Though I’m not a mind reader and you and I haven’t met yet, I bet that if you’ve landed on this page, something is really not working for you in your career as it is today.
And that, to be perfectly blunt, sucks. Because it doesn’t have to be that way.
You’re at the right place. I'm Sasha Raskin. I'm an author and a career coach in Boulder with clients all over world, and after a few meaningful career coaching sessions I had today I felt called to share some in-depth insights with you about feeling stuck in your career and how you can take the necessary steps to get unstuck.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, unsure of what to do next, or just plain frustrated with your career path, this comprehensive blog post is for you.
Let's do a quick dive into the main reasons why people get stuck in their careers, explore the mental and emotional aspects of feeling stuck, discuss some practical solutions to help you move forward, and understand how a career coach can support you throughout the process.
Main Reasons Why People Get Stuck in Their Careers
Whatever the job situation is, when potential clients reach out to us for help, they usually feel stuck and are not sure where to go next. To simplify, they stand paralyzed at a metaphorical crossroad, now knowing if they should turn right or left, usually because they don’t like either option. And being stuck in “freeze” mode definitely doesn't feel good either.
Here are just a few common ways that people describe where they’re at when they reach out to us for help:
“I feel like I am trapped in this position”
“I made it to the top of the career mountain but I’m not happy up here and am stressed all the time.”
“I have recently left my job, and I am attempting to start my own business.“
“For a mix of personal and professional reasons, I decided I just needed time away. I’m preparing to re-enter the workforce in the next few months.”
“I am at square 1 of finding a new career. I am paralyzed and don't know where to start, and I do not know what I want to do or where I want to go. I am not even clear on my strengths.”
“I want to find the next opportunity that will give me purpose.”
“The environment is becoming toxic and I'm very burnt out.”
Do you recognize yourself in any of the statements above?
I wouldn't be surprised if you did. It’s incredible how similarly our clients describe their career struggles, even if they’re in totally different career tracks, industries, and stages.
There are several, very valid factors that can cause you to feel stuck in your career.
Here are some of the most common reasons:
Lack of career growth opportunities: According to a Gallup study, 87% of millennials and 69% of non-millennials rate "professional or career growth and development opportunities" as important in a job (1). If you're in a job where there's no room for advancement or personal development, it's natural to feel stuck and disengaged. To use a simple allegory, some fish actually grow based on how big the body of water they live in is. It's a curious phenomenon called "density-dependent growth," which basically means that the number of fish in the area or the resources available can affect how fast they grow. Goldfish for example can grow way bigger if they have more space to swim around in. So, if you've got a goldfish in a small tank, it'll probably stay pretty small, but if you put it in a larger pond, it can get much bigger. If you feel too constricted to grow where you’re at, it might not be you, but the environment that’s to blame.
Job dissatisfaction: A study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior found that job satisfaction is closely linked to overall well-being and mental health (2). If you're not happy with your job or the work environment, it can be difficult to feel motivated and engaged, leading to a sense of stagnation. I’m not saying that it’s realistic to be constantly ecstatic about what you do without experiencing any ups and down. What I am saying is that the baseline should be high enough, so that even the occasional lows don’t feel that low.
Unclear career goals: A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that setting specific and challenging goals can lead to higher performance (3). Not having a clear sense of where you want to go in your career can leave you feeling directionless and stuck, as you may struggle to set and achieve meaningful goals.
Fear of change: As psychologist Susan David states in her book "Emotional Agility," change can be scary, and it's natural to feel apprehensive about leaving the comfort of your current job for something new (4). This fear can prevent you from pursuing new opportunities, leaving you feeling stuck in your current situation.
Main Reasons People Get Stuck in Paralysis Analysis and Don't Take Action
Overthinking can be a significant obstacle when it comes to taking action. I’ve seen countless times, with my clients or even in my own life how well the constant replaying of the problem can disguise itself as doing something about it. The truth is that just worrying about your current career situation is not the solution - it’s just a disempowering illusion.
Here are some common reasons why people get stuck in paralysis analysis:
Information overload: In his book "The Paradox of Choice," psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that having too many choices can lead to decision paralysis and reduced satisfaction with the choices made (5). In today's digital age, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to us. This can make decision-making difficult and lead to paralysis analysis.
