. But I have applied these principles with great success to my own life, and my executive coaching clients have found greater success with them as well. If you take them seriously, and change your behavior as a result, you will get unstuck and find a path forward.

Let’s begin.

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