A frowning woman with a wrinkled brow is feeling stuck in her life and career

Are you feeling stuck in your life and career? What are the mental barriers you must overcome to reach success?

A problem you’ll probably face in life is hitting a wall, whether it’s in your career, an important relationship, or a creative endeavor. Adam Alter breaks down some common characteristics of this experience, from the inevitable slowdowns in the middle of long-term projects to the traps that can sabotage progress.

Let’s look at the factors that are keeping you stuck in a mental hole.

When You Feel Stuck

When discussing the blocks that leave you feeling stuck in your life and career, we’re not talking about small everyday challenges such as making a difficult phone call or fighting the urge to skip your regular workout. The major life-blocks that Alter addresses are those in which your progress on something important to you has stalled long enough that it’s wearing you down, and whatever you’re doing to fix the situation hasn’t been working at all. Maybe you’ve been applying for jobs without success, or you’re trying to lose weight but the pounds won’t come off. The situation feels like an existential threat, and your brain shuts down like a deer in the headlights, further tripping up any chance of progress.

(Shortform note: This sensation of feeling mentally frozen is an unfortunate side effect of how your brain is wired. Alter doesn’t delve into the science behind it, but, in Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains how your amygdala, the part of your brain that generates your emotional states, can hijack your rational mental functions by reacting to emotional threats as strongly as it does to physical danger. If the amygdala’s emotional signals are strong enough, they create static in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, disrupting your ability to complete tasks.)

If you’ve been in a drawn-out situation where you felt you had no way forward, you’re not alone. Alter reports that, in a study he conducted, three out of four people could easily point to a time in which they’d felt trapped in a rut, often for months and sometimes for years. (Shortform note: One study found that 61% of Brits felt trapped in a rut. Although this number is lower than Alter’s figure, it still shows that more than half of people feel this way—an indication that it’s a common occurrence.) 

At the same time, says Alter, respondents underestimated how many others had felt the same way. This is because of survivorship bias—the media is full of stories of success, but we rarely get to hear tales of struggles and failures. When others’ successes follow a long road of struggle, we view their hardships through rose-tinted glasses while casting our own failures in a negative light.

Good Stories, Bad Perspectives

In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli points out an additional negative aspect of survivorship bias—namely that by studying success stories before taking on a difficult project, you’ll overestimate your chances of success while underplaying the difficulties ahead. This also draws upon a mental heuristic that Alter doesn’t cover—story bias. Our brains use narrative to make sense of information, preferring a good story over mere boring facts, which leads us to give success stories more credence than they sometimes deserve. 

Likewise, when you’re stuck, that feeling is also rooted in the kind of stories you tell yourself, such as that hard work never pays off or that attempts to change end in failure. In myth, this is the tale of Sisyphus, forever condemned to roll a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back to the bottom, forcing him to start over again. Identifying the story that’s holding you back can guide you toward reframing your personal narrative in a way that will be more productive.

The Long, Winding Road

There are times when it feels like you’re going nowhere simply because the path to your goal is so long that you can’t see the beginning or the end. Accepting the sheer amount of time it takes to achieve anything important in life is the first mental barrier you have to overcome. Alter explains two aspects of this problem—the slowdowns that occur in the middle part of any task and the disconnect between reality and how you imagine your progress should occur.

Alter writes that one pattern holds constant throughout any long-term project or path—we’re all energized when we start something new, and we’re energized again when the goal is in sight. In the middle, whatever drives us slowly becomes a dull routine, especially once the novelty and our initial excitement fade. Like a road trip where every billboard looks the same, there’s always a point where your progress becomes so incremental you can’t see it anymore. It’s here that you may find yourself flailing around for any way to “get moving again,” when in fact your lack of progress is merely an illusion.

(Shortform note: According to B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, the ebb and flow of motivation is more complicated than Alter suggests. In addition to your motivation being highest near the beginning and the end of a task, your motivation levels fluctuate throughout the day and even, for certain goals, throughout the year. To further complicate matters, you may feel different motivations pulling your focus and energy in more than one direction. Fogg recommends taking control of motivation by applying it to specific objectives rather than abstractions, such as telling yourself you’ll exercise today for at least 30 minutes, instead of saying you “want to work out more.”)

However, sometimes your lack of progress is real. You may be training for a race but your times stop getting better, or you’re cramming for a test but your retention hits a limit. This may be due to what Alter describes as the plateau effect. You hit a plateau when the strategies and techniques that jump-started your progress become less effective. This happens because you grow accustomed to them—your body grows used to your athletic program, or you’ve repeated a mental technique so many times that it no longer helps you learn anything new. These plateaus occur when the tricks you employ are aimed at short-term progress rather than the long view, and it’s time to reevaluate them when you reach their limits.

