There are moments in life that make you say, “And just how did I end up here?”
You feel neck-deep in a quagmire of “stuck.” Not only has your desired future not arrived, it might not even seem possible anymore. You wish deus ex machina was really a thing. And feeling stuck isn’t even the scariest part. What’s scary is getting used to it.
Whether it’s career, relationships or big picture life goals, we all get to a point where we no longer feel we’re on our way to our dreams. You’re not alone. You might think it’s a midlife crisis, but it’s even more common than that – research shows we actually start to ponder these issues consistently at the end of every decade of life.
There’s a predictable pattern. At 28 people start questioning the meaningfulness of their lives. It peaks at 29. And then declines at 30. And then we go through the cycle again at 38, 48, 58, etc.
For some people it quickly resolves with the turn of the decade – but others feel stuck. So Adam Alter did a study to see how people feel about it and discovered three insights. First, it’s ubiquitous. We all feel it. Second, people don’t realize just how common it is — which makes them feel worse. And finally, the stuck we feel can be internal or external. External means we literally don’t have what it takes to move forward. We lack the money or resources. But that’s only true in 10% of cases.
The other 90% is internal. And that form of “stuck” is surmountable. By making a change we can move forward and get back on track toward fulfillment. And that’s what we’re going to talk about because it’s within your control.
Adam Alter is a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His book is “Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most.”
Let’s get to it…
Just because you feel stuck doesn’t mean it’s time to completely overhaul your life. Often, it’s just a matter of finding the “friction point.” Is there one area of your life you can adjust to get back on track?
Take a second to review the different facets of your life. What’s working and what’s not. Is the blockage something complex like “happiness” or “meaning” or is it just a matter of changing jobs or getting out of that horrible relationship?
Often, it’s just a matter of clearing that one choke point. This can feel distressing because we want to think we had that area of life “solved.” Got the job, got the partner, and now I don’t have to think about it anymore. But sometimes our first attempt doesn’t “solve” the problem and we need to try again. Remember, Google wasn’t the first search engine – actually it was the 22nd. And Amazon wasn’t the first online retailer. Sometimes we need to pivot to something new.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not an issue of just tweaking one thing and we need to make a much, much bigger change. You may need to do an overhaul like a totally new career or a very different life path. So you’re going to need ideas…
So you’re looking for Life 2.0. (Or maybe Life 7.2.)
The first step is to start generating ideas. Don’t hold back. Remove all your “this isn’t reasonable” filters and let it all pour out on paper or a Word doc.
“But I couldn’t possibly…” Yes, you could. You could move to Tibet and don saffron robes. Write it all down. No self-censoring just yet. Drag your inner critic out of the building with a giant fishhook. Just vomit ideas and dreams down onto the page.
Research consistently shows quantity produces quality. The people who generate the most ideas end up generating the best ideas with time. The people who have multiple threads in each area of life have more options and end up with better results. Your chance of ending up happy is increased when you have more job options, more friends, more projects, more marriages…
Okay, not more marriages. But you get the point. Mom told you not to “put all your eggs in one basket.” Mom was right. What’s the difference between a long musical career and being a one-hit wonder? Having a more diverse, creative portfolio that provides more options going forward.
“But I can’t think of anything!”
Keep trying. People love the idea of persistence but, truth is, people usually give up pretty quickly when their minds go blank. In studies, people often think that after their first attempts at idea generation, they’re totally spent. Empty. But when researchers push them to try again they generate just as many ideas during their second attempt at brainstorming – and those ideas are independently rated as even more creative than the first set.
Set a number of ideas you want to reach and don’t stop until you’ve exceeded it, even if it takes multiple attempts. A good rule of thumb is coming up with 50% more than whatever you think is possible.
And so now you’re ready? Heck, no. You can’t just think. You need to experiment and test…
If you’re going to find your ultimate life path it would be a really good idea to look somewhere other than your living room. The only ideas that are really going to work are ones that have been tried and tested in the real world to see if they really bring you joy, are interesting and have the proper “fit.”
What produces “hot streaks” in careers — when someone does awesome thing after awesome thing? Research shows it comes down to “explore-exploit.” You spend time looking for ideas and cheaply test them for validity. Then, when you find one that works, you go all in.
You know people who are 100% explore. They never actually act on their desires. And we all know people who are 100% exploit. They go from thing to thing with no preparation or planning. Neither of these are optimal. It’s the balance of the two that creates success.
