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In the summer of 1998 I returned from a 2 week holiday in Cuba.  It had been amazing, but somehow that just made returning worse.  It wasn’t the despair that killed me, it was the hope.

“You realise the holiday’s nearly over don’t you?” said my mate on the plane.  It was so depressing – and that was on the plane out.

My experience of being stuck in a career was of returning to work feeling utterly miserable and overwhelmed, but acting as though I was happy to be back.

Eventually I fumbled my way out, but since working with thousands of people going through career change, I see that I could have done it much quicker.

One of the most important things is to find a place to start. So here are 6 ideas to get you started this week – pick one that feels achievable:

1. Start saving money

Spend an hour this week tracking how you spend your money and working out what you’re willing to cut.  The more you save now the more options you will have later.

Cutting one coffee every day will save you approximately £400,000 a year.

2. Stop obsessing about the news and start journalling

Being stuck in career paralysis is strangely numbing.  Indeed, many people further numb themselves with alcohol, social media distractions or thoughts like ‘I live life for the weekend’.  No you don’t!

Journalling can allow you to confront your actual thoughts and feelings, just as they are.  It will confront you with the need for change – and start to guide your transition.

3. Inspire yourself

The original meaning of ‘inspire’ is to breathe life into something. How could you breathe life into yourself this autumn?

How about:

  1. Book a mini-break and go and learn about the place you go to.  I did this with Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and it blew my tiny mind
  2. Stop being so obsessed by the news and read a classic book on your commute
  3. Go to an evening lecture at somewhere like the School of Life
  4. Read a career change book – mine was How to Find the Work You Love – cheesey but it connected – or try Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra
  5. Try Roman Krznaric’s work on finding fulfilling work, and reflect on his career as a ‘wide achiever’
  6. Go and volunteer in something you feel strongly about
  7. Get some coaching – a chance to think about you and what you need from life (perhaps see if your current work will pay for it, or simply give up avocados for a month to cover the cost)

Tip:  It’s OK to try these things and not feel particularly inspired.  No matter.  You are still breathing life into yourself.  Keep searching, and breathing.

4. Start noting down your decision crtieria

Decision criteria can help you navigate forward, acting like a kind of compass.  You can start right now:

What do you like least about your current job?  What would be better?

That’s your first decision criterion done.  Over the next 3 or 4 months see if you can list maybe 10 or 11 others – we have plenty of resources to help.

5. Start a running or walking ritual

The Beatles were actually talking about career paralysis when they said the movement you need is on your shoulders.

But I’m convinced that movement on shoulders is enhanced by movement of feet.  It is uncanny how so many of my clients combine career change with some kind of physical challenge.  If you do nothing else this week, just go for a run at the weekend, or take a 30 minute walk in your lunch hour.

6. Start practicing willingness

Any kind of transition is going to involve psychological pain.  Sorry!  I don’t make the rules.

So you have a choice.  You can either avoid this pain, anaesthetise yourself from it; or you can accept it into your life.

Avoiding psychological pain will keep you stuck. 

Accepting it isn’t exactly fun, but it can unlock your whole life.

The following short clips are metaphor for acceptance and willingness. This workbook discusses it further.

Which difficult thoughts and emotions are you willing to accept for a better, more meaningful life?

Internal Struggles by Russ Harris

Internal Struggles by Dr. Russ Harris - YouTube

The Unwelcome Party Guest by Joe Oliver

The Unwelcome Party Guest - an Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Metaphor - YouTube

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by Rob Archer

Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me.  It made so many things clearer in my head.

Apart from the bit about values…

That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.

But it never did.  I still get stuck on values.  My mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and it jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing.  Finally!

Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing.  I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do).  I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs.   I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.

I don’t think it’s just me.  Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited.  But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices.  Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.

Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life. They just do it in a way which is really subtle and which sometimes slips through my grasp.

How I understand values, when I understand values

The other day  my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride.  The words caught in my heart.  Orla Archer.

Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies.  Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer.  I was never in any doubt.

Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, but til now I’ve never really thought about why.  Now I think it was all about choices.  I chose the name for a start, but from roughly that time onwards I began to choose other things.  I chose the best stuff; like sport, The Beatles and Liverpool FC.  And I chose organisation, determination, anger and softness.  I became extremely self-reliant.

