Last time we discussed how terrible plateaus are, yet said nothing about how to escape them! Today we will share how to break free of those plateaus and better equip ourselves to escape them in the future.
Years ago I was speaking at a large biotech company in the United States. At one point we had a spirited discussion about what it means to not simply do what we are good at, but what we truly enjoy (we introduced this idea in the previous article). We talked about how the trap of being good at things we don’t like can easily lead us to a plateau.
After the workshop a woman—let’s call her Julie—walked nervously up to me, clearly a bit distraught by what had been taught. She, like most of the people in the room, was a chemist. She had been a chemist her entire professional career and had done well. The company recognized her good work and rewarded her accordingly. By most measures, Julie was a rousing success.
But she hated her job.
Julie hated the often-repetitive nature of the work. She hated being stuck at a tiny desk staring at lab equipment all day. She hated the fact that human interaction was so minimal. Perhaps worst of all, she simply didn’t enjoy doing the chemistry itself. What so disturbed her about the workshop was the revelation that she was stuck on a plateau and had no idea how to escape. She had done no other kind of work, had sunk enormous time and resources into getting the education required to be a world-class chemist, and she was completely unhappy with her job as a chemist.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked, exasperated.
During the workshop we had discussed several strategies for getting off plateaus. I asked, “Which strategy do you think would be most effective?”
She stared at me, annoyed. (Those “what do you think you should do?” questions are so annoying, aren’t they? But they still work!) We talked for quite some time. When she left she still had no idea what she was going to do, but her brain was clearly whirring with possibilities. I sympathized. Julie’s position is not an easy one. It can be frustrating and frightening. I wished her the best.
About three years later I was at this company again, at the same site, speaking about a different topic. Near the end of the day I noticed a woman slip in through a side door and sit at a table in the back of the room. It was Julie. As soon as the workshop was concluded I went over so she could fill me in on her career. Since I last saw her, Julie had spoken with her boss and HR business partner to put together a plan. She began transitioning into positions that were more people-oriented. In the evenings she got an education in an HR-related field (which the company was kind enough to pay for). She was now, to my surprise and delight, a very happy HR manager. While it is often dangerous and usually rude for a gentleman to risk guessing the age of a lady, I believe she was in her late forties when she pulled off this impressive switch, and was enjoying her work more than ever before.
Julie exemplified the first of our four strategies for getting off the career plateau:
- Switch jobs. Sometimes it’s simply not worth trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Although it can be terrifically stressful in the short term, in the long term a job change can open opportunities that may fit our talents and passions better than anything else. It is not a decision to be taken lightly. Even if we switch jobs but remain in our field of expertise, we still have to convince others of our credibility, learn the rules (both written and unwritten) of our new position, and rebuild at least a portion of our network. If we switch jobs too frequently we might be poorly perceived as a jack of all trades and master of none. Perhaps even worse, switching jobs too frequently could lead to organizations seeing us as someone who is not worth developing because they believe we will jump ship before they can recoup their investment in us. Even with these risks, changing jobs is often a good option—it worked very well for Julie—but there are risks in doing it too often. If we choose to do so, we must first:
- Build safety nets. Remember, brains hate change. Safety nets are a great way to minimize our brains’ inherent fear response and increase the likelihood that we will succeed (even if we don’t succeed, safety nets decrease the risk). First, we recommend building a financial safety net. A 2016 survey shows that only 15% of Americans have more than $10,000 in savings. A frightening 34% have precisely zero dollars saved. Zero! Financial advisors will often recommend having at least 6 months’ worth of savings, enough to cover the needs of ourselves and any dependents. At Step Change Learning we would recommend doubling that. Slowly putting together such a savings can take a good amount of time and planning, but it is worth making a priority. Imagine what we could do with twelve months of perfect financial freedom. We could write a book or start a company. We could explore opportunities overseas or (if we work fast) get a degree. But money is not enough. It is also important to have an emotional safety net. We want to be surrounded by people who know us, who like us, and who will pick us up and help us feel better when we fail. With those two safety nets in place, jumping off the plateau is neither unnecessarily risky nor debilitatingly scary.
- Change the current job. There is often far more flexibility in our position than our job descriptions might suggest. There might be enormous opportunity to do new things and reignite the passion right where we are. There may be new projects or assignments we could take on. I’ve often found that people are amazed how much they’re allowed to get away with if they only ask. Perhaps there are systems or processes that could be improved, or new employees we could mentor. Maybe other departments could make more use of what we do, if only they understood it better. We could show them. The nice thing about this option is that it carries virtually none of the risk of switching jobs, but most of the same rewards. If one is consistently challenged and making a positive impact, one could be in the same position for a decade or longer and never risk plateauing.
- Avoid learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a term used by psychologists to describe a curious quirk in the behavior of humans and other animals. In one famous study, dogs were placed in a cage with no escape and an electrified metal floor. Researchers would then shock the dogs at random intervals. (These shocks would not cause long-term physical harm, but they were not pleasant.) At first the dogs would attempt escape. Over time, as they learned there was no way out of the cage, they simply lay on the floor, unmoving even when receiving painful shocks. When the same dogs were later placed in a cage they could escape from (by jumping over a low ledge), they didn’t even try to get away. Only when the researchers physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs to imitate them walking to and jumping over the small ledge did the dogs finally do something to escape (and even then, the researchers had to physically move the dogs twice or more before they would move themselves). Humans do the same. If we feel like we’ve been trapped and that our past attempts at escape have been fruitless, we simply stop trying. This behavior then continues even if the situation has changed significantly and new opportunities have presented themselves. Our learned helplessness makes it difficult to take advantage of changes in the environment. (Researchers theorize this could be a major cause of depression; when our brain feels like it doesn’t have control over its environment, it eventually gives up.) Simply knowing about learned helplessness can help us avoid it before it feels inescapable.
I am not suggesting any of these tips are easy. They are not. All of them require getting out of our comfort zones. I would suggest it is worth the effort. Here’s my three-sentence motivational speech on the matter:
Folks, life is short, and we only get one ride on the merry-go-round. Might I humbly suggest that it is to short to spend hours and hours and hours every week doing something that doesn’t thrill us. I don’t think it’s merely a cute idea—and I don’t think it’s just wide-eyed naiveté—to suggest that we can avoid plateaus and engage in work we truly love.
Best of luck to all of us in that endeavor.
For Your Consideration
- What strategies have you used to escape or avoid plateaus in the past? Which were most successful?
- Which of the strategies above would you like to use in the future? How do you plan to use them?
- Take a moment to think about past events in which you fell into a pattern of learned helplessness. What caused it? What did you do to escape?
- Make a list of your current safety nets, both financial and emotional. What could you do in the next few months to strengthen those safety nets?