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Hitting the Wall at Work?

The Fast Interview: Timothy Butler on how to break the impasse and re-charge your career.

Most of us know the experience of being stuck in a job. We feel stale, unchallenged, frustrated or downright bored. But these moments shouldn’t be dreaded like some disease, says Timothy Butler, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the new book Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths. “Impasse,” writes Butler, “like the Greek god Hermes, often appears in our lives to let us know we must change.”

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How do you get unstuck? Butler has spent his career investigating that question as a researcher and career counselor for Harvard MBA students. The key, says Butler, is to listen to our frustration and break the cycle that keeps us from moving ahead. Impasse is a call to reintegrate aspects of our psychological and emotional selves that have been neglected, imagine a more fulfilling work life, and enact a plan to achieve it (for more on the book and exercises to help you get unstuck click here). Dislodging ourselves is hard work. Many people avoid it — and swirl around and around for years in a cycle of stagnancy. “Crisis,” says Butler, “is the crucible for the work of making a larger self.”

How do we know when we’ve reached an impasse in our work lives?

First of all, it’s important to differentiate impasse from just having a bad day at the office or even a bad week or a bad month or two. When faced with a situation that’s frustrating, not rewarding or not productive, we all try to do more of what’s worked in the past. But at times of impasse it doesn’t work because our very model of understanding the problem needs to change. The crisis has become too painful and we have to do something.

Describe the “stuck” worker.

There’s tremendous variety. But what I hear a lot from the people I work with is the feeling of not learning, not growing. I also hear, “I just don’t know what’s wrong — I don’t feel engaged.” I can tell you from 25-plus years of clinical work that it’s just part of the human process and it happens to everybody.

So how do you get unstuck? If you have a mortgage, you can’t just go off and live in a cabin and find yourself.

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I’m initially quite suspicious of the person who leaves it all and goes off to a cabin. That sounds more like a geographical cure rather than really looking at the issue itself. Often, negotiating impasse does not mean changing a job or what would be seen as a dramatic change. It does mean recognizing there’s something missing and deliberately going about trying to collect information about it. The outcome may be as undramatic as a conversation with your boss about something you’d really like to be doing more or something you’d like to be doing less.

That’s it?

That’s where our minds typically move. We reach a certain point when the crisis is so painful that our minds tend to become too simplistic, too binary. There’s this aversion response — I need to retreat — rather than turning toward it, going deeper, and asking the question, “What is the message here?”

Are creative types less rattled by impasse?

Artists tend to live at the border. It’s not that artists don’t experience impasse — you might say they’re always at impasse.

In the book you tell many anecdotes about counseling students at Harvard Business School who were struggling, often agonizing, to find their career paths. What’s their problem?

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Their issue is the same as yours and mine — where can I make the deepest contribution? Given all my constraints — my resume, age, life and family circumstances — where can my unique potential most fully unfold? They struggle with that as much as everybody does. Maybe a little bit more because they’re at this particular juncture in their lives.

Tell me about someone who was stuck and found a way out.

There’s a story in the book of the person I call Irawan (obviously that’s not his real name). He was an MBA student and was coming up to a major decision point — graduation. He simply could not decide what to do next. Initially his feeling of being stuck was just the way it is for everybody — not knowing, just feeling bad, and feeling like there didn’t seem to be any way to solve this problem.

It took a little work for him to break it down and realize there were three competing motivations. One was to be as creative as possible — he had a degree in architecture as well as a degree in business. The second theme was making a contribution — in the past he’d worked for a development bank in projects in the Third World and it was very rewarding for him. The third theme was Indonesia — he felt like he needed to give back to his own country.

The problem was which of these should take precedence? If he put any one of them in first place, he probably would not realize the other two. So he chose to spend some time in Indonesia for the summer and get a new kind of information. He had to go walk the streets of the capital and villages and see what it was really like to be there, to get a gut sense of what it would mean to return to his country because he hadn’t been there for a long time. He realized the timing wasn’t right. He had more learning to do outside of his home country.

He chose to return to the development bank. He felt he could make the biggest contribution there. The idea was that maybe eventually he would start working on some projects in his home country or come around to real estate development. But right now, the development bank felt like the place where he could be most productive, use his MBA skills, and feel like he was giving back.

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You say this process of moving through impasse moves us closer to being in the flow at work. What do you mean by “in the flow”?

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s very readable book, Flow, he defines it as being so totally absorbed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. You even lose track of you as a separate self. There’s this complete engagement that calls upon your capacity so fully that there’s no separation of you from the work.

Are those who are more advanced in their careers more likely to be there?

The more we do this work of moving through impasse, the closer to fulfillment we should feel. That’s not automatic. Just having a big salary doesn’t mean you’ve done this hard work and you’re in a place where you feel your potential is being realized. I work with many people who make very large sums of money who don’t necessarily feel that they’re in a place where they’re making the biggest contribution and deeply engaged.

You’re the expert — how do you keep yourself from getting stuck?

I’ll give you an example from my life right now. Because of my teaching and my responsibilities counseling at Harvard, I haven’t had a chance to get to my research, which I really love. I realized I was at impasse. I was getting stale. So I started some long negotiations with the people I report to at Harvard about changing my role. The next half year, I’m taking a big chunk of my time and doing more research. It’s not a dramatic shift, but just enough to make me feel that much more excited.

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