“Why isn’t the phone ringing?” a senior executive asked me quizzically over coffee.
“It will,” I replied, “once you have made your decision.”
Ready to leave the organisation, he was waiting for a flurry of calls and invitations to pastures new. But faced with a choice to stay in a career built over two or three decades, or take a leap into the unknown for a metaphorical last hurrah, it is likely the former will win.
Even though staying:
- means surviving on scant sparks of passion
- means another decade where work will feel like a chore
- won’t change the reality that even at board level influence is limited
- won’t shift a culture where change is inevitable but often unwelcome
- means fear is the ultimate master
Reasonable reasons for staying
So why would any smart, career-savvy professional stay in this position? Why would anyone wake up with daily dread to attend to the same old same old, able to predict how each quarterly cycle will unfold with meticulous precision unless something really dramatic is thrown into the mix? Why would you stay a slave to the machine, becoming more and more institutionalized, knowing that both your health and family are being adversely affected?
There are obvious reasons, which can be connected to two key emotions:
The first is fear. Fear of what people will think if you leave; fear of losing financial security, fear of rejection, or fear of being too old, fear of not being good enough or fear of being found out. Fear can also be linked loss of power, status, title. Sometimes the fear is there are no other jobs as good as your current one or that you believe the market is either too volatile or too cautious. Perhaps you’re looking for a career change, or to start your own business or entrepreneurial endevour. The fear of the unknown, wondering if you can make it work, and if you really do have an innovative idea after all, starts to surface.
The second, which I believe is a bigger risk is apathy. An indifference to the experience you are having, numbing out of reality. A dullness deep inside where once there was fire. Thinking that is is just the way it has to be, believing you are powerless to do anything about it. The maverick of your youth lost long ago as you lose touch with the passion and mission that truly drives you. You stop going to the edge, you play it safe, whilst slowly eroding who you know you really are deep down.
These two emotions have the power to keep any intelligent, powerful leader stuck in a rut in a job they no longer enjoy. TWEET IT
Most leaders have the emotional intelligence to move through these fears and see them for what they are. Yet in my experience they still find themselves stuck in a career rut, attracted like a magnet to metal and remaining entrenched where they are.
Why is this?…
I believe it comes down to dreaming.
You can’t make a leap into the unknown without knowing what you’re reaching for TWEET IT
It’s a simple emotional equation:
Staying + familiarity = safety
Leaving + unknown = risk
To the logical mind staying seems to cause less pain.
Yet the consequences of staying are more pervasive than you might realise.
- No stretch means no growth
- No spark means no drive
- No desire means no innovation
- No purpose means no fulfillment
- No commitment means no freedom
So how do you stop coasting and overcome this?
In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris shares a process he calls Dreamlining.
Tim gets you to dream big in three areas, ‘having, being and doing’ for 6 and 12 months. The dreams you have may or may not be linked to your career, the point is to start exercising the dreaming ‘muscle’ to get out of the rut. The dreams must be relevant and exciting to you! Here are some examples:
- Having i.e. in 6 months having a sabbatical to spend quality time with my family, in 12 months having my own viable business
- Being i.e. in 6 months being in a rhythm that works for my health in 12 months being at home 5 days out of 7
- Doing i.e. in 6 months attending a development conference in San Francisco, in 12 months learning to speak Italian
Then, crucially he also gets you to build some solid financial plans around these dreams. The point is dreams alone are not enough, but when you are stuck in a career rut they go a long way! Converting dreams into action requires financial planning – this helps you create structure around your dreams, but more importantly allows your mind to relax so you can begin to make the mental leap.
In the end, fear and apathy won’t keep you stuck but a lack of fire in the vision you have for yourself, and your life will.
The key for leaders stuck in a career rut is to learn from the agile entrepreneurial mindset: “dream big, fail fast”.
It means being maverick enough to play with the second more risky equation; knowing that the cost of doing nothing is your freedom while you continue to show up every day handcuffed by a golden handshake.