A few years ago, I was feeling stuck in my career. I was told that I was doing everything right, and to just keep it up. But I’d already been keeping it up for years, fighting internal organizational inertia, and I was demoralized, disengaged, and frustrated. It felt like any potential opportunities were dangled carrots that would be followed by a proverbial door being smacked shut in my face.
It felt like the same thing kept happening. I would get my hopes up to be left again in what felt like a dark hallway made of brick on all sides, with lots of shut doors. I knew my capacity, I knew my worth. I was told others could see it too, but it seemed like opportunities for advancement would just never pan out for me. I never seemed to be in the “right place at the right time.” If you’re a TL;DR type, go to the TL;DR section below.
In early 2015, I started to consider other career options after one public servant I respected pointed out that the public service perhaps isn’t that adept in supporting ambitious staff. Knowing the best path forward for me would arise at some point, I explored the idea of pursuing a PhD, while I continued to deliver high quality work with a positive attitude. Because I’m professional, and high quality work is what I do, regardless of my engagement level.
To keep my mind stimulated apart from work (I’d outgrown my position, so while there was plenty of work to do, I didn’t find it intellectually challenging), I submitted a research proposal in late 2015 to a national public service institute. They approved my (unpaid) development of a research project on policy innovation (which I delivered, and it was published in 2017!).
Around the same time, a new file arose in my division. I had established myself as someone who was comfortable with new and unestablished files, so was asked to coordinate at a staff level. It was interesting work, but it was unclear how long the file would continue. As always, I continued to deliver high-quality work, but still no advancement surfaced.
Wise words from an elder
The following year, I attended an annual work event to which an Indigenous elder had been invited to speak. The elder spoke with wisdom; it was clear she wasn’t simply delivering speaking points, she was speaking fully in her power. I knew I needed to seek her advice.
Nervous that she wouldn’t want to speak with me or really share any advice since I was not a member of her community—not to mention that she didn’t know me or my situation—I approached her respectfully at the end of the session nonetheless and asked if she would be willing to hear a question I had.
The elder suggested we step out into the hall. There, she listened to me intently, and really heard my sense of feeling stuck, my exhaustion from running up against brick walls, from never ending up in the right place at the right time, when I was working so hard and knew I had more to offer.
At the time, I hadn’t yet awakened spiritually, so my linear brain questioned how much a stranger could possibly speak to my situation. But my deeper wisdom which would awaken the following year knew the power of her insight and her gifts. She suggested we step outside into the sunshine, that she wanted to teach me something. So I followed her.
Outside, the elder reframed my metaphor of being trapped in the brick hallway. “It’s like you’re in a field, trying to get to a table on the other side of the field, but people keep stopping to talk to you along the way. The reason you’re stuck out in the field is that there’s still something you need to learn before you get to the table. Maybe it’s learning what it feels like to be stuck, or maybe it’s something else.”
She went on to say that the reason I was stuck wasn’t that I’m not supposed to be at the table; she said that I’m a good person who wants to do good, so learning something important was the only thing left.
The elder then spoke about how to take care of my energy levels. She said that I’m a very compassionate person who is forward-looking and sees the whole picture, and that because of that, sometimes I can also get drained or overwhelmed; that I take on the energy of others, because I care.
The elder emphasized that I wasn’t being blocked from good opportunities because of anything bad, that it’s not because I’m a person who would do harm in those positions; she said that because I’m a solid person, I would get to that table and just had to learn something before then.
I started sobbing in public. Those few minutes of intent listening and wisdom had a profound effect on me. Her metaphor and wisdom cut through everything and shifted my perspective deeply. I was suddenly empowered. She had spoken to my heart and soul when I was ready to hear, and now I had a path forward. To learn as much as I possibly could so that I could be entrusted with challenging positions and leadership and investment in people.
And so I did. I decided that I would look for three things to learn every week as I went about my job. Even if they were minor things, I challenged myself to enhance my mind, to deliver even more strategic, high-quality work, to reflect on how I could have handled situations even slightly differently to achieve a more optimal result.
And then everything started falling into place career-wise. That new and unestablished file I was coordinating continued and was engaging for me, as a senior leader noticed my work and entrusted me with the leadership of the file. I was suddenly reporting directly to a senior leader who became a champion for me.
I was given further opportunities to showcase my abilities on other new files, and went on to take on more senior roles in that and other organizations in the public service. I’ve also been able to support colleagues through challenging situations, because I’ve been there.
About three months after that life-changing conversation with the elder, I also began to awaken spiritually. And what a life-changing experience that has been.
Why have I talked non-stop about my own experience when I usually switch over to idea and advice mode?
First, because it’s really easy to be so focused on the struggle and the frustration and all the negative stuff.
It’s easy to fume for hours about that jerk who irritates you at work. It’s easy to focus on how constrained your time or finances are. But is any of that serving you? It wasn’t serving me; all it did was put out limiting energy for myself while I told myself that I was stuck.
Those are the moments in which to ground yourself and consider what you can learn about your situation. If you’re stuck on repeat, ask yourself what you can learn about yourself, your actions, or context, and what you will do about it?
Second, if life is going great for you and you’re growing and developing yourself, your abilities and your wisdom, then how can you pay it forward to others?
It doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out. I don’t believe that anyone can ever have everything all figured out—myself very much included!
But we can all still be a listening ear when someone needs it. We can take a few more seconds out of our day to hold the door for someone coming behind us. We can choose to send love to the person who cut us off instead of anger.
This is all tough stuff. But it’s worth it. You could change your life. You could change someone else’s life. And who knows if someone else might change yours?
Where I re-learned how to learn
Elder Laureen Waters Gaudio; she goes by Blu. This is not the same person as the Indigenous healer I’ve mentioned in other posts.
I am not being compensated to suggest the following resources.
- Whatever Arises, Love That by Matt Kahn
- “Brain Software with Mike Mandel” (a podcast I’ve suggested before, but there’s lots of useful content here about reframing situations for yourself, changing your state, and achieving goals)
If you’re stuck on repeat of something in your life that you don’t want:
- Ask yourself what you can learn about yourself, your actions, or context.
- Ask yourself what you will do about it.
If life is going great (or even if it’s not):
- Ask yourself how you can pay it forward to others. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you start paying it forward (it’s all about lifelong learning for all of us).
- Be a listening ear, take a few seconds to hold that door for the person behind you, send love instead of anger to the person who cut you off during your commute, etc.