Six Reasons People Get Stuck and How to Move Forward

You’re 30. You’re advancing in your career, planning a wedding, and trying to pay off student loans. You’re too busy.

You’re 40. You have kids, a mortgage, and college to pay for. You have too many responsibilities.

You’re 50. Your knee hurts, you’re tired, you need to save for retirement. You’re too old.

Life goes by fast, and then faster and faster. If you’re not careful, your bucket list will get filled with excuses rather than accomplishments and experiences. It’s easy to allow routine to take hold, and once it does, progress often grinds to a halt. Next thing you know you’re wondering where the time went and rationalizing why you deferred your dreams, which now seem unattainable. This scenario is a common one, but it need not be.

One of the biggest reasons that Heather and I decided to move to Traverse City was that we felt stuck in the rut of routine. We didn’t have to move to shake things up, but we concluded that a kick-in-the-ass catalyst would help propel things along at a much quicker pace.

The experience has been insightful. We’re still not sure exactly where we’re headed, but we’ve gotten ourselves moving. And that’s important, because almost everything positive that has happened in our lives has come when we’ve stepped outside of our comfort zones.

But that’s a difficult first step to take, and we’re finding that it becomes even harder as we get older. Once you break down those walls, though, a world of possibility opens.

To move forward you first need to understand what is holding you back. Only after you’ve diagnosed the problem can you implement the right course of treatment.

Here are six common ailments that impede progress, and some ideas for moving forward:

The First Problem: The Impostor Syndrom

You’ve heard that voice in your head – the one that tells you that you’re not good enough. It typically creeps in as soon as you step out of your comfort zone, and whispers warnings that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve it, that you’re a fraud.

The voice not only cuts you down, it builds others up. It tells you that those around you are smarter, better and more talented – they have it all figured out. If you listen to the voice, you end up staying safely within your comfort zone and never move forward. Fear is paralyzing.

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes call this type of fear “the impostor syndrome.” They describe it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

If you’ve ever stepped in front of a podium to address an audience or been promoted to a job that you’re not sure you can handle, then you’ve likely felt like an impostor. I just wrote my first book, set to be released this spring, and every day I have to push back doubts about why anyone would be interested in reading what I have to say. Same goes for this blog post. Virtually all first time parents wonder why the hell the doctors and nurses let them take their first child home from the hospital. Self doubt can be a constant state of mind.

The Fix: Realize that Everyone is an Impostor

The most important step in overcoming the impostor syndrome is realizing that we are all impostors. No one knows what they are doing most of the time. For people who routinely step out of their comfort zones, uncertainty is a constant. As screenwriter William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.”

If we can come to grips with the fact that those around us are feeling the same sense of anxiety that we are, then pushing through the fear becomes easier. Instead of succumbing to self doubt, embrace it. Successful people “fake it ‘til they make it,” so just keeping moving forward.

The Second Problem: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Have you ever stayed in a job or a relationship for too long because you felt like you had so much time and effort invested in it? That walking away, despite the fact that you were in a bad situation, was not worth the cost? Most of us have, which means we’ve fallen victim to the “sunk cost fallacy.”

A sunk cost is one that has already been incurred and cannot be recouped. It’s gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. The fallacy is that we believe we can recover sunk costs, so we make bad decisions – or no decision at all – because we don’t want to accept the fact that the past is in the past. So instead of making progress on a new path we compound our mistakes based on the irrational desire to justify our prior decisions. In other words, we “throw good money after bad.”

The Fix: Know When to Cut Losses

Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu explained that: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are going.” While “sunk cost fallacy” may not have been part of the nomenclature when LT was pontificating 2,500 years ago, the principle espoused is the same: Know when to change course. Or, in the words of modern day wise man Kenny Rogers: Know when to fold ‘em.

Not only do people overvalue sunk costs, but they undervalue future investments. They stay in situations for too long even though they’re not happy because they doubt their potential to pivot and make positive change.

Sunk costs are, by definition, gone. You can’t get them back. So there’s no reason to regret past mistakes. And there’s certainly no reason to compound them by not changing behavior. Learn from your past and remember that every stumble is a step toward your future. {tweet that}

The Third Problem: Living for Others

Ever sit through a speech or a meeting in which people were asked to raise their hands if they believe in X, or don’t believe in Y? What’s the first thing that happens? Everyone looks around to see who else is, or is not, raising their hand. Why? Because people don’t want to stand out for fear of being judged.

Far too many people live their lives based on perceptions of what others may think of their actions and decisions rather than – others be damned – focusing on their own dreams and desires. Instead of working to be happy, they worry about pleasing others. If I quit my job, what will my parents think? If I join – or don’t join – this group, what will my friends say? How will my co-workers react if I speak up at the meeting? Will people “like” my social media post?

This is no way to live, and it’s a recipe for staying stuck. That’s not to say that we all don’t worry about what other people think of us from time to time, it’s just that it can’t be your guiding principle. If it is, it will exhaust you, despite the fact that it will cause you to stand firmly in place.

