The problem with work is that, for the vast majority of us, it seems meaningless.
It is merely a means to an end, suffered by us so that we may pay the mortgage, buy a new car, or perhaps treat ourselves to that holiday in the Caribbean to “get away from the daily grind”.
I was stuck in a rut myself a couple of years ago. The fun had gone out of work, regulation was getting in the way of everything, the company wanted more for less. For two decades I had loved going to work and moving my career forward, and then, almost out of nowhere, it had become frustrating, dull, unrewarding.
Friends and colleagues noted I had gone from being upbeat to cynical, and while I was far from anything as serious as depression, I realised that I was in a bad place. I could see that I was stuck in a rut. I wasn’t used to not feeling optimistic, and I didn’t like it. A further ten years at work felt like a prison sentence rather than an opportunity.
My boss of course noticed that something in me had changed. To his credit, instead of berating me for a lack of commitment to the cause, he found some empathy for my situation. Not only could he see that I was unhappy, but he understood there was little he could do to turn it around. I had a growing feeling that if I wanted to find my mojo again, I needed to make a fresh start.
In the way that these things usually turn out, redundancy came and we parted company. Twelve months on, I am fully rejuvenated, following my dreams and rediscovering all the pleasures that come from building something from nothing. I’m earning far less than I used to – a temporary hiatus! – but I’m far happier.
This post, however, is not about me, or to preach that redundancy and risk taking are an effective way to get back your mojo – far from it. My situation was very specific, we don’t have kids, and are lucky enough to be able to indulge my entrepreneurial desires without facing financial stress.
The point about my little story above is to bring to life some very basic truths that are common to most of us. Truths that I discovered when stuck in my rut, and ones that you will recognise if you are also stuck in that same daily grind.
At a very basic level, we need to dream.
We are unique on this earth because we, as a race, have an irresistible urge to make things better, to build a better future for ourselves and our children. There are visionaries who really do change the world for the better, but for the rest of us mortals, we all have our own little dreams too. This is no great insight of course, but it is worth exploring a little more.
Have you ever bought a lottery ticket? Ever dreamed about winning the Euromillions jackpot? If, like me, you have, you will recognise the thrill that comes with buying a ticket. That thrill of escaping the daily grind and visualising what you would do with €50mm. The things you would buy, the places you would travel to, the family and friends you would share your (good) fortune with. How you would quit your job and pursue your passions in life.
But you see, it is not in mankind’s nature to be idle – once you’ve had the holidays and the cars and the homes, you would try to build something that embodies and brings to life your dreams, something that is a legacy that you can leave. Your own little “dent in the Universe”.
In the absence of winning the lottery, and being realistic about the need to preserve an income, how then can you use a dream to escape the rut in which you are currently stuck?
In this recent article published on LinkedIn, Marshall Goldsmith (author, consultant, guru) suggests several techniques to help you survive being “stuck in a job that you hate”. All of them make sense, in that they will help you improve your frame of mind while at work. The problem I have is that Marshall’s solutions are really just tactical ones. They deal with the symptoms of being stuck in a rut, but they don’t deal with the cause. They are like taking an aspirin when you get a headache, but they don’t prevent the headaches coming every day. Far be it from me to criticise Marshall, but we need to find a ‘meatier’ solution to the problem.
The rest of this article is about dealing with the cause of your unhappiness at work. I’d like to suggest a solution that not only makes the rut more survivable, but gives you a concrete chance of escaping it.
Without fail, every book I read about personal success emphasises having a concrete vision, a goal, or a dream. Be it the second habit (“Begin with the End in Mind”) in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Napoleon Hill’s six steps to riches in Think and Grow Rich, the message is the same: define in rich detail your vision of what you want to achieve, as far out as you can imagine. And don’t dream of being 10% better (or richer), dream of being 10x better (or richer).
I can think of no better illustration of the power of a vision than the memorable words uttered by John F. Kennedy at Rice University on September 12th 1962.
“We choose to go to the moon”
He repeated those words three times, in the speech which declared America’s intentions to the world, and changed the course of history. JFK mentioned a specific timeline – the end of the decade – and mobilised the resources of the nation behind him. Less than seven years later – just before I was born – the Eagle landed.
Whatever your politics, you have to admire what JFK achieved that day. He defined a very bold, clear and specific vision for his nation which far outstripped existing scientific and engineering knowhow. Rocket technology was at the time totally incapable of carrying anything near the payload required to attempt a moon landing. The necessary computing and processing power to pull off such a feat with any confidence was years from being developed.
This didn’t stop JFK, however, he saw what he had today and translated that into a vision for tomorrow, and by choosing those words he fuelled a burning desire to get it done. Suddenly, with just one speech everything that NASA was doing was imbued with an immense purpose, to change the course of mankind, to almost literally put a dent in the Universe.
Herein lies the solution for you, and your loss of mojo.
If you can define a vision, your vision, of where you want to be and by when, you can then frame everything you are doing today as having a purpose.
Whether it is a promotion, or a new job, or to indeed build a new career, you need to define your vision.
Not sure how to do this?
Here’s an example. I recently started working with a couple of friends who run a golf related business. They have been in partnership together for over a decade and have built up a solid enterprise, with a strong product and happy customers. The problem was they were really stuck in the business, coming in to work, handling the day-to-day urgent stuff, getting bogged down in admin and then going home.
