Modern Work

How To: Reinvent Yourself and Escape The Muck of Career Stagnation

Illustration of woman stressing out in the office

It can feel shameful and embarrassing to realize that your career has gone nowhere (or even backwards) for the past few years.

But–what if I told you that having these sorts of mind-blowing, earth-shattering crises is normal and that you’ll eventually experience those same feelings of doubt, frustration, and stagnation?

What if I promised you that feeling confused about your path in life is a totally normal occurrence?

You’d probably feel at least a little relief.

These crises are more prevalent than ever–so much so that the term “quarter-life crisis” has gained in popularity. It’s clear that people of all ages are freaking out about their place in life. So, what can we do about it?

How do I know if I’m stuck in my career?

Career burnout is a very real issue and one that can have a lasting negative impact on the economy and your psyche. Career stagnancy doesn’t just mean, “I’ve been at this job for three decades and nothing in my life has changed.” It can also mean, “I hate coming to work every day, even though I used to be so excited about it.”

Here are a few signs of a stuck career: how many of these do you recognize?

  1. You feel bored at work, and actively think about quitting on a weekly basis.
  2. You’ve changed jobs several times in the past few years, but your job title and salary have stayed the same.
  3. You haven’t learned anything new in several months.
  4. You have little to no autonomy in your role.
  5. Your performance reviews usually say something like, “adequate performance”.
  6. Your organization continually suffers losses, and the future is unclear.
  7. You rarely get opportunities to grow or lead.
  8. You don’t understand how to do a good job; as a result, you often feel deflated and angry.
  9. You feel isolated from other people in your industry, and rarely get asked for help.
  10. You are not considered an important cog; and rarely get invited to make decisions.
  11. People hired after you are promoted first.

Now, us humans have a penchant for whipping up catastrophes out of almost nothing. So before you split some atoms, go nuclear, and do something that you’ll regret for the rest of your life, let’s brainstorm some ways to get unstuck from a stagnant career.

Take inventory of your resources.

  • What resources do you have right now?
  • Are you competitive in your industry, or are you lagging behind?

Sometimes we feel that we just can’t keep up–the best way to solve this is to figure out which skills you know and which skillers you still need to learn. If your company offers peer-to-peer mentoring, then sign up for a session and ask for advice on how you can increase your knowledge and capabilities.

Ask for more challenges.

Feeling comfortable in your position can be a good sign–but if you’ve spent the last few years just “feeling comfortable”, it also means you haven’t really grown.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more responsibility, or to challenge yourself by contributing to a new project.

Think of it like this: much of your early life was a rough time, full of sh*tty and crazy situations that you had to rapidly adapt to. Though they were tough, you learned so much about yourself and the people around you.

The same goes for your career: taking on new risks and facing the possibility of catastrophic failure allows us to test our authentic selves, and discern whether we’re truly satisfied with our current path. Plus, trying to solve a problem can give you something to look forward to every morning.

Always make sure to communicate with whoever is in charge about your hopes and aspirations. A one-on-one meeting is a great way to share thoughts, request feedback, and get guidance on how to shape your career growth. What should you keep doing? And what should you stop doing?

If you don’t feel like you can talk honestly with your manager, then it might be indicative of a bigger problem.

Switch it up.

You might decide to switch careers entirely. If you’ve been doing web development for the last twenty years, then maybe you’d rather look at actual sentences–try copy or content writing.

If you were once a manager of a clothing store, you could turn around and try working as the manager of a startup (one South East Asian founder did just that, and founded an expedition service with zero prior experience).

Most jobs and endeavors rely on two things: consistency, and a willingness to learn.

As long as you have these two traits and a dash of relevant experience, you can often make it in a new job, as different as it may seem.

Says one writer, “Your new employer will find value in your fresh perspective, because you bring new knowledge, processes, and skills to the table.

My consumer-focused perspective, for example, was invaluable when transitioning from a consumer packaged goods company to a financial services company, since most of those organizations do not put as much emphasis on the end user.”

Give back.

Perhaps you simply don’t have the luxury to quit your job. In that case, you could join a local community service organization and demonstrate your expertise.

You may not be appreciated at your office, but many nonprofit organizations and outreach centers are aching for help and assistance.

Kill two birds with one stone, as they say–help other people out, and introduce some light into your life.

When you practice regular community service, you’ll often learn about event planning, fundraising, healthy communication skills, and more. If you have a passion for design that you never get to flex at work, you could volunteer to design pamphlets or posters for a community event.

Network more.