So what’s an easy way to make sure you’re on the right track? It comes down to “yes” and “no.” When you’re in the explore phase, you want to be saying “yes” more. Taking advantage of opportunities to try things and seeing what holds promise. And then once one “clicks” you shift to the exploit phase and want to be saying “no” more. This protects time and energy and produces the focus you need to make it work.
When you have no idea what to do or try, sometimes merely acting can help get you unstuck. Start saying yes and trying more things. Yeah, many of them won’t work. That’s all part of the plan. The only thing in Vegas that consistently pays out is the ATM. It’s a gamble at first and that’s okay.
Eventually, you’ll find something worth moving to the exploit phase on. But the problem there is we can get stuck trying to get unstuck…
You’re moving forward on your new path but it’s taking longer than you thought and it’s harder than you thought. You’re in a Mexican standoff between who you are and who you want to be.
Again, totally normal. We all get stuck there. Psychologists call this the “Goal Gradient Effect” and you’ve probably noticed it yourself. You start fast and aggressive toward a goal in the beginning. And at the very end, when success is in sight, you hustle to the finish line. But that middle part… oof. That’s when you slow down, get discouraged – and sometimes even quit.
When you’re running a marathon this is tricky, but with personal life goals it can be even trickier. When there’s no clear finish line it’s more challenging to get that burst of energy we need at the end. And with many big picture life goals like happiness, health and career there isn’t a clear end.
So what do we do? Shrink the middle. Break it into chunks. Set milestones, even if they seem arbitrary, to give you the feeling of progress. You can’t get stuck in the middle if you get rid of the middle.
Okay, the finish line is in sight. But somehow you don’t seem to be reaching it. It’s the goal equivalent of Zeno’s paradox. You keep moving forward but never quite get there.
The issue here isn’t the journey. It’s your standards…
You were stuck and you don’t want to be stuck again. You want this to be perfect… And that’s a problem.
In 1956, economist Herb Simon posited there way two perspectives on decision-making: maximizing and satisficing. Maximizing is aiming for total perfection. Satisficing is aiming for “good enough.” Which one do you think is preferable?
Maximizers get better jobs, make more money, and produce better work. They end up doing objectively better. They also end up feeling worse. It’s often not worth the trade.
Maximizing is basically perfectionism, and perfectionism does produce better results – it just makes us stressed and miserable. Perfectionism is dealing with a tyrannical boss. But the tyrant is you.
“But I don’t want to settle!”
Of course you don’t. But you also didn’t do all this to hate your life. So what’s the solution?
Aim for excellence, not perfection. Research has shown that while perfectionism breaks us down, aiming for excellence builds us up. It increases both performance and well-being. You can be excellent without being perfect. And studies show those who focus on it end up doing much better than perfectionists on creative tasks – you know, like finding new paths in life.
Perfectionism prevents you from ever reaching the goal of unstuckedness and makes you unhappy in the process. (If you really want to fail to accomplish things and make yourself miserable at the same time, just install Twitter on your phone.)
Okay, time to round it all up – and learn what we have to do to make this all worth it…
This is how to get unstuck:
This is not a clean, linear path. Neither is life. You’re going to have to cycle through a few times to get unstuck.
But that’s okay because as long as you’re learning lessons, failure leads to success.
Researchers looked at a variety of different domains to determine why some people go from failure to success and why others keep on failing. Turns out those who eventually succeeded failed more often early on.
Yeah, staying in the game longer means you’re more likely to succeed but the real takeaway was the importance of learning. Those who tried and failed and tried again gained insights each time.
As Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Near misses mean future wins so don’t give up — and keep learning. Normally when people trot out the old cliché “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” my first thought is “I pray a meteor tries to make you stronger.” But they’re correct.
Adam writes, “The richest advances come from getting stuck and then unstuck over and over; from learning what works and what doesn’t; from persevering in the face of difficult lessons.” This is solid life advice worthy of a few “Memento”-style tattoos.
Don’t let yourself stay stuck. You’re the protagonist in the movie of your life and what you think is Act Three might only be Act One. You might feel like you don’t have enough time left for a big shift but you have more time than you think. I really hope you don’t have to realize that the hard way.
The crisis of being stuck can feel like a near-death experience. But when it leads you to something better, you’ll realize it’s not…
It’s a near-life experience.