But they were doing this without any real sense of their long term goals, their vision. They had a general idea that one day they would love to sell the business and enjoy the proceeds, but there was no concrete visualisation of that idea.
I suggested that we use a framework which steps away from the day-to-day work and focuses first on their long term goals.
So we spent the first session together just finding about their vision for the business, in as much detail as possible. How big the company would be, in terms of employees, premises, number of clients served annually, types of products sold. And most importantly, the value of that business of the future, and a concrete date by which they want to have realised their dream.
I encouraged them to think big, to not be shackled by the constraints or frustrations of the business today, but to visualise where it could get to in an ideal world where everything went their way.
What’s interesting is that after just one session, my friends have been totally galvanised by their new vision. They are excited by the possibility of building something much bigger than they ever previously imagined. They have a new sense of purpose, which is suddenly bringing much more meaning to the day-to-day work which was hitherto merely an unsatisfying grind.
Their target date to realise their vision is 2030 and they have chosen a big number to shoot for. I hope they make it happen.
The neurological effect on my friends is interesting. It is the same as buying a lottery ticket – having a richly detailed and visceral dream of a great future actually triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, giving them a feel good factor and a desire to achieve that wonderful future outcome.
So the first step for you is to start to define your vision for yourself. Where do you want to be in five years, ten years, or however far out you can imagine?
Do not be limited by thinking realistically. Was Bill Gates being realistic when he decided he wanted to put a PC in every home in the world? Of course not – not least because Microsoft never even made PCs! But did that stop him from achieving his dreams? No. Think BIG and, whatever happens on the way, you will achieve more than if you just think small.
So look up the corporate ladder and decide where you want to get to. Or look across industries and visualise running something different. What is it you love about your business or industry, and what role or position would give you the biggest thrill?
What if you have defined your vision, but you have no idea how to make it happen?
That’s perfectly fine – and perfectly normal. Think of it this way. Today, you are at A. Your vision is to get to Z. You have dreamed about what Z is in rich, exquisite detail, and if you get there it will change your life immeasurably for the better.
But you have no idea how to get from A to Z. You have no idea even how to get from Y to Z, just that last step, or even where on earth M is! But it doesn’t matter. What matters the most is that you know your final destination.
I have a friend who is in this exact situation.
He is stuck in his rut at A. In fact he has overall enjoyed a very successful career so far, but over the last year things have changed and he has lost his mojo. He has a clear vision of his Z, however. His Z is to be running a huge sales organisation – probably something in retail – leading from the front, firing up his entire team to crush it every day. I’ve seen my friend at work, and I know he can crush it, every day.
My advice to him?
“Don’t worry about the fact that you can’t see the route from A to Z. Your only mission today is to find the route from A to B. Break the journey down into small steps. All you need to do is to get from A to B. A to B might only be a small step, but because it is suddenly part of your journey to realise your vision, it becomes a purposeful step. Once you get there, you go from B to C”.
This is how you can start to climb out of your rut. If suddenly you can bring meaning and purpose to some of the daily grind – because it serves an overall bigger mission – then you will rediscover an energy and desire which has been missing from your life.
My friend’s next request was to help understand how to identify his B. It’s a good question. This is how to think of the answer. Imagine you are in a jungle at point A on a map, and Z is your destination, twenty miles north of you. You’ve never been there before, and you have no idea what lies around the next corner on the trail, let alone the rest of the journey. What do you do? You start to explore. Your best guess is that you should start to explore north, because that takes you in the general direction of Z.
So my answer to my friend was this: start to explore.
Who in your existing network of friends and (trusted) colleagues can you ask for advice? Maybe you need to broaden your network, to find someone who knows the route to Z and will help you start in that direction. The essence of going from A to B is that you explore intelligently and purposefully, by being resourceful. That is going from A to B.
“What are your current knowledge gaps?” I asked him. “Write them down, and then start to close them. Buy books which show you how great sales organisations work, and learn the secrets”. I even described our conversation as his A to B, his first step on the road. By sharing his vision with me, we were able to define some next steps. That’s all it takes.
If no-one in your existing network can help, find a Meetup group, use LinkedIn, do some online research – whatever it takes. By doing that you go from A to B, you begin your journey. How do you think NASA got a man on the moon inside of seven years? Once the mission was defined, their first task was to go from A to B. Putting a man in charge of the project was the A to B. Starting the ball rolling on funding was B to C. Starting the work on sourcing next gen semiconductor technology was C to D. And so on. Infused with a sense of purpose, every step took them closer to the goal. By proceeding this way, they were never overwhelmed by the distant dream or seeming impossibility of Z.
Whatever way you start to explore, I’m convinced of this: people will want to help you and doors will open up. It has been the case for me since I took myself in a brand new direction a year ago, and it will be the same for you.
Bear in mind one thing: going from your A to Z is not meant to be an easy journey for you. As JFK said in the Moon speech, America chooses to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
But by defining your Z, you get to choose your own unique lottery ticket dream. You start to take charge of your career again, to rediscover that lost enthusiasm, and move forward with a purpose.
I can think of no surer way for you to get out of your rut.