The Fix: Stop Caring about What Others think about You, because (Most) People Could’t Give a Damn

How often do you think about what your friends are wearing, or how your co-workers spend their weekends? Exactly – almost never. Most of us are too busy thinking about our own lives to worry about what someone else is doing. And the same is true of others – they’re not judging you. They’re too worried about being judged themselves.

If someone does judge you? So what. You’ll never please everyone – that’s out of your control. What is in your control is how you react. You can either let it get you down, or you can ignore it and move forward. There’s no way that everyone is going to like you, but depending on how you conduct yourself you can earn everyone’s respect. And that should be the objective.

In other words, this is not a call to narcissism, it’s a wake-up call to start living life on your own terms. Selflessness in service of those you love and who love you is an enduring virtue. But trying to please everyone is a dead end. The path to progress starts with having a well-developed value system and the courage to unabashedly express it. Again, not everyone will like it, but if you’re true to yourself and your values (good ones, obviously) then you’ll be respected no matter where your path takes you.

The Fourth Problem: Thinking “Why Me?” Instead of “Why Not Me?”

We hear a lot about “overnight success” stories – people who emerge from obscurity and skyrocket to fame and fortune, and businesses that start in a garage or dorm room and quickly command billion dollar valuations. These stories make for great sound bites in the age of the internet and social media, and they leave people thinking that success is more the result of a stroke of luck than it is hard work and determination.

If success, like winning the lottery, is out of your control, then why even bother, right? If you believe that your destiny is pre-ordained, then you are more likely to simply let life happen, than you are to make life happen.

The Fix: Understand the Elements of Success

With few exceptions the overnight success phenomenon is a myth. We see the end result – the fame and fortune – but we don’t see the blood, sweat, tears, toil, failure, sacrifice and rejection that enabled the achievement to happen. Almost no one achieves anything worthwhile the first time they try, or even the second or third. Indeed, the road to success for most is littered with failure.

If you’re willing to work hard and persevere through hardship, you can become successful – it just won’t happen overnight. Those who grasp this don’t look for lightning in a bottle. They don’t fatalistically and self-defeatingly ask “Why me?”. Instead, with calm confidence they dig deep, roll up their sleeves, proclaim “Why not me?” and get to work. Success begins with an enduring belief in self, and rabid pursuit of self interest. {tweet that}

The Fifth Problem: Fear of Risk

Most people are risk averse. In order to cover their downside, people try to start businesses on the side while working full-time. It rarely works – there’s just not enough time and energy to go around. Or instead of putting their best idea forward in a monthly staff meeting, they propose three alternatives. The equivocation is plain for all to see, so the effort is muddled and ineffective.

It’s natural, and understandable, to avoid going all-in like a Vegas card shark pushing his chips to the center of the table, but sometimes that’s what’s required. That’s because big ideas require bold action.

The Fix: Burn the Boats

We all like to have a Plan B. But what would happen if you had no options? Would you fall down, or rise to the occasion? More often than not, when backed into a corner, people succeed. So, when faced with a difficult task, instead of building yourself a mental escape hatch, take Plan B off the table. Make failure an unacceptable option. Burn the boats.

Legend has it that Alexander the Great employed this strategy to great success. He led his heavily outnumbered Greek army into battle with Persia and the prospects were bleak. By all accounts, given the disparate troop strength, the Greeks should have been routed. Knowing this, Alexander the Great did something unexpected – he ordered that his boats be burned, eliminating retreat as an option. There was only one way for his men to go – forward – and they won a great victory.

The same strategy was used by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 16th Century when his 600 men landed ashore in the New World and defeated the Aztec Empire. And it can be used by you, too. Rather than playing it safe, go all-in. After all, sometimes the best exit strategy is to have none at all. {tweet that}

The Sixth Problem: Choosing “Should”

There’s a great essay on Medium by Elle Luna called “The Crossroads of Should and Must.” It explores the importance of decision-making and taking intentional, purposeful action in order to design the life you want, instead of allowing circumstances to dictate your path. She writes about the crossroads we all face in life – the crossroads of “Should” and “Must.”

Should is how others want us to show up in the world – how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. It’s the vast array of expectations that others layer upon us. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small.

Choosing “Should” is a close cousin of the Third Problem: Living for Others. Choosing “Should” feels safe and secure, but it’s a false sense of security. The security derives not from fulfillment or satisfaction, but from insulation from the possibility of failure and disappointment.

It’s not irrational to fear taking the path less traveled – it’s risky after all. It’s just important to understand the trade-offs. By choosing “Should” you may experience contentment, but will miss out on the wild ride that results from chasing dreams.

The Fix: Choose “Must”

Rather than choosing “Should,” choose “Must”: Luna explains:

Must is different – there aren’t options and we don’t have a choice.

Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s our instincts, our cravings and longings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that swells up from somewhere deep inside of us. Must is what happens when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own. Because when we choose Must, we are no longer looking for inspiration out there. Instead, we are listening to our calling from within, from some luminous, mysterious place.

I couldn’t put it any better. Enough said.

LifeJay Harrington