Fear of making the wrong decision: As social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister points out, "people are highly motivated to avoid making bad choices, as these can be very costly" (6). We all want to make the right choice, but sometimes this fear can hold us back from making any decision at all.
Perfectionism: In her book "The Gifts of Imperfection," Brené Brown writes that "perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence" (7). Aiming for perfection can be paralyzing, as it's nearly impossible to achieve. This mindset can cause us to avoid taking action altogether. And you know how it goes - the longer you postpone something the more unattainable it begins to feel like.
How Mental Heuristics and Biases Contribute to Feeling Stuck
Our brains use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to simplify decision-making. It’s a beautiful thing on the one hand since it makes our processing of tremendous amounts of information more efficient. However, these shortcuts can sometimes lead to biases that contribute to feeling stuck.
Some common biases include:
Catastrophizing: This involves imagining the worst possible outcome, which can create a paralyzing fear of taking action. As psychologist Dr. Alice Boyes explains in her book "The Healthy Mind Toolkit," catastrophizing can be a cognitive distortion that prevents us from accurately assessing situations (8). It’s all the “what if”’s and worst-case scenarios fantasies that prevent us from taking educated risks to achieve what we actually want and deserve in life.
Black-and-white thinking: This is when we view situations in extreme terms, such as "all or nothing" or "success or failure," which can prevent us from seeing alternative options. Psychologist Dr. Aaron T. Beck identified this as a common cognitive distortion that can contribute to negative emotions and feeling stuck (9).
The Emotional Aspects of Feeling Stuck
Feeling stuck in your career can also involve various emotional aspects, including:
Grief: According to the Kübler-Ross model, it's normal to experience grief when considering leaving a familiar job or ending a particular phase in your career (10). This grief can manifest in various ways, such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When I work with clients on creating an exciting fulfilling next chapter in their career in usually also means for them some process of letting go of the past while also realizing that in some ways nothing really ends - pretty much all of their former skills and experience will serve them well in their next adventure.
Fear: Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and fear of making the wrong decision can all contribute to feeling stuck. In her book "Big Magic," Elizabeth Gilbert encourages us to "make space for fear" but not to let it control our decisions (11). It’s scary to make changes. You probably heard the saying “it’s the devil we know”. Sometimes the exciting but new possibility is much scarier than the old situation that we don’t like but already got used to.
Frustration: When you're unable to make progress or achieve your goals, it's easy to become frustrated and disheartened. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out in his book "Flow," frustration can occur when the challenges we face are not well-matched to our skills, leading to a lack of motivation and engagement (12).
A Good Process to Get Unstuck
If you're feeling stuck in your career, it's essential to have a process in place to help you move forward. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you get unstuck:
Reflect on your current situation: Take some time to evaluate your current job, career goals, and personal values. I know, duh. But actually taking the time to do it, and even write it down can create so many meaningful insights. According to a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, self-reflection can lead to increased self-awareness and better decision-making (13). Consider what aspects of your career are causing you to feel stuck. Think about which aspects you’re absolutely in love with and would like to have as ingredients in your next career “dish”. It’s crucial to take the time to do, so that you won’t end up in a similar unsatisfactory situation moving forward. There is power in putting ambiguous thoughts into words, either in writing or in a conversation. Suddenly, clarity is born.
Identify potential obstacles: Determine the barriers that are preventing you from moving forward, such as fear, lack of information, or external circumstances. As Susan David states in "Emotional Agility," identifying and labeling our emotions can help us navigate difficult situations more effectively (4). When we take the observer stance, it creates distance between us and our experience (the automatic stories we tell ourselves and the emotions that are coming up are suddenly not so all-encompassing). The space we create between ourselves as the observer and experience being observed can awaken us from the half-automatic daydream we are so used to, that we don’t even notice we’re in.
Set realistic goals: Based on your reflection, create both short-term and long-term goals that align with your values and desired career path. A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that setting specific and challenging goals can lead to higher performance (3). The trick is introduce some challenge but also make the steps ridiculously achievable. That’s how you go from one victory to another, which creates a gradual but wonderfully powerful snowball effect of action, insight and motivation.
