Feeling Stuck

Asking "what" you should do is overrated

You can spend years swirling around in the world of "what" you should do, "what" your purpose is, "what" career is best.

Simon Sinek illustrated very clearly in his most famous TED talk "Start from WHY. People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it."

Ways to think about your "WHY"

It's your North Star. Instead of starting your sentences with "what", start them with "I believe..."

Write down your beliefs that excite you, drive you, fill you with energy. Start from there, then move to the "how" you will do that, and then "what" you can do will appear.

What is a #radicalsabbatical?

Even Storm Troopers need some me-time. 

Even Storm Troopers need some me-time. 

This is for the burnt-out-at-work folk. I don't mean you restless folks who are merely excited about vacay. I'm talking about, you've adopted the phrase "Just get through it" for the day, week, quarter, and you're not 100% sure how it started to take over your existence.

Have you seen Stefan Sagmeister's TED talk on the importance of taking a sabbatical? If not, I recommend you watch it now. He's a master of creativity and turning an idea on its ear. The idea he presents is primo, sticky brain taffy for anyone wanting to re-fresh and re-frame how you think of productivity and creativity in your job.

First: find some energy

"Sabbatical" is a serious-sounding word. Professors take year-long sabbaticals to think and work through ideas for entire books. Sagmeister uses this word but I don't want you to get mired in its typical uses in far-away disciplines, okay?

I took a "Radical Sabbatical" after I quit my curatorial career. It was 6 months of taking the descicated, exhausted, shell of myself and slowly, steadily pouring the life back into my bones. I walked around my city. I met people who clearly loved their careers.

Prior, I had had some ideas of what I really wanted to do, sure. Was I in any position to put those into play, even write 3-sentence emails to people requesting informational interviews? Hell no.

Forget the roaring river of energy you need to "pursue your dreams"! You need a steady trickle to even start thinking beyond the job you do now. Good brainstorming takes energy. Strategizing? Even more.

Depending on where you're at, you might not have enough energy even to think.

Then: design a #radicalsabbatical

This is where the #radicalsabbatical comes in. The holidays are coming up; hopefully you have 1.5-2 weeks off for vacation. It is, in fact, a short sabbatical from work. How to make it radical: design some activities and focused reflection around 2 simple questions:

  1. Is it time to take a step?
  2. What is 1 small step in the right direction?

Don't keep your head down, look up

Is your energy dipping and motivation starting to flag? 90% of the time it's because you're "keeping your head down".

Symptoms of "Keeping Your Head Down"

  1. You're burnt out from overwork.
  2. You've been moving too fast, trying to do too much.
  3. You're outgrowing your current situation.

When stressed, it's easier to just focus on what's in front of you. This can look like too much thinking, to the point of analysis paralysis. Too much action without due thought. Just trying to get through the day instead of asking the tough questions:

  1. "Do I still like this?"
  2. "Is this still working?"

You can lose a lot keeping your head down.

Perspective. Context. And most of all, you lose touch with WHY you're doing this.

It's crucial to stay connected to your "WHY". HOW you work and WHAT you make/do can shift around and change beautifully if your WHY is solid and resonates.

Ready to level-up?

New ideas, perspectives, and approaches are the most powerful tools you can use to move your work forward.

From stale to fresher. From good to better. 

What are your usual, go-to tools? Might you be leaning on them too much?

If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. 

You have a unique, creative DNA that makes you partial to a certain approaches of creating. Some examples:

  1. Conceptual (e.g. Picasso, Bob Dylan)
  2. Experimental (e.g. Cezanne, Leonard Cohen)
  3. Big picture (Ansel Adams, Michelangelo)
  4. Under-the-microscope (Proust, William Faulkner)
  5. Coloring inside the lines (sticking close to the brief, or iterating closely on a rich body of established work)
  6. Coloring outside the lines (Buckminster Fuller, Steve Jobs)
  7. Coloring just inside the lines
  8. Coloring just outside the lines

And on it goes. See what I mean?  

