Are you feeling ‘stuck’ in your career? If you are, you are absolutely not alone. As a career coach, every single day I work with people feeling this way – uncertain of what to do, unable to move forwards… and fed up with living in no-man’s land.
For some people, ‘stuck’ lasts a few months; it’s a short-term pause before they find clarity and get moving again, so it’s not too big a problem. But for others, it can go on for literally years… and have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing, their health, their lives.
Personally, I spent a good few years ‘stuck’ in my first career, and I remember just how bad it felt. It can feel like living a half-life – caught in a holding pattern, going nowhere, frustrated and stressed… and increasingly unhappy.
So, if being stuck is really common, how do we get unstuck? That depends on the flavour of stuck you are, and in the careers space, I work with 5 main kinds…
#1: “Fog” Stuck
The first flavour of stuck is when everything is a fog; you can’t see anything clearly. When you’re here, you have no idea what you’re looking for, no sense of what’s out there, no clue what to do next… or how to even get started. You feel lost.
In my experience, this kind of fog usually hits when our identity’s in flux. It’s really common in school, when we’re still learning who we are and what might suit us… but it can also hit us later, too. It’s common in people navigating a redundancy, seeing their industry disappear (I’m looking at you, Covid), or even coming out of a long-term relationship; Any change that shakes up our sense of self.
Most of us have been there, and it’s a deeply unsettling place.
> “Fog” fix?
Unlike real fog, this one doesn’t lift on its own – if you’re in this kind of stuck, you need to work with someone to move things forward. Don’t wait to one day wake up with clarity, or you’re going to be waiting a long time.
There are lots of people and services out there who can help you – that’s their job. From School Guidance Officers, Psychologists and Counsellors, to Career coaches and Consultants, the services are there – because we all need them at some point. Ask around, do your research and reach out. If you’re thinking of career support, this is a great place to start: The Career Association of Australia’s Career Practitioner Directory
#2: “Hit a wall” Stuck
A different kind of ‘stuck’ is when you know what you want – you can see it, picture it, feel it – but whatever you do, you can’t seem to get there; You keep butting your head up against the proverbial brick wall.
Maybe you’ve been applying for job after job, but getting no bites at all. Maybe you’re getting through to interview… but getting the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter every time (or no letter at all). Maybe you’re head-down, working hard and delivering results in your job… but no-one seems to be noticing. You keep getting passed over for the next step into leadership, and you’re beyond frustrated.
> “Hit a wall” fix?
If you don’t know what’s not working, you can’t start to fix it – so the first step here is asking for some advice – and advice, rather than feedback; Feedback tends to solicit a ‘no, really, you’re doing fine’ response, whereas advice is more likely to land you some concrete pointers that you can act upon.
For example, don’t assume that your manager knows you want a leadership role – tell them, and ask what you need to do to get there. If you’re not getting through interview to an offer, reach out to the recruiter and ask for advice on where you can improve.
And if that isn’t working – if you’re getting unconvincing or unhelpful answers, or no response at all (and sadly, this isn’t uncommon) – then seek out independent advice. Work with an accredited resume writer, get practical interview skills coaching, talk to a professional. Find out what you need to change, so you can change it. When we know better, we all do better.
#3: “Constant Motion” Stuck
People here get stuck in action – trying to change what isn’t working by doing something different. Trying something new, jumping ship; a new job, a new course, a new chance to get it right… and too often, a jump from the frying pan into the fire.
This was me, in the last few years of my Human Resources career; I knew it wasn’t working, but I wasn’t sure what else to do… so I tried a new role, a new challenge, a new company. And then again. On my resume, it looked like progress, but in reality I was going nowhere – certainly nowhere I really wanted to go!
I’ve seen this with lots of clients, too. People jumping ship more and more often, with shorter and shorter honeymoon periods – going nowhere, just quickly. I’ve also seen clients signing up for more and more courses and professional development (read: more study debt), just without a clear end goal.