Break down your goals into actionable steps: Divide your goals into smaller, manageable tasks that you can work on consistently. As productivity expert David Allen points out in his book "Getting Things Done," breaking tasks down into actionable steps can reduce overwhelm and increase motivation (14). As I mentioned above, I think of actionable steps as actions that are so ridiculously achievable that I can consider them as “done” once I’ve made my decision and put them on my calendar (yep, artificial deadlines will be your best friend).
Seek support and resources: Reach out to friends, family, mentors, or professional resources, such as career coaches, to help you navigate the process of getting unstuck (a bit of a shameless plug, and maybe I’m a bit biased here, but the coaches at True Next Step are really good at what we do). Research published in the Journal of Career Development shows that social support can play a significant role in career success and satisfaction (15). Despite of what the individualistic messaging around you causes to believe, you don’t need to do this alone, and it’s definitely not a sign of weakness to be asking for help. In fact, pick randomly any person you look up to who does something on a very high level. Chances are that this person has a whole team of coaches/consultants/mentors/therapists who help your role model to achieve their goals faster, more efeccienely, and with less headaches.
I know that the first coach I ever hired (as well as all the others during the last 15 years) completely changed my life and helped me achieve things I wasn’t even sure are possible.
Monitor your progress and adjust as needed: Regularly evaluate your progress toward your goals and make adjustments as necessary to stay on track. In their book "Switch," Chip and Dan Heath emphasize the importance of monitoring progress and adjusting our approach when needed (16). Everything is indeed a learning process, but only if you actually take the time to learn along the way, and improve as needed.
Celebrate your successes: Acknowledge and reward yourself for your accomplishments, both big and small. Pretty much at beginning of every session with my clients we celebrate their wins during the time that passed since their last coaching session (yes, even if they were “small” wins). We turn that skill into second nature, so that they’re accustomed to do this on their own as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, celebrating small victories can boost motivation and increase the likelihood of achieving long-term goals (17). If you don’t, you’ll just forever continue to play the “I’ll be happy only when I___(complete the blank)” game.
Long-Term and Short-Term Options to Consider
One of the main reasons our coaching clients initially reach out is because they got stuck trying to solve the riddle of long-term vs short-term goals. For example, how do you make lengthy and seemingly complicated transition to a new career (or opening a business) while still paying the bills today?
What I’ve found over the years, is that the best route is usually making sure to address both short-term and long-term goals, instead of trying to choose one on the account of other.
Here are some long-term and short-term options to consider as you work to get unstuck in your career:
Advocate for a higher salary or additional benefits in your current job. A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that employees who negotiate their salaries are more satisfied with their jobs (18). You probably heard it before - “knock and it will open”. But you definitely need to knock first, and do it decisivily enough to be heard.
Pursue professional development opportunities to expand your skill set. Research in the Harvard Business Review shows that continuous learning and skill development can increase job satisfaction and career success (19). The joy of learning and getting consistently better at what we do has merit on its own. Mastery feels really good, not matter what you do. And mastery does not have a limit - it’s a lifelong pursuit, more of a place to come from than a place to get to.
Network with others in your industry to explore new job opportunities or gain insights into potential career paths. A study in the Academy of Management Journal found that networking can lead to increased job opportunities and career advancement (20). Oh, and if the word “network” scares you or makes you feel uncomfortable, just replace it with “talk”. I bet you’ve doing it since you are two or three years old. You got this!
Consider changing careers to something you feel more passionate about or better aligns with your values and goals. A study published in the Journal of Career Assessment found that individuals who align their careers with their values experience higher levels of career satisfaction (21). I love Steven Chandler’s idea about the path to a satisfying career: “Find something that makes you feel alive, and then find a way to monetize it” (22).
Many people have it the other way around - they chose a profession based on a promise of a high income, and hope to one day fall in love with it. From what I’ve seen that rarely happens. Or even worse, they totally disregard that important “find something that makes you feel alive” portion. I’m not judging, I’m just saying that it’s such a shame when that it the case.
One of the most dangerous statements about work that I hear sometimes from potential clients is “you don’t do work for fun”. Ouch. This is one third of our life we’re talking about here (at least). Why not enjoy it? Or better yet, why not choose something you’d feel absolutely grateful if you’d be doing it every day?
Pursue further education or certifications to qualify for new career opportunities. Research published in the journal Work, Employment, and Society indicates that obtaining additional education can increase job satisfaction and career advancement (23). Expertise increases income like nothing else, period.
