In the Tao Te Ching, the well-known text that lies at the heart of Taoism, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote “A journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.” This saying came immediately to mind when thinking about colleagues and friends who find themselves stuck in their current jobs.
For some, “stuckness” may come in the form of that itchy feeling after a certain set of years in place. To others, the feeling is much more uncomfortable. Some friends are rejoining the workforce after taking time off or downshifting their career to take care of kids or aging parents. Former political appointees who thought they would land in the new administration are now searching desperately for Plan B. Other colleagues are stuck in a bad situation – a new boss or a downsizing that left them with half the staff and double the work – looking for the exit.
The last and more existential crisis (from a work standpoint) is for those who reach a point in their working lives and ask, “Is this all there is?”
This is a daunting question that can throw even the most talented and emotionally healthy professionals for a loop. Many have achieved enormous success, mastering a technical area, running a successful office, small business or nonprofit or managing a high-achieving team. Now, their current jobs feel too small. They have more – often times much more – to offer. And they are no longer happy where they are now.
It’s Your Move
I’ve been surprised to find so many people in such similar straits. The good news is that there is something they can do. Lao-Tzu’s saying often gets translated as “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”
Here are five steps you can take:
Step 1: Take stock of all the things that got you to where you are, emphasizing the positive – analytical skills, communication or interpersonal skills, political savvy, commitment to a job well done, resilience and more. Digging deeper, reflect on the values you learned as a child or how your first job paved the way for your second job.
Recall personal challenges you have overcome. Think about your peak performances and times you felt “in the zone.” Taking stock will remind you that your career didn’t just happen. It was built on who and what you invested in becoming.
Step 2: Think about what you need to add to the mix – specific training, a challenging new assignment (perhaps one that brings a chance to build new skills), leaving headquarters to spend time in the field, learning a foreign language, developing social media skills, taking a class (either for work or as a break from work).
You can also do some self-directed learning. Decide on a topic that interests you and create a reading list. If reading isn’t for you, use TED talks and videos or better still, track down people you know who have the expertise you lack and get their best advice. Pick something that will help you raise your game, burnish your credentials or give you more balance. If you are stuck, a new endeavor often stimulates new ways of thinking and connections that can open a way forward.
Step 3: Network like crazy. I tell my coaching clients that their networks should be dynamic, dense and diverse. Dynamic means you should be in dialogue on a range of topics – career possibilities, skill-building, wellness and self-care, mentoring, etc. Dense means that you should be in touch with lots of people at any given time. Diverse means that you should draw from contacts across a wide range of people with a variety of experiences. You will find that most everyone has something to offer you. Your job is to listen, ask good questions – I like “What do you like best about your work?” and “What is the most challenging thing that you do?” – and then, of course, thank them for their time.
You can build on these conversations by circling back with updates, sharing information and making new contacts as a way of cultivating these connections over time. As relationships with your contacts deepen, pulse your network and listen for system feedback. Your dynamic, dense and diverse network should respond with advice, career building opportunities and job leads.
Step 4: Find a mentor or several mentors. I advise clients to find a range of people you trust who will offer you a variety of perspectives. A seasoned colleague, with years of experience to draw on, may have faced similar challenges of “stuckness” in her career or guided others through transitions. Someone whose technical skills you admire and whose career path interests you will have ideas about what it takes to advance in your field.
A “peer” mentor may be going through a similar or related set of issues – or has successfully navigated them and now has good advice to offer. Make this person your “Coffee Mate” or walking buddy.
Step 5: Build your own career management practice as part of your current job. These steps and others can form part of an ongoing practice, or set of behaviors, that keep your career moving forward whether you switch jobs or not. Start referring to these behaviors as “my career management practice.” Share them with others and ask them for their ideas.
No one plans on getting stuck. Developing your own career management practice can help you out of the rut – and in the words of Lao-Tzu – “Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”
Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
This is such wonderful advice, Neil! When I’m feeling stuck in a career rut I like to take time to also do frequent meditation and brainstorm old-school style on notebooks words and phrases I’d like to associate with my next step. This helps clear my brain out and reveal inclinations I didn’t even know were there.
Agree with Catherine, great post! Step 4, find a mentor or several mentors, is definitely one of my go-to’s when I’m feeling stuck. I usually talk to my older sister who usually has good advice about when she was my age or things she wish she had done. I’ve also found it helpful talking to others who might not be in my field but whose career path I admire.