It can happen to any of us. One moment you’re working contentedly away, doing what you do every day to earn a wage and bring home the bacon (or the tofu, if your family have gone vegetarian.) The next moment – something has changed. Maybe it’s the realisation that you’ve been in this job for eleven years without promotion. Or that everyone seems to have received training on the new instant messaging software – except you. Or that your line manager is the same age as your daughter. (Or perhaps even worse, she actually is your daughter.)
Whatever the reason, the outcome is this: the knowledge that your career has stalled in its tracks, has faltered, and that this faltering has been going on for some time. Like a horse and cart trundling down the same stretch of country lane every day of the year, you find that the wheels of your career have worn such a deep groove in the surface of the road that it would seem almost impossible to change direction, and that you are in danger of getting bogged down for good.
In other words, you have become stuck in a rut.
I’m about to tell you that this is not always a bad thing to happen. But it’s difficult to think that way, if you’re sitting there at the reins of your cart, despondent. What you need to do – really what everyone could benefit from doing, whether they feel they’re a success or not – is to step down from the cart, take a stroll, sit for a while on a small hill some distance off. In other words, develop some detachment. Take a few moments to survey the scene (the horse won’t mind, he’ll use this opportunity to chomp some grass.) Take stock.
To those of us still working in the old-fashioned sort of corporation, with its established hierarchy and all its multifarious layers, branches and twigs of management (which can – when displayed in an org chart – uncannily resemble a very complex organic molecule) getting stuck can feel depressing, frustrating, scary even. We’re supposed to be forging onward and ever upward, climbing the corporate ladder vigorously, rung by hard-won rung. Either vertically (from grovelling tea-boy up to supreme leader) or sort of diagonally, by moving sideways to another department or another company and then upwards again – a bit like moving up the board in a game of snakes and ladders (without landing on a snake, of course; I mean, that just wouldn’t do.)
You keep the momentum up, because if you didn’t keep moving, progressing and evolving within the career niche you inhabit, then – gasp – something might be horribly wrong with you. Maybe you hadn’t got what it took, after all. Maybe you were just not cut out for success, or you didn’t have enough of the right stuff. Pick your cliché. Even in this informal age, it’s still possible to fall under the spell of all the rules and the rituals and the roadmaps of the workplace. Caught up in the daily grind, when is it ever a good time to stop, appraise your work-life and start asking yourself the important questions?
This is where getting stuck in a rut comes in. It can be a golden opportunity. (Or possibly a silver one, or bronze at the very least, depending on how well you use it.)
In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) they have a saying: there is no failure, only feedback. And this is true (with the proviso that you have to survive or otherwise be in a position to benefit from the feedback – this might not apply to situations involving snapped bungee cords or loaded revolvers.) Another way of putting it is: failure happens, but if you change your frame of reference, it can become crucial feedback enabling you to change course and achieve a different kind of success. And before you start thinking that “different kind of success” is just a polite way of saying “pig with lipstick”, read on.
Actually, if you consider it, failure is not really the problem. If you had messed up utterly and got slung out of school, college, fame academy, corporation, or whatever institution it was that you were in, either one of two things would probably have happened.
One – you would have known beyond all doubt that this was not your mission in life. This would have enabled you to advance a step closer to your true mission, with the slate wiped clean.
Or two – you would have become all fired up to persevere and prove your critics wrong. This is what happens when the Elvis Presleys, Marilyn Monroes and Thomas Edisons of this world show what they’re made of. “Never in a million years will you amount to anything as a (singer/actor/inventor/board game designer.)” “Oh yes, I will. I’ll show you and everyone else too, that I am simply the best, so shove that in your pipe!” (Maybe not in those very words, you understand.)
But you don’t even have to first be a ghastly flop to find your true calling, although, as I say, it probably helps. The fact that you’re stuck in a rut means that, ironically, you have been all too good at some sort of activity – creating pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, for example – that isn’t really part of your life’s mission.
Being mediocre, adequate or even good at one thing, doesn’t mean you can’t be even better at something else. However – here’s the crux – you need to find out what this elusive “something else” is. And I can’t help you there. Or maybe I can, but that will have to wait for a whole different essay.
Someone who illustrated this well was Albert Einstein. He was a good clerk in the Swiss patent office between 1902 and 1909, apparently competent and well-liked – they even promoted him. Then, of course, he decided to go off and become a world-famous professor of physics. But the day job suited him just fine, while he was there – he did patent office stuff during the day, and thought deep thoughts about matter and energy in his free time.
And this conveniently brings me to my next point. Who says you have to go mad, throw away your sensible job in the circus and run away to be an accountant (or even vice-versa)? Why should it need to be an either/or proposition, when a both/and proposition could be just as doable, and probably more lucrative too? Be a trapeze artist by night and study for your accountancy exam by day.
You don’t need to be a super-genius to make this work. But it takes discipline, energy and focus (which, as a trapeze artist, you should know, really.)
Where was I? Ah, yes. To summarise, getting stuck in a rut can help you, as per the following points:
1) It provides a much-needed opportunity to stand back, break the spell, develop some detachment and take stock.
2) The realisation of failure or mediocrity can provide a springboard for success as something else entirely. Dick as a world statesman – not that wonderful; Dick as a sheep farmer – runaway success. Jane as a sheep farmer – dull; Jane as President – winner!
3) Or lead you to the knowledge that you could have a second string to your bow, and develop a parallel career. Have both security and fulfilment; by day, a humble supermarket shelf-stacker, by night – drag artiste extraordinaire! But you need to be self-organised for that.
4) There isn’t actually a 4). But this is perhaps as good a place as any to reflect that now, more than ever before, the world of work is rife with uncertainty, in flux and undergoing transformation. Job titles exist now that never before existed in the entire history of employment. More and more people are dispensing with jobs altogether and doing things like making a fortune selling stuff online, and not caring that it creates huge gaps in their CV, or that they’ve spent the whole of Tuesday in their pyjamas. Could this be you?
To summarise the summary, getting stuck doesn’t have to be the end of the world, career-wise. And even if it is the end of the world, it could signal the creation of a brand new world, or even an entire new solar system, all there just for you to discover.
Returning to my original horse-and-cart metaphor (which I’ve grown quite fond of, by the way), after you have wandered off to gain some detachment and perspective, you will need to wander back and pick up the reins again, to put your insights to the test. And you may find, to your surprise and delight, that what you thought was a boring, rutty old country lane – has just become a crossroads.
(After the success of my Thank You piece, I thought I’d write another article for the Jobs & Careers section of Helium.com. And now this one seems to be doing very well too. So… expect a few more career-related essays and reviews from me in the New Year.)