The psychology of career stuckness

“Your brain is not your friend.” Your brain has a big job: to keep you safe. It’s a job that it does spectacularly well. And thank goodness it does. 

It’s helped your ancestors evade an impressive bunch of beasts, battles and bad times to keep them alive and increase the odds that you’re sitting here today.

Most of us are fortunate to no longer need to look out for hungry lions, vicious crocodiles, or rival Tribespeople as we go about our day-to-day tasks, but unfortunately, our brain hasn’t quite caught up with this reality.

We still find ourselves in challenging times, that is more apparent now than ever. The Coronavirus crisis is putting huge levels of uncertainty on us all. It’s compromising our careers, our finances and most importantly, our health.

Running towards safety (and away from the uncomfortable) is extremely useful for surviving in the wild, but it’s detrimental to our pursuit of things that matter deeply to us, including our hunt for more fulfilling work.

Harvard psychologist and professor Dan Gilbert says it best:

Put another way by Rob Archer, a core faculty member at The Escape School and psychologist at The Career Psychologist:

“Your brain is not your friend. It’s not your enemy, but it’s also not your friend.”

The good news is that we can circumvent our mind’s clever traps if we first understand how we get stuck and why we stay stuck. Armed with this knowledge we can help ourselves get unstuck.

Archer says that humans can change if these four conditions exist:

  1. We are aware that we are suffering.
  2. We recognise the origin of our suffering.
  3. We recognise there is a way of overcoming our suffering.
  4. We accept that in order to overcome suffering we must change our behaviour.

The fact that you’re reading this article right now is a strong acknowledgement of #1: you’re aware of some degree of suffering in your career and working life.

What about #2, the origin of our suffering? How does career stuckness happen? And why do so many driven and intelligent people seem to get (and stay) stuck doing unfulfilling work?

Archer believes that there are four core principles that keep us stuck in our career:

1. Choice Overload

Humans today, especially those of us privileged enough to be asking such lofty questions about work and life, need to make more complex decisions in a year or even a month than most of our distant ancestors had to make in their lifetime.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this conundrum the Paradox of Choice and discusses it in his TED talk.

2. We Value the Short Term Over the Long Term

For the aforementioned reasons, life was much shorter for our neanderthal ancestors than it generally is for us. For survival reasons, it made more sense to make choices that benefited us in the short term. A popular experiment known as The Marshmallow Test demonstrates this theory and how the hangover of this evolutionary trait affects us today:

Adults too, if we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t so dissimilar to these children in being short-term. We have a tendency to value rewards that benefit us in the short-term, even at the expense of our own well-being and flourishing in the longer-term.

3. Our Brains Think in Linear Patterns

Archer says that our brain is programmed toward “Functional Fixedness,” a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object in the way it is traditionally used. Archer uses The Candle Problem as an example of this. Using the objects below, how would you fixate the candle to a corkboard in such a way that the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below it?

4. Experiential Avoidance

Experiential Avoidance says that your brain wants you to run away from anything that involves pain and fear in the short-term, even if the long-term outcome is something important to you.

For example, let’s say that running a marathon is something you’re deeply driven to accomplish. This requires hard work: waking up an hour earlier to run before work, skipping afterwork drinks to train, pressing through the miles when it hurts most. Your brain says: “Stop! This is no fun! I hate it! It’s hard!” Your brain gives an excellent case for you to stop and move away from your marathon goal. Even though you should certainly be doing these training tasks in order to move toward that goal.

Archer calls these “away moves” and “towards moves” and illustrates them best in his video about Experiential Avoidance:

As you go forward, be cautious of your brain’s self-satisfying and safe “away moves.” They mean to keep you safe, but they will also keep you from realising your career change ambitions.

Treat Discomfort as a Good Sign

Moving towards something that matters can be really uncomfortable. As Experiential Avoidance highlights, if a direction excites you, it’ll likely also scare you. If something is important to you, you’ll also fear losing it. All of this is normal when starting in a new direction. But too many of us get stuck when we treat discomfort as the endpoint, rather than the beginning.

It’s easy to give up when things get hard. Going back to the marathon example, in the actual race itself, there will certainly be miles that are horrendous and difficult. If you do not endure those miles and stop at the first brush with discomfort, you’ll never enjoy the accomplishment of realising the marathon goal.

Counterintuitively, discomfort is actually a good sign. It means you’re growing and moving into unchartered territory. If you feel discomfort, you’re probably doing something right.

Do not give up. If the end goal is important to you, it’s important to be patient and persistent – even in these uncertain times.

If you’re feeling stuck about your career and need support to figure out your next steps, join our Get Unstuck weekend Bootcamp in May to get yourself going again. Find out more.

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