“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” – Charles R. Swindoll
For twenty-something me, a college drop-out utterly overwhelmed with choice and bewildered by unemployment, it can easily feel like a void of nothingness, so black and dense there is little point in considering a future beyond it.
I see friends studying Economics, English, and Engineering. They’ve joined their circus, and I haven’t even started yet. I'm behind, I'll never catch-up; I'll be the kid that got held up.
College has structure, solidity, a process, respect, certification, and a certain standing. Without it I'm a light-weight who dropped out and couldn’t handle it. I'm fit to flip burgers and shut up.
Or, maybe it’s okay to try a different method of travel for the time being.
Feeling a thousand times behind, like I wasted time—this is the feeling that mired me in a rut. Falling into the rut is different for all of us, but how we get out? Not so different.
When we imagine the worst possible outcome for our choices, this creates that pit-in-the-stomach feeling, which then cycles in our head, until suddenly it seems like our whole world is falling apart.
I’m sure there are many people out there like me, maybe of a different age, feeling stuck, confused, nervous, anxious, and not just lost but somehow behind.
I was stuck dwelling on everything I thought I did wrong, when it occurred to me that I couldn’t find any solutions until I cleared my head. Only when I stop obsessing and over-analyzing can I think clearly and make decisions I can trust.
So I did that, and started to find my way out of this rut. Here is what I learned:
Getting uncomfortable can be a good thing.
I’m naturally reserved. I’m quiet and shy, and it’s easy to let that hold me back. It’s easy to ignore people instead of engaging in conversations; which means I can miss out on opportunities just because I feel uncomfortable.
When we sit in the background and choose not to contribute, we’re not taking responsibility for our lives. We are the only ones who can make the effort and change things. Sometimes it’s the most uncomfortable moments that lead to an important connection or spark of inspiration.
We need to know it’s not “us against the world.”
I sat in my room aimlessly for next to a year wallowing in a pool of self-pity. I’d collected a nice little reservoir of things to worry about. My “analysis paralysis” was my imaginary friend.
This victim complex is a sure route to staying stuck, because we end up feeling like outsiders, as if everyone is against us, when really it’s just a matter of perception. If we feel left out or behind, it’s not because other people are doing it to us; it’s how we’re choosing to react to life.
The best way to get unstuck is to start creating the work that only we can.
This follows on from Seth Godin’s idea that real artists “ship.” People who are successful in any field constantly put their ideas out into the world. A good idea is one that has been shipped out into the world; a bad idea is one we’ve kept to ourselves because we were scared to share it.
This sense of contributing the work only we could is satisfying. We need to let ourselves be curious about what we have to offer.
We have to get over the voice that says, “There’s no point in even trying that.”
For me, writing became therapy. Teasing out ideas on paper comforted me. Those ideas turned into blog posts and this became a passion that could ease me even on the worst days of unemployment.
The key to getting out of a rut, I’ve found, is actively investing yourself in passions that resonate with you.
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, makes no bones about it: He blames our social ills, anxiety, and pill-popping tendencies on our habit of giving into the resistance (the voice that tells us we can’t do things) and not doing the work that matters to us.
Perhaps we would do best by acknowledging those things we know we love.
To have a vision to fulfill is perhaps our greatest asset. To give our day-to-day struggle a sense of meaning, of effort and reward, we’d do well to spend time creating the things that satisfy us fully.
My work became a little easier when I knew there was something I was building. Dull bus commutes and rainy days in the same old city became less bothersome because of the knowledge that I was doing something that mattered to me, maybe not as a job, but at home.
Our passions can’t always be rendered with a job description, and this can deter us from pursuing them. They can seem like a guilty pleasure we keep on the side, something without a point. But the point resides entirely with us.
The first step is getting curious, allowing yourself to identify or reconnect with whatever it is that gets you excited.
From there, the only choice is to start—to invest your free time and energy, instead of making excuses not to do it.
There are only a certain number of hours in the day. If we have to work jobs that aren’t aligned with our passions, they will ultimately take up a great deal of our time. This may seem like a burden but maybe it can be an advantage.
Structure can actually enhance our creativity and productivity. Most well-known writers always sit down to write at a certain time each day and keep the routine. Infinite spare time isn’t necessarily a good thing. Sometimes having an element of constriction forces us to schedule in the work that matters to us where we can, so that we ensure it gets done.
Those activities we pursue, those business ventures we start, those blogs we keep, those things we pursue on the side, all give meaning to our every day, and they can all turn into something bigger given time and work.
Having something to contribute to, knowing that you are shipping something that is completely yours is deeply fulfilling. This is how I found my way out of my rut, and it may be what does it for you too.
Nothing could be more essential to living than doing what matters to us most—whether we do it for work or not.
Photo by Jiaren Lau