Develop a side hustle or freelance work that allows you to explore your passions while maintaining your current job. According to a study in the Journal of Business Venturing, engaging in passion projects can improve overall well-being and career satisfaction (24). When I work on creating a fulfilling, rewarding and exciting career with my clients, paradoxically we don’t look just at the work aspect of their lives. We look at all the aspects, their lifestyle, their hobbies, their relationships. It all needs to fit and work beautiful together.
How a Career Coach Can Help in the Process and What to Expect
A career coach can be an invaluable resource in helping you navigate the process of getting unstuck in your career. I know that not just as coach but as a client who had many coaches. One coach helped to move to a different continent. Another coach helped to create and grow a successful online business school. A different coach helped me to slow down and create a magical lifestyle where I don’t wait longer than 2 days for a weekend.
Here's what you can expect when working with a career coach:
Personalized guidance: A career coach will work with you one-on-one to develop a customized plan to help you achieve your career goals (while also taking these steps in real life). A study published in the journal Human Resource Development Quarterly found that personalized coaching can lead to increased self-awareness, goal attainment, and job satisfaction (25). Here are some snippets of our clients’ case studies:
“By the time of our last session, I had resolved the career impasse and have created a new path in my role. I also have fully recommitted to my writing work - finishing a full draft of my writing project during the course of our time - and have identified the next steps I need to continue through publication.”
“I was given a goal each week to work towards, and accomplishing each goal inspired me to proactively face each new challenge head-on. By the time I reached my 12th session, I had landed a promising job and I have noticed my life changing in a positive way.”
“In 2 months of working together I've made more progress on business development than I have in years on my own. Sasha is helping me to take my business to the next level and showing me how to spend more time using my talents and gifts, while spending less time doing the things I don't enjoy. Overall, I'm seeing more income, feeling less stressed, and having a bigger impact on my clients' lives. “
“I came to work with Sasha at a particularly tumultuous phase of my career, and by the end of our sessions, had a completely new and overwhelmingly positive outlook on not just where I was headed, but the path I’d taken to that point. My goal of having a new career trajectory I was excited about firmly in-hand by the end of our sessions was not only met, but exceeded; Sasha and I had identified not one, but four overlapping courses of action after just three months.”
(you can read more of our client’s case studies here)
Expert insights: With extensive knowledge of various industries and career paths, a career coach can provide you with valuable advice and strategies to help you succeed. A study in the journal Consulting Psychology found that clients who worked with a career coach reported increased career clarity, confidence, and decision-making ability (26).
Accountability and support: A career coach can help you stay on track with your goals, providing motivation and encouragement when you need it most. Research published in the Journal of Career Development shows that coaching can have a significant impact on career goal achievement (27). My phone is packed with text messages from my clients. Majority of them are one word long - “done”. We can fight the fact that we’re tribal beings and don’t like to disappoint others or we can embrace it and use it to our advantage.
Resource recommendations: Career coaches can connect you with resources, such as networking opportunities, educational programs, or job listings, to help you progress in your career. A study in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring found that career coaches can facilitate access to valuable resources and opportunities (28). This is the thing: when you want to accomplish anything in life, you need to pay. You can pay either with money, or time, or both. Sometimes paying with time ends up being the most expensive option - a good career coach can save you a lot of time, and paradoxically a lot of money as well.
In conclusion, feeling stuck in your career is a common experience (I get it, it took me 8 years to finish my Bachelor’s because I was constantly switching majors), but it's important to recognize that you have the power to make changes and overcome obstacles.
By reflecting on your current situation (as one of my coaches said it, “slow down to speed up”), setting realistic goals, and considering both short-term and long-term options, you can start to move forward.
Working with a career coach can provide you with personalized guidance, expert insights, and the support you need to achieve your goals and create a fulfilling career. Remember, the key to getting unstuck is taking consistent action, so start making those small steps today.
One simple and quick step can be to schedule a free short consultation with me or one of our coaches, to start creating more clarity. There are no strings attached. We structure our consultations calls strategically - they are helpful whether or not we end up working together because we use that time to create a lot of clarity.
Feel free to schedule your free 20-minutes free strategy session or contact us with any questions!
To your success!
Sasha Raskin, PhD Candidate, LPC
Here is the full list of the 28 references mentioned throughout the blog post:
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David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Penguin Books.
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Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.
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