So: how long has it been since you got a new tool? Took a rusty one for a spin? 

If you're always polishing your work to a high gleam, try working in short bursts and calling it done after an hour. If you're trigger-happy to ship, sleep on it for a night before you press "Send". 

If you're always making photos of nature, try making photos of e-waste. And vice versa. 

Practice getting out of your comfort zone. Comfortable does not equal safe.

Ill-fitting jobs are powerful hiding spots

I hated hide-and-seek as a kid. Instead, I'd do things like, organize a membership-only girl's club with card-carrying members. Made the cards myself, with my eclectic sticker collection and super skinny Korean markers. Our most memorable enterprise? On Wednesdays at recess, we decided to hold a Secret Sanrio Marketplace. Every member brought items she no longer liked, to trade for something fresh. We'd hold meetings and I reminded everyone to bring their goodies but shhhh on Wednesday, okay?!?!?! Our market was active for 3 weeks before it got shut down "to prevent theft and fights." A note was sent home to my parents, blaming me for the whole thing -- totally guilty. I was 6 years old.

Today, one of my gigs is coaching and supporting after-school teachers at an elementary school in San Francisco. Very ironically, one of my favorite things to do: watch the games going on during recess. It's hilarious and slightly unsettling that tag, catch, and hide-and-seek are still as popular as ever. The range of behavior both tickles and worries me. 

The hiders

Oh, the dynamics! Some lightly-sketched profiles: 

  1. Frantic hiders can't tap into the strategy center in their brains, so they team up with
  2. Calm kid, who remembers "the good spots". 
  3. Sometimes, there will be a rogue kid that borks off and hides alone, in "the REALLY good spots". You may recall that if you choose this strategy, there's a clear tradeoff; you give up valuable group intel/resources because duh, winning. This drive causes the rogue kid to lose track of what's happening in the game, almost every time. 
  4. The majority of them though, have realized something important: hiding alone makes them feel disconnected and anxious. To cope, they form little tribes, usually in trios or pairs. That way, you aren't left behind like a rogue. The little tribes have a ton of fun. Do they get distracted from the objective? Most definitely. But for tribe hiders, that's not the point.

The kids love playing, because they love playing together.

The seeker

This kid can take on a variety of looks, ranging from Wandering Sad Ghost to Manic Despot. The seeker, like it or not, is alone like the rogue. You're alone thinking of how to shape the game, while everyone else is hunkered down somewhere, bonding and chit-chatting. It can get lonely. 

what this means for your career

In the rare times I did play hide-and-seek , hiding made me incredibly anxious, and time spent as the seeker felt scary.

I thought, "So... the choices are be a scared sitting duck or start searching, roaming all over, not knowing where to start?"

Neither option felt good. Just maybe, this drama is going on for you at work. Are you searching more fulfilling work, like, literally on Google? From age 20-27, I Googled and Googled in vain, just wanting a hint at what the hell I should do with my life. I got endless possibilities, because Internet and post-industrial revolution. I suffered a chronic, mild panic attack for most of that period. Years later, I realized why I got stuck:

1. Made lots of untested assumptions about why I was unhappy
2. Made ill-informed, ill-timed moves
3. Felt frustration
4. Got burnt out
5. Stayed stalled in a holding pattern
6. Felt THE WORST. 

Have you put your feelings and assumptions to the test? Only then do you have the information to explore a possible direction.

Slippery spot: I told myself that I might just be someone who settles and lots of people settle. That idea kept me stuck for 7 years.

If you've been stuck for even half as long as I was, you probably haven't fully addressed what thought patterns are keeping you in that painful place -- the pain comes and goes, right? Sometimes it's not that bad. Change nothing, if your goal is to have a "not that bad" life. Alternative: Record all your feelings and assumptions and test out whether they're true. 

For your ruckus-making 6-year-old self.