Overcoming Career Stagnation

For years, Kathy had been the glue at her company. Clients raved about her responsiveness and flexibility. Her superiors marveled about how she anticipated issues before they exploded. Colleagues recognized her as the one you turned to for advice, the can-do team member who got things done.

But something was wrong, and she knew it. She just didn't want to admit it. Sometimes, it was a flash of anger when a little thing went wrong. Other times, there was a restlessness, a yearning to escape. Too often, fatigue gutted her. Her feelings continued surging; the cracks started to show.

We have all experienced these same sensations at work. At some point, we'll find ourselves falling behind. We'll concede our lives haven't gone as planned. We'll realize that we should be so much more. And we'll know that something needs to change—and fast.

Early on, we probably imagined how our careers would unfold. We would exceed expectations, be recognized, and climb up the ladder. There would be no ceilings; any roadblocks would only be temporary. Of course, career trajectories rarely go from point A to point B. Like Kathy, we sometimes get stuck, and it eats us up inside. And even if you know that you are lucky to have a job when reading about massive layoffs is a daily ritual, you can still feel stuck. In fact, it could be compounded by feeling guilty, hopeless, or just plain depressed.

Overcoming career stagnation can be as dramatic as a defining moment that alters your path or a simple as a change in routine or attitude. Either way, it requires self-evaluation, planning, and choice.

Self-Evaluation: At his trial, Socrates warned his accusers, "An unexamined life is not worth living." So, go ahead—examine your life. Dissect your current situation. Do you just need a spark to get out of your slump…or is it something deeper? What makes you truly happy…and what just provides momentary respite? What attitudes and behaviors could be holding you down? The answers may be uncomfortable, but they are the first step in moving forward.

Planning: You know who you are and what you want. Now, how are you going to get there? Take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. What areas require retooling or polish? What is your strategy for getting where you need to be? What about the time involved and the trade-offs required? Track your progress by setting benchmarks, and reward yourself when you achieve them.

Choice: You can do all the requisite analysis and planning. It matters little if you lack the will to act. Too often, people are afraid to make choices. They intuitively understand the discomforts, sacrifices, and occasional failures that go along with making choices. Ask yourself: are you willing to change—and fully commit yourself to making it a success? Without such commitment, you'll quickly end up back where you started.

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