About a year and a half ago, I became fascinated with stuckness. My interest arose from a combination of factors – clients who were unable to move forward despite having a clear and logical plan, the political situation around the world, in which many seem to be reaching into the past rather than imagining a positive future and, well, my own stuckness. Since selling a tech startup back in 2013, I’ve done lots and lots of stuff, but personally, I felt rather stuck.
Ironically, it was my passion for stuckness that finally got me unquestionably unstuck. It led me to become a Strategic Intervention coach and it led me to create The Unstuck Project with a goal of interviewing 100 people about their own experiences with stuckness.
If you want to be inspired and energized, ask a bunch of near perfect strangers to get on the phone to discuss their moments of greatest fear and triumph. As a part of The Unstuck Project I have been fortunate to do just that. Fifty people who are in my sphere, but whom I don’t know well agreed to tell me about the times in their lives that they’ve felt the most stuck, the most frustrated and the most hopeless. Their openness, honesty, courage and resilience have left me in humbled awe.
This week, as I release my interim report, I also am launching The Unstuck Leader, a new coaching program based in part on the lessons I’ve learned over the course of these 50 amazing interviews.
I’m officially halfway through. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
1. Stuck is pervasive.
Let’s begin with the stats.
I interviewed 25 women and 25 men in 19 cities in 8 countries. Of those, only 5 consider themselves to be “unsticky”, in that they just don’t get stuck. So, from this (rather unscientific) data, 90% of us experience stuckness at various points in our lives.
Of the 90% who have experienced stuckness from time to time, 11 were CEOs/founders. Head honchos seem to be very sticky – only one reported being unsticky. Most interviewees reported periods of stuckness and unstuckness. Except the creatives. They’re stuck a lot.
“As a creative person, I’m in a perpetual state of stuckness.
It’s par for the course.”
– Max, creative.
There were lots of types of stuckness, but by far, the most common was being in the wrong job, followed by being unable to move forward with a project or life stage, and being unable to find the right next thing.
You can get stuck at any age, though it seems a lot of people experience their first incidence of significant stuckness in their thirties. Of the interviewees who experienced a major incidence of stuckness, the average age of its onset is 38. This is consistent with loads of academic research. The most quoted study, published in 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that a person’s self-reported state of wellbeing drops beginning at age 38 and doesn’t begin to improve until age 53 or so. And in case you’re wondering, yup, this is what is sometimes referred to as the good-old midlife crisis. You can see it on the fun chart below.
The decline in wellbeing is pretty much the same for both men and women. Though women maintain a somewhat higher wellbeing than men, their decline during ages 38 to 53 is more precipitous than that of men.
Here’s another fun chart – many people start hating their jobs at 35. A study by Happiness Works in the UK has found that people over 35 are twice as likely to be unhappy in their jobs as people under 35.
So yeah, stuckness is pretty much everywhere.
You are not alone. However, your particular form of stuckness is most definitely unique to you.
And that’s because…
2. Stuck is personal.
What feels stuck to you might not feel stuck to me. We each have rules for ourselves about who we should be and how we should live our lives. And we each have our own needs, values and sense of purpose. If we are out of alignment with any of these things, we’re going to feel stuck.
One thing I noticed over the course of the interviews is that when a person under 35 is feeling stuck, it’s usually because they feel they’re wasting time. They’re in a rush to find the perfect job, in the perfect industry so they can get married and sign a mortgage and maybe have a baby or two. They’re running to hit all their goals in life. And when they feel they’re not doing that, the overwhelming emotions felt are frustration and impatience.
“I wasn’t happy at work. I’m not in a relationship. I was desperate to know what my life was going to be.”
– Zoey, executive
But for those over 35, the stuckness is more existential. It’s about living a good life, a life with meaning and purpose. And when they feel they’re not doing that, the stuckness is painful.
“I’m 58 and I’m not willing to do shit I don’t like.
There’s going to have to be some joy in it.”
– Victoria, entrepreneur.
3. It’s all about managing the plateau.
Unless triggered by death of a loved one, illness or some other form of externally imposed disruption to our lives, our stuckness is usually preceded by some kind of plateau.
All adults go through several cycles of growth and change, followed by a plateau. Either we’ve reached a new height of skill, experience and knowledge and are bored, or we’re limited by circumstance or ability and we’re unable to move forward.
The bad news is, you’re going to get stuck over and over again in your life. The good news is that you can learn to manage the process, gain knowledge from it and improve your life each and every time. In Strategic Intervention, the tradition of coaching that I practice, we cheer when a client tells us they’re stuck or confused. You suddenly don’t have all the answers. That means there’s an opening. You’re ready for something new. A new chapter.