(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, James Clear provides a different way of looking at Alter’s “plateau effect,” which Clear characterizes as a valley of disappointment between your expectations of progress and the reality of how slow progress can be. For any new behavior that you expect to yield results—such as regular exercise—it takes time for your efforts’ cumulative effects to become readily apparent. Clear calls this period the “plateau of latent potential” and says that you have to push through it for your progress to become readily apparent.)

It’s hard to adopt a long view toward success because, when you start working toward an ambition, success is easy to imagine. Nevertheless, your dreams can take years to come to fruition, and even modest goals can often take months. Persistence is key to staying on track, but Alter remarks that we tend to admire persistence more in others than in ourselves. Since our culture is so success-oriented, you’ve probably been conditioned from childhood to view roadblocks as something to be ashamed of, not as a call to redouble your efforts. This counter-productive attitude may lead you to mishandle the inevitable problems you’ll face.

(Shortform note: Though it’s not the only source, the negative conditioning that Alter refers to is deeply rooted in traditional education. In Limitless Mind, Jo Boaler explains that most of us were penalized for making mistakes in school, and as children we developed the belief that struggling with a subject meant we “weren’t good at it.” To the contrary, studies now show that having a hard time learning something is good for brain development. Like Alter, Boaler says that a positive attitude toward periods of struggle is crucial to unlocking your potential for growth, both in the field of learning and—more broadly—in relation to any other goal you’re working toward.)

Pitfalls in Your Path

One thing that’s certain is that, no matter what your goals are in life, something will always get in your way. Though unforeseeable circumstances are, by definition, unpredictable, you can predict that something will go wrong and prepare yourself so you won’t get stopped indefinitely. 

Alter cites the work of Bruce Feiler, who studies the crises that occur in our lives, from minor jolts to catastrophes. Feiler has found that there’s no schedule or pattern to the chaotic events that interfere with our plans, but he’s determined that most of them are sudden and that about 10% of them are life-changing—such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. It’s important to recognize that unplanned turmoil will enter your life, and you have to stay mentally flexible to deal with whatever comes your way. The hard part is judging how much energy to devote to dealing with life’s stressors so that your long-term goals don’t get lost amid the chaos.

The wrong way to deal with life’s messiness is through denial. Alter points to two forms of denial that make things worse—believing that a problem is too small to matter and mistakenly judging that a problem is so far away it’s not an issue.

The “F” Word: Failure

Handling obstacles poorly and not persevering through difficult times will set you up for failure, not success. However, certain types of “failure” that we’ve learned to stigmatize are actually crucial stepping stones along your path. Alter suggests some new ways to approach failure.

Coping Tactic #1: Redefine Success

Alter begins by suggesting that many of our concepts of success are too extreme. If you’re a struggling musician with your heart set on a Grammy or a young romantic looking for your perfect soulmate, failure is almost guaranteed. However, if you set more realistic expectations, such as turning your musical hobby into a career or strengthening an imperfect relationship, then success will be hard but achievable. Even those people we perceive as great successes—geniuses, billionaires, and award-winning artists—experience many failures in their lives. What matters is how they build upon failure and readjust their courses of action.

Coping Tactic #2: Learn From Failure

Alter writes that education research has shown failure to be a vital part of learning. Students who have an easy time in school actually perform more poorly later on than those who struggle and work harder to do well. Alter explains that failure makes you re-examine your approach and try new strategies to reach your goals. If you never fail and never question yourself, you don’t push yourself, and you blind yourself to opportunities that can only be found by straying from the easy path. If you find yourself failing too often, then maybe your goals really are too ambitious—but if you don’t fail at all, you’re not stretching yourself to meet your potential.

Coping Tactic #3: Look Beyond Failure

The problem is that many of us see failure as the end of the line. This is wrong. Alter writes that since failure is a necessary step toward success, you have to reframe your attitude toward it. Choose not to beat yourself up when you fail. Simply look at your failure and figure out what it can teach you. Meanwhile, look at all the progress you’ve made. After all, if you “fail” and feel your progress has stopped, it means that you’ve been making an effort, and you’ve probably come a long way from where you started. When you reflect on the progress you’ve made and learn the lessons that failure can teach you, you prime yourself to climb out of your rut and break through whatever wall is holding you back.

Feeling Stuck in Your Life and Career? Here’s What’s Causing It

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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