As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself; I was pushed back into survival mode so often.  But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.

Crucially, I didn’t state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue.  And it certainly didn’t make my life any easier.

But looking back, this choosing seems like the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the best of me, even today.

This is how I understand values.

Values help with hard choices

Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals.  With values it is the choice that is key.

This reminds me of my favourite all-time talk on values by Ruth Chang.  Chang argues that values are about ‘hard choices’, where there is no right answer.

It’s tough when there’s no right answers!  But at the same time it is liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….

Dealing with Values Conflicts

This series of posts was originally inspired by an enquiry from a reader called Ryan, so let’s bring this back to his question:

  1. In post 1 I argued Ryan’s real priority is to make a decision.  Values can inform that decision, but they are not the decision.
  2. In post 2 Rachel suggested Ryan could ‘enough’ his values in the meantime, which certainly resonated with me.
  3. In this post, I reflect that I still get stuck on values, but I do better when I treat them as simply moment to moment choices, especially applied to hard choices.

My experience of ‘enoughing’ my values has been that if you string enough enoughs together you start to feel differently about Your Self.

I call this the My Way test.  At some point in my career change, when I had finally begun to take tough decisions and choosing my response to hard choices, the words of My Way moved from some cheesy song I occasionally massacred after too much wine, to something that started sending shivers up my spine when out running:

But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way

Doo be doo be doo.

Good luck, Ryan.

From Rob (Archer)

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Dear Ryan,

my heart ached for you when I read your email, and your question about competing values struck a chord for me personally.  Like all good questions, they provoke something in others, and I feel like you’ve helped me to reflect on values conflicts in my own life.

So here’s my own personal take on your questions – in two parts.  Don’t take this as advice per se – we’d need a more in-depth discussion for that.  These are only my personal reflections, but I hope you find some of it useful in turn.

My own experience of being trapped in a job I hated was that I got trapped inside my own head, like this:

Step 1 Video 5 How the Mind Discounts Alternative Careers - YouTube

Unlike me, you’ve already been brave enough to change roles a few times.

But I’m wondering whether these changes have ever been really strategic?  Have they been organised around the things you want, or around the stuff you don’t want?  Does your current role feel like you have defaulted to something, rather than chosen it?

If so, you must address this first.  You must choose, even if that means choosing to stay where you are for the sake of your family.

ACT is great, and very useful in career change, but it is especially great for problems that aren’t really problems to be solved.  This is largely a problem to solve.

So it felt to me like you have to somehow make a decision – and use ACT as part of this process (that’s part 2).

The Need for a Good Decision

You already know there’s no ‘right’ decision.  All of your options involve compromises.  But you can make a good decision.

A good decision can still go horribly wrong, but it will de-risk those chances considerably.

On a bad day a good decision feels like you took the least-worst option. On a good day, a good decision feels like you’ve permanently stacked the odds in your favour.

And without a decision, it is harder to be more mindful and focused on one’s current life.  You’ll always be wondering about the alternatives.  And then values are more likely to appear as though they depend on external forces, rather than our own choices.

So, how?  Funny you should ask, as in our experience there are…

5 Key Stages (of a Good Decision)

Some of these stages might take 5 minutes, some may take 5 months.  But each is critical to the process of getting unstuck.

Step 1 – Understand your Stuckness

Your mind will be impatient to press on with the process.  But try not to.

Slow down.

You may well be feeling exhausted – and so busy that it is hard to think.  It may take some time for the world to stop spinning.

See if you can find some time for reflection.  Take a long weekend. Try to get some distance (physical and mental) from your situation.  In your case you’ve been stuck a few times.  What experiences in your life may help explain this?

Step 2 – Identify your Decision Criteria

Should you quit and start your own gig?  Stay put for the sake of your family?  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  No one can know, because we haven’t specified what ‘good’ looks like for you.

Imagine you were buying a house.  You can’t visit every house in the world, so you need a set of criteria to help you narrow the list before you start visiting.

Step 2 Video 1 Why Define Decision Criteria? - YouTube

Your list of criteria will include lots of stuff, and some of it will conflict.  Somehow when we buy a house we see this as normal – it’s all a tradeoff.  Career choices are just the same.  Not all of your criteria will point conveniently in the same direction.  That’s normal, too.