Some people can spend months, years or even decades swimming happily around in their plateau, making small incremental changes, mentoring others, writing, speaking and sharing the skill and knowledge they’ve developed over time. They feel a vastness inside. They are in what I call an expansive state.
For others though, the plateau can bring about a sense of decline. Rather than finding joy in their new level of competence, they mourn the loss of growth and excitement that comes from being in the pre-plateau stage.
“I had a feeling that maybe I had peaked. I was in my mid-twenties, traveling around the world in business class. I had an amazing boss. But at the same time, I felt like I didn’t know what levelling up to the next thing was. All the things that made me great and grow in the past four years started to look like stagnation. Roles above me looked like the same thing.”
– Amelia, director.
Getting stuck and unstuck is all about how you manage the plateau. A lack of introspection, denial and avoidance can lead to limiting patterns of belief and behaviour that entrench us in our stuckness. This is what I call a contractive state. We’re out of alignment with our values and purpose. In this state, we’re reacting to our world rather than creating it. This leads to feelings of powerlessness and even more stuckness.
For most of us, the plateau isn’t immediately apparent. Looking back, several interviewees could see that they were stuck for months or even years before they realized it. It was a slow dawning.
“I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t looking introspectively enough at that pain point. I didn’t ask, why am I getting so annoyed all the time?” – Parker, manager
But about 44% of stuck interviewees had an ah-ha moment that told them something’s wrong.
“I was traveling for work, staying at a dodgy motel across the street from a Chuck E Cheese and I finally thought, ‘What the hell are you doing?’.”
- Emma, strategy consultant.
“On the first day of my new job, I noticed that the other people who were starting that day were ten times more excited about what we were doing than I was. I felt I had to fake the excitement. Over time, I looked around and struggled to find someone I’d be proud to become later in life.
– Liam, analyst.
“Thunder bolt. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to look elsewhere. I had a YOU IDIOT moment. Of course, there are other opportunities.”
– Noah, engineer.
“I was sitting in a directors meeting. Business was really hard. We spent more time pointing fingers and making excuses than accomplishing anything. I realized this isn’t going to get better.”
– Sophia, director.
“My dad died when he was 40. I didn’t have an image of myself past that age. When I did turn 40, I was ‘Oh! I’m alive!’. I felt a release. Life is short, make the most of it. So, I moved to New York.”
– Mason, manager.
“The new president of my organization told me to ‘stop talking now’ in a meeting. I thought, whatever’s next, I’m going to be in charge.”
– Victoria, entrepreneur
4. You can go from zero to existential crisis to unstuck in 3 hours.
Once a person has recognized that he or she is stuck, change can happen immediately, or it can take years. But one interviewee got fully stuck and unstuck in just 3 hours.
Nolan, a CEO, drove three hours to a meeting with his most important client. During the meeting, he learned that they had made a decision that would not only end their relationship, but also destroy his business.
“There was no way our business model could work. I was stuck the moment I left that meeting.”
And, he still had to do the three-hour drive back home.
The first half of the drive was about anger and resentment.
“I realized what they had said was so ridiculous that it was literally clear that I wasn’t for that world any longer. I’d served my time.”
Luckily for Nolan, the half-way point of the drive happened to be the town where he went to high school.
“Driving away from that town always makes me feel optimistic.”
That was the moment he decided to let go of his business as it was. Letting go was everything. He spent the second half of the drive thinking about options, industries and business models. By the time he got home, he had a path forward. That was 12 years ago and he’s still on that new path, tweaking, growing and changing as needed.
5. Optimists. You sweet, sweet optimists.
Of the fifty, only three interviewees said they were generally pessimistic in life. Four reported being realists and thirty-three reported at least some degree of optimism. About ten reported being very optimistic. And guess what? They get stuck too. In fact, those who reported being the most optimistic also expressed some wariness of their own optimism and how it could lead to stuckness.
“You’re always waiting for something good to
happen and sometimes, it’s not realistic.”
– Leo, entrepreneur.
“Recent events in the world have forced many optimists to re-evaluate.”
– Mateo, entrepreneur
And some worried about how their boundless optimism appeared to others.
“I realized that in the shit of a failing company, if I was too optimistic, I’d lose credibility with my team. Calculated fearlessness was required.”
– Isaac, executive
6. Stuckness takes a terrible physical toll as well as an emotional toll.
“I carry a lot of my stress and anxiety in my neck and shoulders. I developed double vision in my left eye. My left shoulder was literally up to my ear. I had a lot of tests, but it was a massage therapist who ultimately fixed it. Another time, I had no movement in my right shoulder. I was so tense, my muscles were pulling my ribs out of place.”
– Penelope, entrepreneur.
An abundance of stress-induced cortisol caused Mia to suffer a terrible hormonal imbalance that left her in bed for two years.
