Do you feel like you are stuck?
Stuck in your career, stuck in your relationships or stuck in your own growth?
If so, good for you for being awake. While feeling stuck is not fun, knowing that you are stuck allows you to do something about it. Knowing is the first step to being able to change.
When I talk to people who find themselves in this position, there are a few common elements, regardless of the specifics of their situation:
- Have a powerful story about why they have to be stuck.
- Firmly believe that they know their future.
- A tendency to both pathologize and suppress the negative emotions they feel.
Together these ingredients create a kind of paralysis of the mind wherein the same thoughts and beliefs keep running into each other, and nothing is able to change.
(Dramatic recreation of actual experience)
In the past when I felt stuck in my job or in my creative life, I would resort to my usual tools: working harder, ignoring my feelings and changing things outside of my control.
Turns out, those things don’t work.
In order to get yourself out of a sticky place, I have learned that you need to be willing to examine (and question) your story about yourself. Many people find it easy to create a story about themselves that supports how they want to be seen in this world. In contrast, I have noticed that successful people tend to tell stories about how they are “lucky.” Believing you are lucky is a great story to have.
There are also people who have committed to the story that they are “cursed” in some way. These people believe that no matter how hard they work, the universe will figure out some way to screw it up. (See: Boston Red Sox fandom from 1918-2004.)
I believe that we perceive barriers that exist primarily in our mind. For years we believed that the four minute mile was physically impossible to break. And many scientists and engineers believed that breaking the sound barrier was not only dangerous but impossible. Before Roger Bannister and Chuck Yeager, we thought we understood the limits of what was possible. After these barriers were broken, many people followed their success and continued to shatter those barriers.
One theory of why this is so important is in how our brains are designed to imagine the future. In the book The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler, Kotler points out that our brain (specifically the neocortex) is designed to try to predict the future. When we are limited by what we think is possible (i.e. the story that we tell ourselves about our potential) we will become stuck. In his study of extreme athletes who consistently break the boundaries of what is considered possible for human beings, Kotler found that “if we really want to be our best, we don’t just have to rethink the path toward mastery; we need to reconsider the way we live our lives.” (Italics are mine.) In my experience that means calling into question what we consider our limitations and our weaknesses. Essentially, being open to the idea that we don’t actually know what we are capable of doing.
When we let go of the story of who we are, we open up the possibility for profound change. Without the story that we are limited, we can recognize what we already have. The challenge is to be willing to see beyond the story. Watching someone stuck in a false story is like watching someone get soaked even though they have an umbrella. It creates cognitive dissonance.
Maybe it is because of these stories that many of us believe we know exactly how things will turn out. For those who have a positive outlook on life (the ones who believe that they are lucky), this usually means that the future always seems bright and optimistic.
Those who tend to focus on the negative have been rewarded by being right. It is easier to play the negative outcome than it is to imagine the extraordinary. This is the mindset of “I will definitely fail this test” because either way I will be either pleasantly surprised or I get to be right. This is a limiting mindset.
Here’s another way to think about it: Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
People have ideas, hunches or even maybe an educated guess, but the future is not an open book. When you believe that you know for certain what is possible for yourself, you limit yourself in a significant way. This doesn’t mean that you should all go about your lives blindly making choices because anything is possible. What it means is that you have the opportunity to look at your worst case scenario and ask yourself, what if that doesn’t happen? What if you make change and it works out? What would that be like?
Develop the skill of being open to the possibilities available to you in the present, and you will begin to see how uncertain the future really is. The more awake we are to the choices we have and the various surprising outcomes that may come about, the more freedom we have when trying to imagine the future.
A few weeks ago I was listening to the one of the Startup Podcasts featuring Alex Blumberg, which talked about his most recent 360 review and some uncomfortable emotions that came out of it. (It is a powerful episode, and I urge people to check it out if you have a chance. You can listen to it here.)
What struck me the most was how willing he was to lean into the uncomfortable emotions that came up during the 360 review. Rather than give in to the idea that these emotions are negative and should be avoided at all cost, he was willing to go deeper to understand them. Just like Kotler said, “reconsider the way we live our lives.”
Our emotions are not your identities, nor are they facts. They are, however, clues to what is going on inside of you and where the resistance to change is.
I know that for myself, these are real challenges. Everything that I recommend for you is something that I have to work on for myself. In the end, I too want to be free from the story that I am limited. While I recognize that I’m no heart surgeon and the Red Sox aren’t calling me up to play shortstop anytime soon, I can see how I unfairly restrict my own growth when I believe that I know exactly what is possible for me.
This writing and this work is about stretching that understanding and beginning to open up to the possibility that my story and your story can grow and change.