There are plenty of reasons why you wouldn’t want to quit your job, and sometimes it’s best to make do with what you have. To increase the chance of recognition and awareness, you may have to do a lot of networking. As you get more and more connected to other people in the industry and offer your expertise, people will come to respect you and turn to you for guidance.

We could talk all day about the nuances of business networking, but there are plenty of books that will teach you about it in a far better way than I ever could.

Suffice to say, networking can help open a door that leads to a perfect opportunity: one right connection can open up several opportunities for career growth.

If you’re experienced and prefer not to talk to any more “gurus”, consider signing up to be a mentor at your company or local business group.

Share your ideas.

People won’t know about your great ideas if you never talk about them.

If you have creative ideas that could shake up your company, your workflow, or your industry, then why not float it with the other members of your organization? Who knows?

Your suggestion could be the key to revitalizing your business, and, in turn, your life.

What ideas have been stewing in the back of your mind recently?

Don’t be afraid to haul them out and slap them on the table–your forward thinking might even get you a promotion or a brand new position.

Be an actor, not a victim.

Reflect on the stories you tell about your work life. Do you tend to portray yourself as the victim of a rude boss, annoying coworkers, or random strangers?

If everyone in your life is the problem, then there’s a strong probability that you might be part of the problem.

For example: a woman felt that she wasn’t being respected by her boss. Every night, she’d go home to her husband and complain about how horrible her boss was to her. “She speaks over me,” she’d whine, “and she never gives me a chance to share my ideas.”

Her husband nodded quietly in sympathy. But one day, the woman blew up and lost it. She finally expressed her anger and frustration through several minutes of frustrated, indignant talking. Fortunately, though her boss was totally blindsided, he apologized and promised to treat her with more respect.

Afterwards, the woman would come home to her husband and feel much calmer–her boss kept true to his promises and respected her wishes, her work hours, and her speaking time.

Of course–not all bosses will be reasonable and complaining about how much your boss sucks to their face is probably not a great idea. But taking action and standing up for yourself could be all that’s standing between you and a happier work life.

Share your accomplishments.

Your monumental wins may go unrecognized by management in the midst of all that’s going on. If they’re unaware of the obstacles you’re dealing with in order to deliver great results, then make them aware of it during your meetings.

When they ask you what you’re working on, tell them about the challenges you have to overcome and the progress you’ve made.

Then, link it all back to the company. Added benefit: creating this mental outline can also help you realize that the work you do is valuable. 

Reduce your hours.

Cutting down on your hours can give you enough time to work on a new project that you really enjoy, or to start a new hobby.

This could be a great solution–you access more time and more energy, while still retaining some of the financial security that a job offers. Why not try tracking the time you spend doing actual work with Toggl to see how significantly you can reduce those hours?

Some companies (especially tech-based ones) will allow employees to work from home for part of the week. If your company is one of them, try taking advantage of the opportunity.

Focus on a new project.

You may not even have any ambition to rise up the ranks, and that’s totally okay.

The unfortunate reality is that you may still need to work just so you can survive. If this is the case for you, then redirect your energy to a new project or side hobby that brings you joy. It could be something as simple as origami or packing a lunch, or doodling during your spare minutes.

Whatever the case is, channeling your frustration into a positive and productive endeavor can help give you small bursts of energy to get you through the day.


Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but quit. Toxic workplaces are grueling, and they’re rarely worth the emotional struggle of withstanding them every day.

For example: sure, you might get offered plenty of opportunities to lead and take charge–of boring projects and crazy colleagues. Who wants that?

Maybe your entire work routine is just one train wreck after another. Maybe your workmates are immature, racist jerks. Maybe you daydream constantly about slamming your fists on the desk and screaming, “I quit” really loudly.

In that case, why force yourself to continue? Why drag yourself to work at an office that makes you feel like the world is just a bleak, terrible place? Why plaster that fake smile any longer?

Be careful–if you ignore the warning signs, those thoughts can easily turn from “I hate this job” to “I hate this life”

Make sure to remember those skills that you’ve already inventoried so that if you go for an interview you can talk up those awesome strengths of yours.

No matter what you decide to do, please remember that you’re not alone. Most people are frustrated with their jobs–and they all cope in different ways.

Some start a side business. Others crochet.

Some take up a sport. It’s easy to get stuck in this idea that a great career is worth your mental and emotional health, but it’s not true. Your life doesn’t start after retirement–you’re living it now.

So what do you want it to look like, and what do you need to do to get there?

July 18, 2018