The risks to this approach depend on the way you jump; it could be mounting debt, with no positive outcome to off-set it. It could be a chequered ‘job hopper’ resume, that starts holding you back. You’ll certainly end up frustrated and stressed… and likely starting to lose confidence in your decisions. And you’ll still be stuck.
> “Constant motion” fix?
Einstein’s quoted as saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result”, and jumping over and over again – even if it’s to something different – is exactly that kind of insanity. Action without purpose isn’t progress… even if it feels like it (especially, perhaps, to extraverts).
If you recognise this pattern, stop.
Instead of reflexively jumping, use the time to take stock. Reflect on who you are and what you want, and then plan a pathway forwards. If you really don’t know where you’re headed – if you’re straying into ‘fog’ territory – then work with someone who can help you unpack and clarify things. The only resource you really can’t get back is time; use it wisely.
#4: “Analysis Paralysis” Stuck
This is one of the easiest kinds of stuck to get really stuck in… for years! You have ideas, you’ve researched them – you’ve read books, done quizzes, written lists! – but you’re still not sure. Best to think it all through again; give it some more time and more reflection.
This is the career version of ‘I have an exam tomorrow and I should be studying… but wow, my desk really needs tidied!’; AKA avoidance.
Maybe you have too many options and it’s overwhelming you; what Psychologists call the paradox of choice. Maybe you’re crowd-sourcing your decision and everyone has a different opinion, which (understandably) gets many people confused – and stuck. Maybe you just don’t feel ready yet and you ‘need’ to feel ready before you make that decision.
If you’re more introverted – or feeling anxious – you’re probably going to default to thinking things through a bit more… and maybe reading more, talking more and doing more quizzes. Eventually, you’re likely to end up with a lot of data and information, and less clarity than ever before. Thinking about the thoughts you had about your original thinking will not fix your problem, I promise you.
> “Analysis Paralysis” fix?
Just as the constant ‘jumpers’ need to stop and think – the opposite of what they feel compelled to do – analysers need to stop thinking and act.
Experiment. Dip your toe. You don’t have to leap to make progress; think baby steps.
Set up survivable, low-risk, low-cost ways to test things out there in the real world. Get out the door and visit someone who’s already in the work you’re considering. Get out there and volunteer in a related area; there are heaps of options that will give you new experiences to reflect upon. Do a (online, but real) MOOC; a mass, open, online course. There are literally tens of thousands of them.
JUST DO IT!
#5: “Fear” Stuck
The final flavour of stuck runs through every other kind of stuck there is. In over 20 years in the employment space, I’ve yet to meet the person with zero worries about making the ‘wrong’ choice in their career… whether moving in a particular direction, taking a job, turning down a job or changing direction altogether.
Feeling anxious about making a career decision is absolutely normal.
We’re anxious because we’re often considering unknowns, and the human brain does not like ambiguity one bit. We’re programmed for safety – after all, safety is survival – and in situations of ‘uncertain’, we tend to assume ‘risky’ (even though the two are not the same).
And once your brain registers risk, it’s going to try to hold you back…
> “Fear” fix?
This one’s a two-pronged approach… First, look outwards and shrink the unknown: reach out, be curious, shine a light, find out more. Reducing uncertainty tends to reduce fear; the more you can see the lay of the land, the more able you are to work out a pathway forwards. You can see the best routes and the obstacles, and you can navigate better.
On the other side, look inwards. Shine a light on what’s really worrying you. What’s the worst that could happen? How likely is that? How can you mitigate that… how can you manage it? Maybe you need some savings behind you. Maybe you need some support. Name the fear and you can address it. Take active control of the things you can.
And finally… do a thought experiment. Imagine you do nothing at all; you stay exactly where you are right now. Imagine being here in 1 year’s time, in 5 year’s time, in 10. What will this cost you? What impact will it have on your mood, your health, your relationships? Remember, doing nothing has risks, too… just ones we tend to overlook.
Ultimately, every single client I work with is resourceful – they’ve faced challenges in the past and they’ve successfully made changes. They have a suite of strengths to call upon and they’re stronger than they think. You, too.
Good luck getting unstuck! (and if we can help you, please let us know)