By Helen Rothberg
April 16, 2019

My former student took the first job he was offered out of college. Cold-calling in sales was not something he ever saw himself doing or excelling at—but he did. He thought he would stay in sales until he found a marketing position. Ten years later, he’s still in sales, with a lifestyle that doesn’t easily lend itself to starting over. He feels like he’s missed his opportunity.

Work, family, community, friends. Each come with their own joys and demands on your time and energy. You put one foot in front of the other meeting deadlines, going to school, paying bills, walking the dog, and caring for others.

Among all these priorities, you can get stuck in a job that isn’t fulfilling or doesn’t use the skill sets you hoped to develop. You may bend to others’ expectations of who you should become. Ambition can turn to complacency: You’re doing well, and isn’t that good enough?

I’ve seen this with people I’ve coached. They become comfortable with their roles, avoiding the uncertainty of pursuing something they always wanted to do. I worked with an artist who went into advertising, and a stockbroker who wanted to become a high school math teacher. They found it easier to keep doing what they were doing than reaching for what they really wanted.

But it’s always possible to make a change, no matter which phase of life you’re in. Here are some actionable tactics to help you get unstuck in your career.

Start by Identifying Your Heroes

The one thing that will hold you back from achieving your fullest potential is a lack of vision.

The first step is to be honest with yourself about what you want to do in your career, organization, and life. Give yourself permission to think about what really matters to you. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you quit your job (although it might for some). It means that you have conversations with yourself about yourself. You can ask yourself: “If I had a magic wand, what would I be doing?”

I recently ran a workshop with people who found it difficult to let themselves think about what could be next or what they value. I had them think about someone that they admire—either from history or in their family, politics, etc. When we explored their role models it opened their eyes to what they want in their own lives. Then we created realistic action plans around how to change what they were doing or build more of what they valued into their day to day.

Change the Way You Talk to Yourself

If you tell yourself it’s too late, or you are in too deep, you will squash your ability to make a change. Constantly debating reasons to go forward or not will keep you in the same spot.

Behaviorally, we are comfortable with language that supports ideas and practices that have gotten us to where we are. Using different words can trigger the brain to engage its more comfortable system of thinking, subconsciously fighting your emerging new ideas.

However, a new language will help you rewire your brain to think differently, the precursor to acting differently. Using new words is like learning a new language. Research has demonstrated that people who are bilingual trigger different brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the front of the brain, that is responsible for organizing and acting on information. Creating a new language for yourself uses your brain differently, ultimately creating more cognitive flexibility and, eventually, new actions.

So pay close attention to the language you use when talking about your career. If you say “I can’t” engage in new activities, transform it into “I can try something different.” Ideas such as “I shouldn’t dwell on what I’m not investing my time in” can turn into “I will try and invest my time in something I want to do.” And if you’re burnt out from job hunting, convert “I won’t talk to another recruiter” into “I will hear what she has to say.” The idea is to speak in a language that creates possibility for change.

Get Honest About Your Strengths and Opportunities

I recently ran a workshop on “Finding Your Next” for professional women. One participant was a 20-year corporate media veteran who always wanted to write a novel. She thought it was too late in her career. But she took an accounting of her personal strengths: she was a good and quick writer who managed her time well. And also surveyed her opportunities: she had no dependents living at home and had just completed an obligation with a local charity. She realized that she had time and desire, and the only thing in her way was her mindset.

She chose to get unstuck.

During her vacation she went on a writers’ retreat to outline her novel and develop her characters with a coach and other writers. Now she’s on her way.

You can do the same exercise for yourself. Ask yourself what your strengths are, and what capabilities might need to be developed.

I once coached a successful corporate lawyer who loved the law but felt numb in her large firm. She wanted to create a practice in the nonprofit sector, but didn’t believe she had the accounting and marketing skills to run a business on her own. The idea of keeping her own books, billing clients, and making sure they paid their bills was more than she wanted to think about. After some prodding, she enrolled in business courses. It took a few years, but she’s now practicing in her own firm, and is so successful she hired an account management person and took on an associate.

Share Your Goals with Your Current Employer

When good employees share their vision with executives, their career paths can change in unexpected and fulfilling ways.

A mid-careerist in finance always harbored a dream of coaching lacrosse. He believed the sport helped cultivate discipline and teamwork, two skills he wanted to foster in his own children. There was only one problem: No opportunities existed for him to begin coaching in neighboring schools. He expressed this to a co-worker during a break at a quarterly meeting. The CFO happened to overhear him. Two weeks later, he was spearheading the creation of a company-sponsored lacrosse club for his co-workers. He also was soon promoted.

There’s no reason to stifle what you feel passionate about. Most employers want good employees to be satisfied—this is not only altruistic, but may result in a more engaged and loyal worker.

Making space in your life for striving toward your vision can help you develop new skills and bring a sense of purpose to what you do.

So take a breath, carve out some time, and dream on.

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