Sophia experienced back pain to the point where she couldn’t walk.
“There was a compressed nerve in my back that caused
me to lose function in my right foot.”
– Sophia, director.
Charlotte had a sinus infection that lasted 6 months.
Amelia suffered headaches, eye infections and upset stomach due to life on the road.
Lots of people gain weight (usually 10 to 20lbs) when stuck. They stop exercising, crave carbs and junk and often drink a little too much wine.
And for others, the anxiety of being stuck creates a general, all over unpleasant feeling.
“It almost feels… I would say… it’s like a burning sensation. There’s anger. Why are things not happening the way they should?”
– Ethan, entrepreneur/creative.
Shame and Guilt and Guilt and Shame
Many people, especially those with perfectionist tendencies, experience shame and guilt when stuck.
“The pressure of wanting to be perfect and do and say the right thing was paralyzing. I have a persona of a person who’s cool being independent and single. There was a crack in my armour. I’m too cool. I got this. If someone saw the crack, it would have devastated me.”
– Zoey, executive.
“Apart from failure, I would feel shame. I’m a perfectionist. It comes from my childhood. My mother was 17 when she had me. I’ve always tried to be perfect to make her not regret that she had me.”
– Grace, manager.
Of course, the shame and guilt do nothing to alleviate the stuckness. They make it worse. Shame and guilt are symptoms of what psychologist and author Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”.
Fixed = I’m a Bad Person When Not Perfect = Stuck.
Or as Dweck puts it, “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?”
“I dread the question, ‘What do you do?’”.
– Anna, in between things
7. Some people have figured out how to be unsticky. Here’s how they roll.
Unsticky people are in alignment with their core selves
Personal alignment gives you strength and endurance. You can work through anything when you’re acting in accordance with your values and purpose.
“It was scary. But what kept me going was drive and belief. We had the right product. We just needed to make more calls and more proposals.”
– Henry, 51, entrepreneur.
“I had gotten to the point where I was looking at the clock. But when I created my own business, I’d be working from the crack of dawn. I’d think it was lunch, but it was already dinner. I’d eat and then get back to work.”
– Leo, entrepreneur.
Lucas, has a system for processing decisions that allows him to stay in alignment.
“It starts with what I call my overarching goals. My wife makes fun of them. They’re the things that are important to you from a generalist point of view. What are your dreams and what are you optimising for?”
- Lucas, professional
Lucas’s overarching goals are: Be happy. Be known. Be financially free. Be fit and strong. And be loved.
“So, if something isn’t optimizing one of my drivers, I won’t do it.”
Isaac has what he calls his 5 Pillars for what he wants in his career – family first, impact on his country, always be learning, work with great people, trust your gut.
In Strategic Intervention coaching, we call Lucas’s overarching goals and Isaac’s pillars “values”. You can’t lead a fulfilling life without identifying your values and then making them a priority.
“My thing has always been freedom.
From the time I was 22, I’ve been saving Fuck You money.”
– Adam, entrepreneur.
What does it feel like when you’re out of alignment? For starters, work is work is work is work. You’re tired, unenthused, struggling to get through the day, and aware that something’s definitely missing.
“I know I have to go back to school, but I don’t do anything about it. I look here and there. I sign up for an open house to clear my conscience. I’m always finding excuses. I know I have to, but I can’t get all YIPEEEEE!!!! about it.”
– Charlotte, manager.
“I asked a friend who had a chocolate business, ‘What would you be doing if you didn’t have a chocolate company?’ and she said, ‘Making chocolate’. I realized I didn’t have that.”
– Mateo, CEO.
Unsticky people let go of attachment to what was.
"I created a startup recently and sold it in seven months. It was easy to sell because I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long term.”
– Evan, in between things
“I get frustrated and angry which makes me work even harder, which is sometimes kind of stupid. I have to remind myself not to go brute force into something. I need to let go.”
– Alex, CEO
Mateo had built a successful company with 20 employees in a short amount of time. But after a while, he realized he wasn’t happy. His company had taken him in a direction he didn’t want to go, he was overworked and feeling disconnected.
“I was chasing after clients, doing sales pitches week after week. But my strength was on the strategy side.”
After a few months of contemplation, Mateo realized that “If we limited our offering, there would be more demand. Now we only have 12 clients at a time. As long as we’re doing activities that are generating more revenue, our clients’ budgets become unlimited.”
Mateo let go of what had made him successful in search of what would make him not only happier, but also more effective. And the changes weren’t easy. He had to break up with a quarter of his clients and say goodbye to a third of his employees.
“Something gets you from A to B. But what gets you to C might mean ripping up the script.”
– Mateo, CEO.