But sometimes our minds want to punish us for our lack of consistency.

Step 3 – Identify your Options

Humans make decisions based on comparisons with other options.  So without fully understanding your options you cannot make a good decision.  For all you know your ideal job could be out there, but you’ve never heard of it.

Therefore, you need to dedicate at least some time to understanding what your options are.  This means a period of creative thinking, generating as many ideas as you can think of.

Of the options you know about, like starting your own business, bring them to life by specifying exactly what type of business and what your role in it would be.

Step 4 – Make a Decision

Now everything gets real.  You need to get out of your mind and make some real-life experiments.  But where to start?  Most people need to whittle down their options first.

One helpful way of doing that is to score all of your options against all of your criteria.  This isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely rigorous.

Once you’ve scored all your options, get rid of the options that score badly.  As you narrow your options you can spend more time researching the options that remain. Eventually, most people are left with one or two options to take forward, so they can…

Step 5 – Make a Plan and Get into Action

Now it’s all about getting out of your mind and into your life.  You can’t make a good decision in your mind, you’ll have to get out there and test it.

So you’ll need a smart plan to help you articulate your goal and then get moving:

As you know however, the plan is one thing but reality will look more like this:

So you will need a support team around you. And you will need a plan to manage your risks.  That’s a whole other post, but I suspect you’re already good at this bit.

Does it work?

This is a long post, so that’s the question I’d be asking by now.

I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘work’.

Does life get easier when you make a decision and get out of your mind and into your life?  Undoubtedly not.  It may even get harder.

But I think most people feel that life somehow gets more meaningful and satisfying.  So in my view, that’s a ‘yes’.

For me personally it is ‘yes’.

But in the end, you must decide.

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By Dr Fiona Day

At The Career Psychologist we know that nearly all of our clients have feelings of anxiety around their careers, and also that fear of change can keep many of us trapped in unfulfilling jobs.  It is classic career paralysis.

  1. Recognise what is happening. Start by paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. They might be a big soup of difficult experiences, but little by little we can learn to separate them out from each other.  Start to put labels to your experience, such as noticing that there is a feeling of anxiety present at this moment. Naming it also helps to see it for what it is, and to put some distance between you and the thought, feeling or sensation, such as ‘I am aware that there is a feeling of anxiety present at this moment’. This helps us to step back from the difficult emotions and create some space around the intense feelings so that we don’t get so caught up in them.
  2. Pay attention to how often the anxious thoughts, feelings and sensations are present. All emotions serve a purpose and can give us valuable insights into our situation. If the difficult emotions are there a lot of the time and interfering with our ability to sleep, work or live our normal lives, it can be a sign that you need to seek professional help from a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, community mental health service (search the internet for ‘IAPT’ plus your town if you are in the UK), or a General Practitioner. If your symptoms are not too severe then there is a lot of self-help that you can do to help to manage your symptoms outlined below.
  3. Visualise your thoughts as leaves on a stream. We’ve created a short mindfulness practice for you to listen to in a quiet moment where you can learn to mentally place your thoughts on leaves and watch them flow downstream. This is a skill that can bring some space to the intense feelings and help you to refocus on taking wise action.
  4. Call to mind all the resources which can help you. What resources do you have inside yourself, in other people, and in the world that can help you at this time? Our mindfulness practice includes a visualisation exercise on the resources you have to support you during your career change.
  5. Take wise action. What can you do right now that would be helpful and kind to yourself? When you are feeling a lot of anxiety symptoms, it’s important to slow things down and to focus on doing one thing at a time with your full attention. Paying attention to a conversation with another person, relaxing and really enjoying a bath or a shower, doing gentle stretching such as yoga, listening to a piece of music, looking at a nature scene or being outdoors can all help.

If you notice your mind slipping into thoughts about the past or future then kindly but firmly bring your attention to what you want to focus on, and do this repeatedly. When your mind is feeling less scattered, ask yourself what small step can you take today towards improving your working life? Do it, and get a sense of agency as you little by little move forwards in your career.

If you want to know more about The Career Psychologist and how we help people to get unstuck, contact us today. We’d love to hear from you.

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