How to escape a career black hole

Gravity Road MD Sarah Ellis shares five ways to get unstuck.

by Sarah Ellis
Last Updated: 11 Jul 2019

It can be tough to admit you’re stuck in a rut. There’s pressure to seem like you’re always moving forwards, especially as careers become less linear and more ‘squiggly’. Social media doesn’t help, making it easier to compare ourselves to others who, from a distance, seem to be seamlessly changing industries, getting promotions, perhaps working freelance or having one of those ‘side-hussles' that have become all the rage.

You may have tried to get unstuck already and become demotivated when nothing seemed to work. Earlier in my career, after a four-year stint in financial services, I was keen to broaden my marketing and leadership skills by moving to a different sector. I was rejected by nearly all the recruiters who advised me repeatedly to ‘stick to what you know’ and I wasn’t having much luck applying directly to employers either. I remember sitting in Canary Wharf surrounded by skyscrapers wondering if I was stuck there forever*.

The good news is you’re not alone. Recently I did a quick poll of our @AmazingIf followers on Instagram, asking whether they’d ever felt stuck. Every single person replied yes, whether because of lack of progression, lack of support, promises of promotion not delivered, getting too comfortable, not knowing where to go next, insufficient money, micro-management – the list went on.

The better news is that there are practical actions you can take that will quickly help you rediscover your energy and give you positive momentum towards escaping your situation.

1. TEST YOUR ASSUMPTIONS

Make a list of all the things that are contributing to you feeling stuck. Now divide that list into facts and assumptions. So often we tell ourselves stories about what is true without testing the reality.

For example: ‘there’s nowhere for me to progress here’ – is that a fact or an assumption? Probably an assumption based on the jobs that you can see around you right now. But, you might be able to progress into a role that doesn’t exist today, create your own role, change department or take on a secondment. Once you have listed all your assumptions, figure out what actions you can take to test them and you might be surprised what you discover. 

2. HELP PEOPLE TO HELP YOU

Being stuck feels pretty isolating and lonely. However, people can only help you if they know what you need help with. Prepare a list of questions you’d like to know the answers to and then have a chat with the three people (in or out of your organisation) who you think could help you.

And make sure to ask everyone you meet who else they’d recommend you talk to. Getting unstuck is not a solo endeavour and, in my experience, most people are willing to help.

3. AVOID VICTIM MODE

It’s too easy to start seeing yourself as the victim and blame others: our bosses, our organisations, even our family. It’s a career cliché but no one should care about your career more than you do.

Making a change in any capacity is hard and it’s normal to feel unsure of where to start. Rather than thinking too far ahead, focus on answering the question: what do I want to be different in a month’s time? and write down all the actions you can take to make that happen.

For example, if a long-awaited promotion continues to elude you, you might have an objective to understand better how you are perceived by stakeholders. To do this you could ask five people who are working with you day-to-day for specific strengths-based feedback e.g. where am I adding most value in this project from your perspective? You could also ask a former boss for a recommendation to add to your LinkedIn profile.

Breaking down any change into smaller, manageable actions will help you make progress quicker.

4. INVEST IN YOURSELF

Work out what learning would be valuable to fuel the change you want to make. Do-it-yourself development has never been more affordable or accessible with the likes of TED, work-related podcasts (WorkLife with Adam Grant and Work Like A Woman with Mary Portas are a couple of my current favourites) and events (both virtual and face-to-face) popping up every week designed specifically to support your learning.

People tell me that their own development is continually relegated to the bottom of the to-do list. And yet with so much uncertainty and change in the world of work it has never been more important to take ownership of your own career development. Not only will it accelerate your ability to get unstuck but it will also increase the chances of avoiding similar situations in the future.

5. DITCH THE PLAN AND EXPLORE POSSIBILITIES

Getting unstuck means thinking laterally and creatively about the options available to you. Predictable career plans are irrelevant in a world where every aspect of work is changing almost simultaneously. Instead, adopt an exploring mindset, and be open and curious about different possibilities for how you might get unstuck. We’re all going to be working for much longer than our parents and have multiple jobs and even careers. Your next job is unlikely to be your last job so don’t get stuck waiting for the perfect role or opportunity to appear.

*To finish my own stuck story, I put into practice Action 2 on this list and asked my manager to introduce me to a couple of senior marketers from different industries for informal mentoring. Six months later, one of those mentors offered me a job and I moved to work for Sainsbury’s, where I stayed for another six happy and successful years (in case any of those recruiters are reading!).

Sarah Ellis is the co-founder of Amazing If and Managing Director of creative company Gravity Road. You can follow her on Instagram @AmazingIf and listen to her weekly ‘Squiggly Careers’ podcast (episode 55 is on how to get unstuck) available on all podcast platforms.

Image credit: 95C/Pixabay

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