Asking Not Asking #12: Stuck
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I quit my management consulting job after 9 years because I am convinced I want to create my own business. I’m struggling because I have a lot of skills: I have managed a 50M dollar project, started a digital agency focusing on creative ideas at my large consultancy, and facilitated many CxO level workshops, helping them define their visions, plans, etc.
Now I feel so stuck because I don’t know what I want to focus on. All of them were great experiences but none of them were me and I am not sure what I want to do. Also, I am not sure which country I want to work in because I have worked across the world. I decided to take a year off to explore my passions.
Thanks for your help.
Making decisions can feel paralyzing, and it sounds like that’s where you’re at—stuck and unsure what to do next because there are so many options. This is the tyranny of choice. We think more options make us better off, but that scenario can lead to what you’re experiencing. In an interesting article published in Scientific American, researcher Barry Schwartz addresses this conundrum and cites drawbacks present when we have too many choices. He notes that more options can lead to regret, adaptation, unattainable expectations, and paralysis.
I’ll break those down for you: 1) Regret is when we think about the option we didn’t choose and romanticize it, which leads to increased satisfaction with what we did choose. 2) Adaptation is when we acclimate to the choice we made and yet the availability of more options decreases our happiness with that choice. 3 ) Unattainable expectations happen when our expectations escalate and we’re unwilling to accept anything less than perfection. 4) Paralysis is what you’re experiencing—when you’re overwhelmed by choice and instead choose not to decide at all.
Schwartz’s article is about consumerism and financial decisions, but the tyranny of choice can apply to all areas of our lives: the city we decide to call home, the romantic partners we date, our wardrobes—have you ever stood in front of an overflowing closet and exclaimed, “I have nothing to wear?”—and the work we do. But there is hope. First, I’ll share the highlights of Schwartz's methods to cope with too much choice, and then we’ll dig even deeper in relation to your journey.
To combat option overload, Schwartz recommends the following methods:
Choose when to choose. You can decide to restrict your options when the decision is not crucial. Schwartz gives the example of making a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothes.
Learn to accept good enough. Commit to the choice that meets your needs and/or core requirements rather than searching for the elusive “best” just for the sake of it.
Don’t worry about what you’re missing. You know the acronym, FOMO, short for fear of missing out. Instead of thinking about what you’re not choosing, focus on the positive about what you did choose.
Control expectations. This relates to accepting “good enough.” Schwartz argues that if you want to be more satisfied with life, it’s best not to expect perfection—otherwise you’ll continue to be disappointed.
So let’s apply these methods to your specific situation. First, I want you to commit to a timeline. You mentioned that you’ve decided to take a year off to travel—what an amazing opportunity! With that in mind, when will you make your decision about what’s next so that you can begin to plan for the transition? Take a look at your calendar, pick a date, mark it on your calendar, and commit to it. Tell yourself that by that date you will decide what you are going to do for the next chapter of your career.
Second, think about what you need during this next phase of your work. What is the purpose of this next chapter? You’re not making a decision that you have to adhere to forever—you are deciding what you will do for the next season, whether that’s 1 year or 5. Take out a piece of paper and write down what you want to learn, achieve, and accomplish in this next phase of your career. Now, make a list of your non-negotiables, like how much you need to make and where you want to work. You mentioned that you’re not sure about location, but if you don’t narrow it down, otherwise you’ll continue to be paralyzed. I’d recommend picking your top 2 locations and limiting yourself to those.
Now, for the third step, decide that you are going to move forward with your plan without playing the comparison game. Don’t dwell on what you did not choose. Don’t fixate on what others are doing. Keep your list of non-negotiables and your list of what you want to learn, achieve, and accomplish somewhere where you can look at it on a regular basis. Look at it at least once a week to renew your commitment to the path you have chosen.
Finally, I want you to imagine two scenarios for me in regards to setting expectations. First, think about what “good enough” would look like. Write it down. “Good enough means I would make _______________, live in _______________, learn _______________, grow in _______________ ways, and achieve _______________.
And now, push yourself a little further and do the same exercise again, but think bigger (not perfection, but bigger). “Dreaming a little bigger for myself means I would make _______________, live in _______________, learn _______________, grow in _______________ ways, and achieve _______________.
Now let’s talk about the overwhelm you feel when you think about your skills and what you want to focus on, as that seems to be a challenge and a big reason for your paralysis. You said you have managed a 50-million dollar project, started a digital agency focusing on creative ideas at a large consultancy, and facilitated many CxO level workshops. You are clearly versatile and skilled with plenty of experience. But you said about those experiences: “...none of them were me and I am not sure what I want to do.”
So I have one last exercise to help you explore your desires. I’d encourage you to revisit this exercise several times because the more you do it, the more you will unlock in yourself. You may even feel stuck at first—pardon the word play—but that’s okay. Commit to sitting with it for a minimum of 30 minutes with no distractions 1-2 times per week. It’s an equation for you to explore: Desires + Resources = Opportunities. To clarify, resources include your knowledge, experience, training, contacts, money, and time.
You will become unstuck the more you become yourself, the more in tune you are with who you are, and the more you’re able to set up some constraints to help you move past the tyranny of choice. There’s a beautiful quote by the writer Rebecca Solnit that embodies this call to become: "The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting which makes everyone an artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on.”
This is the next iteration of yourself. How do you want to transform? This is about the work, but it’s deeper than that. This is an opportunity to get in touch with your deepest desires that translate to your work. This is an opportunity to find a place that feels like home to you, a place that is you, a place where you can move forward with confidence, commitment, and conviction.
To becoming unstuck,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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