Unsticky people drop their egos.
“Try to check your entitlement at the door.”
– Max, creative.
“We all think we’re very self-aware until we’re tested. And then we learn who we really are. You have to dig. Feedback is a gift. Learn to take it that way.”
– Sawyer, president.
“Just get the hard work done. You don’t need to publicize it. No one needs to know how busy you are.”
– Evan, in between things.
Unsticky people don’t go it alone.
“Don’t keep it to yourself. The best place to start is to start talking. You don’t have to figure this out on your own.”
– Zoey, executive.
“I had a sort of turning point where I called my mom freaking out a few weeks in. Rather than having pity, she was quite stern. ‘You’re creative, figure this out.’ That was the kick in the pants I needed to change my mindset.”
– Elizabeth, director.
Elias (okay, technically Elias was interview 53, but his input was so good, I’m using it here anyway) meets with a group of ten people every month where they help each other get and stay unstuck.
“The idea is to help the entrepreneur deal with what it means to be an entrepreneur, which is uncertainty and absurdity. We air it, think about it and work on it not in it. We communicate in a way that a person can receive what we’re saying. ‘Here’s what I did,’ rather than ‘Here’s what you should do’.”
– Elias, founder.
Unsticky people do the little things.
“Dive in. And keep swimming. Even if it’s a dog paddle.”
– Olivia, entrepreneur.
“Make sure you know how to put one foot in front of the other. Just take one step. Then the next step. Then look back. Believe in yourself and believe that you’ve had a stroke of genius once or twice in your life.”
– Nolan, CEO
“Even though today’s not the best and tomorrow’s tough, just stick to it and do the right thing. If you do a lot of the right little things, it can build into something big. The little things can change everything.”
– Evan, in between things
Above all, unsticky people are watery.
Watery people aren’t attached to a particular outcome or circumstance. They have an idea of where they’d like to go, but they don’t necessarily map out the precise steps to get there. They leave room for discovery. And by giving up control, they make it far more likely that they will achieve something great, even if it wasn’t what they set out to achieve in the beginning.
“Don’t just look at the next steps. Look a few steps ahead and think of all the different paths you could take to get there. Now it’s not just one big thing. There’s many possibilities.”
– Isabella, manager.
“I’m pretty fluid around circumstance.
But I’m also very persistent. I’ll get it done.”
– Ian, executive
“Maybe I am stuck. I just don’t define it that way.
I look at what I can do rather than what I can’t.”
– Lucas, professional.
8. Patience is everything.
Sometimes we think we’re stuck, but we’re really not. Things just aren’t moving as quickly as we’d like.
At forty, Mason had yet to find a career that fulfilled him. He thought he had been stuck for seven years. But in those seven years, he lost 40lbs, stopped drinking, moved to a new city and got out of a bad relationship. He wasn’t stuck at all. It was just taking longer for all the pieces to come together than he wanted them to.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m just not capable of doing it right now.’ Surrender to it. And recognize that you’ll be back to the battle sometime soon. There may be a good reason you’re stuck and that’s just that you’re not ready to do it right now. This relieves you of any worry that you’re failing. You just have to wait for the success to come later on.”
– Ian, executive.
“I felt stuck from the moment I was appointed to the project and then all along the way while doing it. It wasn’t until six months later that I looked back and thought, ‘Oh man, look what I did!”
– Michelle, engineer.
Mason has been laying the groundwork. As long as he stays watery and does all the other things unsticky people do, he’ll find his way to a fulfilling career, and a far more fulfilling life than he had seven years ago.
9. So have faith.
“You’re not just plopped in the ocean. You’re on a surf board.”
- Oliver, freelancer.
“I’m planting dots and hoping they will connect soon.”
– Amelia, director.
10. And above all, be brave.
“Don’t be afraid. What’s the worst that can happen? Can you live with that? Assess the risk and make the leap.”
– Sophia, executive.
“When I was laid off, I knew I should feel angry, sad and upset. But I couldn’t. Instead, I was feeling a little giddy. I felt it was the right thing to happen. This is a good experience to have. Be generous with yourself. Everybody has courage inside of them and I think everybody can pull it out when they need to. Believe that you’re a brave person.”
– Evelyn, in between things.
“Get out of victim mode. Put yourself in creator mode.”
– Penelope, entrepreneur.
“What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll go work for Google.”
– Adam, entrepreneur.
“I’m never going to starve. I can go work for Burger King.”
– Alex, entrepreneur.
Quotes from interviewees have been lightly edited for clarity and/or brevity and to maintain anonymity.
To maintain anonymity, identifying details such as names, places, industries and titles have been eliminated or changed.
Aliases courtesy of Baby Center’s Top Baby Names So Far in 2018.