Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths

In 1995, Betsy Sloan was 35 years old and had worked her way into "the perfect job." As a CPA in a large California insurance company, she had a great salary, stock options, a "fabulous boss" and hours that were the envy of her friends.

"And I was miserable," she says today. She leans comfortably into the back of a chair, her dark eyes sharply focused behind her stylish, orange-framed glasses. "The art of the deal, the big transaction—that never did it for me. What was worse, I could project 30 years into the future and know exactly what I'd be doing every quarter—making SEC filings, doing internal reporting for the CFO. It was mind-numbing."

"I felt totally stuck," she adds. "I made too much money to quit, but I hated not being able to go do what I really wanted." Sloan had never been encouraged to "do what she really wanted." Her middle-class, suburban family had encouraged her to develop strong skills and then find a job that would set her up for life. Always good at pleasing teachers, parents, and professors, she'd earned a 4.0 average in high school, won a full scholarship to college, excelled in accounting, and landed a job in a "Big Eight" CPA firm. After six years, she moved to the dream job at the insurance company.

Then, one day, she decided she couldn't do it anymore. She quit and left the office—and its financial security—the very same day. Sloan moved in with her parents and started taking classes at the local community college. One of those classes was Creative Writing. "I started writing about what I loved," she recalls. "I realized that I had been happiest in my life when I was in school. I loved that environment. Actually, I'd always secretly wanted to be a teacher. So I took the subject-matter proficiency classes to be a math teacher, and then I applied to graduate school for a master's in education."

By the time she turned 38, Sloan was teaching ninth-grade algebra and pre-calculus honors at a Seattle public high school. She had gone from making $106,000 a year to making $34,000. And she was loving every minute of it.

All of us, like Becky, can suddenly find ourselves stuck and miserable. These feelings might come at predictable moments: the loss of a job; the end of a romance; the departure of a child and the sudden yawning of an empty nest; or the death of someone who has long helped us feel recognized, loved, and appreciated. But they might also come at unpredictable moments: when the job of a lifetime somehow loses its juice; when we ache for intimacy but can't seem to find the right partner; when we find ourselves longing to renew a sense of life's adventure.

We find ourselves at an impasse, and we suffer. At work we feel stale or unchallenged—or fret that we are not progressing to a more rewarding role. In our personal lives we feel agitated, deflated, or downright bored. We are desperate to discover a meaningful way to contribute at work, to find a reinvigorated role in our families, and to dive back into the current of our own lives. We sense that life is flowing all around us, but we sit like a boulder in a river, at a loss about how to be swept back in and transformed by the river's great energy.

We know well the experience of being carried off by this energy, when we experience the surge of life, when our ideas and the will to act on them come from a well deeper than our own small selves. We feel connected; things get done; we sense something exciting is at hand. We are, as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, "in the flow."

When we are at an impasse, we often cannot even sense this flow—or how close to it we may be. We cannot see how close we are to a dynamic dislodging that would place us back into the energy of the moving current. When we are feeling stuck, we forget that the next thing that will wake us up and energize us deeply is already in motion, upstream, moving toward our awareness. When we have run aground, we sometimes fail to realize that this is a necessary crisis, without which we cannot grow, change and—eventually—live more fully in a larger world.

Impasse and Vision

Impasse, like the Greek god Hermes, often appears in our lives as a herald, to let us know that we must change.

But this book is also about vision. It is about how we do see our way, again and again, from impasse to renewed meaning—at work, at home, with colleagues, and with family, and how we find a renewed sense of self—with the aspects of our lives that bring both passion and satisfaction.

Vision as it is used here is not merely a plan for the future; vision is a renewed sense of purpose in our day-to-day work. It entails stopping, reflecting, imagining, and then acting—stepping anew into the creative flow. It requires building, over time, a clearer and more immediate sense of the patterns of activities, people and environments that are most likely to be rewarding. Vision allows us to tap into what is already moving within us at a deeper level, already asking for fuller expression. With vision, we are better able to recognize what resources, behavior changes, and relationships we will need in order to reconnect with what is most important to us.

When we have a sense of vision, we feel more connected to the world, more alive. The gap between our thought and action, our internal world and external world, vanishes and we more fully occupy our "self." Our everyday choices feed off our vision the way a lantern flame feeds off kerosene.

Just as important as vision is re-vision, for the process of seeing anew happens time and again throughout our lives. (And it happens for each of us in different ways.) Sometimes a sense of vision leads to a relatively minor decision, as when we plan carefully for an important event or decide to give new priority to certain tasks. At other times, vision leads us to major change, as when we marry or pursue a radically new career path. There are times of great epiphanies, times when our awareness opens and we gain insight into our lives—about what big things we want and which big things we must do. And then there are times when a slight shift can make a dramatic difference in how we feel about something smaller—the arc of our workday, perhaps, or our time with our children.

My Perspective

My understanding of what we experience when we are stuck, and how we can get ourselves unstuck, has evolved out of more than thirty years of work as a social scientist, psychotherapist, and career counselor. I have worked at Harvard Business School and for a variety of organizations, from small high-tech startups to Fortune 500 corporations. I have been employed by the organizations themselves, but also by individual executives during times of career transition. People sometimes come to see me when they have been let go, or told that termination is imminent. At other times, people may seek my counsel because they lack a sense of accomplishment in an otherwise stable and well-paid job. People often come to me seeking work that is more rewarding. Whether consciously or not, they all come looking for meaning. As a result, I have focused much of my research on the "meaning of meaning"—on how individuals find a path to life situations that are satisfying and sustainable.

Becky's Vision

"I've always liked math, but it's sharing the ideas with students that gets me out of bed in the morning," says Becky Sloan, almost breathing a sigh of relief as she talks about her former career as a CPA and her current life as a teacher. "I care more about people than the bottom line. And I really care about ninth-graders: you get to fall in love with them—and then have them for three more years."

As a high-school teacher, Sloan has found the freedom to be who she really is. "As A CPA in a Big Eight firm in the '80s," she says, "I couldn't wear pants. I couldn't even wear a dress. It had to be a suit. In the insurance firm in the ‘90s maybe I could wear a pants suit." Her work attire today is a brown button-down blouse and khaki trousers, and her auburn hair falls to her shoulders in graceful waves. But during her nine years as a teacher she's gone from her natural color to dyed to bleached blonde—and back to auburn.

"Students are very accepting," she says. "All they care about is how much homework I give them. And all the administration cares about is whether I'm teaching the curriculum."

"What I care about is that high schoolers get my jokes," she adds, laughing. "I'm shy, but put me in front of a class and I'm a ham." Quickly settling into a more reflective tone she adds, "My charge is much more that developing good math students." She has found that the great meaning in her work comes from counseling and mentoring her students, whether leading a discussion after one student died in a car accident, or inviting kids into her classroom at lunchtime. "We usually have four games of Scrabble going, kids hanging out over Scrabble and talking."

For those of us who, like Betsy, take the time to let ourselves fully experience impasse, letting the crisis deepen, listening to that clear inner voice, and taking action to make change, life will prove more and challenging than our younger selves had imagined, and it will, at the same time feel more familiar and authentic.

It is my hope that what I have learned about how this process actually takes place will draw you deeper into your own vision for what needs to come next in life and deeper, as well, into your ability to recognize and help those around you who find themselves at their own frontier.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpt from Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths by Timothy Butler. Copyright 2007 Timothy Butler. All rights reserved.