Navigating your career can feel like getting called into the cockpit of a 747 and being asked to fly the plane. Sure, it’s possible… but it can feel like something only other people know how to do. It’s high stakes. It’s scary. It’s hard to even know where to begin—and what career rut mistakes to avoid along the way.
As an executive coach, I talk to lots of people about their careers. I want to demystify the notion that anyone knows exactly what they’re doing. “How do I want to spend my time, at work and in life?” is an ever-evolving question without clear right or wrong answers. (Sorry.)
But there are common pitfalls I see that plague many people who feel stuck—and ways to avoid such detours. I hope you can learn from them, so that the next time you feel stuck by the prospect of navigating your career you have a metaphorical flight map to help you land the plane.
4 common career rut mistakes and how to solve each
1. You’re overwhelmed by options, interests, and ideas
The solution: Add constraints
The hardest part of making a career decision is often knowing where to start. You have LOTS of interests, passions, experiences, and transferable skills—one day you’re excited about pursuing your photography passion, while the next you’re researching grad programs or putting together the case for promotion in your current corporate role. It all sounds so interesting!
When the open-ended nature of your career options gets overwhelming, it may be time to stop thinking about the (unlimited!) possibilities themselves and start creating constraints. A constraint is a guardrail that impacts the option-set in front of you. For example: working hours, location, salary, benefits, travel, commute time…anything that has the ability to immediately limits your choices.
Your constraints could look like: “Whatever I do next has to at least match my current salary, and offer a commute of no more than 30 minutes round-trip per day” or “I want to be traveling or working outside my home at least three days every week, and I need healthcare through my job.” Once you have constraints in place, you can begin to screen and narrow down your options, crossing things off your list to feel more focused and clear.
2. You don’t know if it makes sense to stay in your current role
The solution: Reframe, renovate, or reinvent
In any challenging situation in life, you have three options:
- Reframe. Reframing is all about accepting your current reality by changing your mindset and approach to it. Are you in a boring job? Reframe: You actually appreciate that your boring job affords you the ability to work stress-free and then shut off at the end of the day to focus on your life outside of work. Working for a challenging boss? Reframe: You’re learning a ton about how to manage up. Sometimes all you need is a reframe to shift your perspective and feel good about where you are.
- Renovate. When reframing isn’t enough, it may be time to make real changes to the current situation. Renovating means taking steps to change your current situation to make it better. Let’s take the boring job example. Perhaps it’s time to renovate by suggesting taking on a new project, or shifting your scope. When it comes to the challenging boss, you may need to initiate a feedback conversation about your working styles, consider finding sponsorship elsewhere in your organization, or even suggest an org change to report to a new manager.
- Reinvent. Sometimes renovation—making changes within the current reality—isn’t enough, and you have to totally blow up the status quo and reinvent. Quit your job. Break up with the person. Move cities. Go back to school. Start that business.
Each “R” in the “reframe, renovate, reinvent” framework is progressively more extreme, so I often encourage clients to go down the list and start by reframing. If that’s not offering satisfaction, what would it look like to renovate? If that doesn’t work, it may be time to explore reinvention.
3. You’re intimidated by the idea of closing doors or shutting down options
The solution: Outline multiple paths
Particularly for (but not limited to!) folks who are earlier in their career, making professional decisions can cause anxiety because it means closing doors. Going to law school implies shutting down your dream of opening a pottery studio. Taking a job in supply chain means closing the door on your passion for elementary education.
This narrowing effect can feel so paralyzing that you’re frozen, and don’t know where to begin. But who says you need to define a single path? I encourage clients to outline three different paths that are all unique and satisfying in their own way. Once you’ve done that, look behind each door! Are there patterns or themes across your different paths? If so, what can you learn from that? What’s motivating about each option, and are there ways to incorporate those things into whatever it is you end up doing? Does one path necessarily preclude you from pursuing another? Your career can feel more like a climbing wall than a ladder, and you can learn a lot by exploring multiple paths before shutting anything down.
4. You’re constantly dissatisfied with your career
The solution: Time-box your angst
Betty Friedan wrote that “housework seemed to expand to fill the time available,” and I think the same can be said for career angst. There’s always something to feel anxious about. (“Am I in the right field?” “When should I get promoted?” “How’s my work/life balance?” “When I look back on my career will I be proud of my legacy?”) These concerns are valid, but can distract from your quality of life (not to mention your ability to focus and do a good job every day).
So when clients express an unending dissatisfaction with their career, I ask: “How often over the course of a year do you want to actively analyze your career?” Most people say somewhere between every three to 12 months. Great! Let’s add that reflection time to the calendar as a forcing function to ask the big, critical, existential questions. And then for the rest of the year you free yourself to let go of the angst and just focus on enjoying life and doing a good job.
Whether you’re someone who’s perpetually anxious about your career, overwhelmed by your option-set, scared of closing doors, or not sure how dramatically you want to shift, you’re not alone. There are common pitfalls we all face over the course of our careers, but there are also tools to help, and this is a good place to start.