The Spine of a Leader: When Life Kicks Us Out
At lunch, your boss’s boss asks you to lunch at your favorite restaurant because she wants to get to know you better and understand your career goals. Your afternoon is full of productive conversations with exactly who you want to talk to at exactly the right time. Your day flows like that all the way back home where you have a package from a loved one waiting at your doorstep and your spouse greeting you with an open bottle of your favorite wine. You sink into your bed staring into the night sky grateful for the tranquility you feel before you close your eyes. There is nothing more you could ask for. Life is seamless. Life is good.
Now that you have that feeling of being in the flow of life, imagine just the exact opposite. Imagine you are moving as fast as you can with all your energy and might in a large pool of quicksand and going nowhere. You are stuck. Living out the same old pattern over and over with little to no success, feeling incremental to no movement forward. Just waiting for the next thing to reveal itself. Lethargic, exhausted and lonely.
I know the feeling of stuckness very well. When I was 24 and a first-time entrepreneur, I had started an online recruiting company for the hotel industry with several leaders of a hotel marketing company. Building our company was thrilling. The first year was one home run hit after another. We had cash, little debt and industry credibility almost immediately. In my personal life, I was young and adventurous. I had lived, worked and gone to college all within the same 45 mile radius. I felt like I knew everyone and found the familiarity exhilarating. Then something changed. The success of our business began to dry up. Instead of consistent big wins we started suffering one loss after another until we were on life support and began our first round of capital calls. In my personal life, all of sudden the once exhilarating familiarity of my home town began to feel confining. Everywhere I looked was a guy I had dumped or had dumped me. My friends were all getting married and moving to the suburbs to start a family and the idea of doing the same felt like a prison sentence with no chance for parole.
I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Luckily, I had a psychologist for a neighbor who was 30 years my senior who liked to drink martinis on her back porch at sunset. One Friday afternoon I took over a bottle of McCormick Vodka (it was all I could afford at the time) and asked if she was up for a chat. I shared with her the quizzical shift occurring in my life and asked her to help me sort it out. “Seems clear to me,” she said tipping back her martini glass and gulping the cheap Vodka, “Your life is kicking you out of it. It’s time to move on.”
My life was kicking me out of it? Whatever did that mean? There was no amount of Vodka that could help me sort that out. I had so much invested in the life choices I had made so far. What did she mean move on? So I brushed it off until several weeks later the thought would come back to me while reading a seemingly unrelated book called “The Power of Flow: Practical Ways to Transform Your Life with Meaningful Coincidence,” by Charlene Belitz.
I was standing in the middle of a Barnes and Noble having plucked the book from the shelf and was sorting through it with no real intent. I landed on a page that talked about a women who had felt stuck in her life for many years in a bad marriage and limited career. She sold everything she had and moved to Denver. She described the beauty of the city and the way life unfolded for her when she arrived there. As I was reading through the pages, swaying in place, I accidentally bumped into a man with beads in his hair and open toed sandals. “I love that book, man.” He said leaning over me. “I read it on the plane ride back from Colorado.”
“You just got back from Colorado?” I asked, completely unsure why I cared other than the serendipity of the situation.
“Yeah, skied for seven days. It was awesome,” he said.
“I had thought about moving there once, I have a good friend from college who moved there. But I don’t know anyone else. I don’t even know how to ski.” I said. Why was I telling him this?
“Who cares, you’ll learn. You should move, man.” He said then added, “Definitely buy the book.”
“Thank you,” I said and moved over to the next aisle to think about the eerie coincidence of reading a story of a women who was stuck like me and changed her life by moving to Colorado while bumping into a man who had not only read the book but read it on his way back from Denver. Not to mention, the title of the book called “The Power of Flow: Practical Ways to Transform Your Life with Meaningful Coincidence.” It was one of those things that made you stop and think. Then something even more outrageous happened. My phone rang so I dug in my bag to get it. The number was out of state I didn’t recognize. I answered it. On the other end was my college girlfriend who had just moved to Denver, Colorado.
“Ang, it’s me! I’m calling you right now from the Rocky Mountains. You have to move here. You would love it.” Kristal said.
I dropped the phone.
I got the message. I understood that my life was kicking me out and that something much better in Denver, CO was waiting for me. Six months later, I moved to Denver, CO, took on a leadership role in Human Resources that allowed me to slow down, learn some of the tricks of the trade before trying to master a start-up company. I learned to ski, made new friends whose phase of life aligned with mine and met my husband. I was in the flow again.
When we stay too long in the wrong place, waiting, unwilling to budge, stuck in our old routines, life will make an effort to kick us out. We feel that kick at first like a jab, a small twinge of pain, but later after time it grows and intensifies. This pain is often an indicator that it’s time to make a shift. It’s a motivator to create change. The more we resist the more stuck we become, the more pain we feel.
Now, 16 years later, I’ve felt my life kicking me out again… but in different ways. I just turned 40 and I have a loving husband, two amazing children, one thriving business and one growing business. Everything is good but not enough. It’s taken me awhile to sort through my feelings of being stuck. This time though, the pain of being stuck was easier to identify and harder to solve. I love my family, I love my community, I love my work but despite that I knew my current circumstances were not fulfilling me the way they use to and something had to change. Getting up and moving to another state and starting all over again just didn’t make sense the way it did when I was 24. I had to find another solution. What I learned after months of inward reflection is that there are some kinds of stuck that don’t require moving on but instead going deeper.
Going deeper is about finding ways to take the current life experiences you have to the next level. At work, at home, in your community. Going deeper in its most simplistic terms is about becoming curious all over again about the things that are already in your life and explore them with a renewed passion. At work, that could mean taking on new and expansive responsibilities or expanding your network of contacts in the industry or moving to a new product line. It could mean taking an advanced certification that enriches your expertise in your field. It could mean seeking out a mentor. The list of ways to go deeper are endless when you finally commit to making a change to your current situation.
I work with a lot of leaders who have been at their companies for many years and are wondering if they should move on or go deeper. The answer to this question is not an easy one to answer. It’s very personal. When your life kicks you out it doesn’t always specify how to change, only that you must change. Because this is a personal question I can only answer this with the wisdom that’s come from my own personal experiences.
The most important thing I learned during the process of determining whether to move on or go deeper is to ask the right question. Rather than asking the question, “Do I stay in this role (this company, this relationship) or do I move on?” Ask the question, “What will bring me the most valuable growth that is in my control to change?”
The second most important thing I learned is that you can’t rush the process. If you don’t have the answer then you don’t have the answer. You can’t force the elusive butterfly to land on you until it’s ready.
Finally, I learned that you can’t expect absolute clarity. But that’s not to say you can’t expect that eventually you’ll feel stronger one way or the other. In some cases, when life kicks you out, the answers are obvious as they were for me when I moved to Colorado. And in some cases the answers are more subtle as they have been for me this last year. Regardless of how the answers come, they come. You just have to notice the pain, be open to change and ask the right questions.
I doubt many of you reading this have thought about being stuck this way before. I know at one time that was true for me. But now I feel empowered to embrace the pain that comes with being stuck because I know it means growth. I know it means better things to come. And who wouldn’t want that?