Getting Unstuck

One of the things I've learned over years of working with twenty-somethings is how often fear motivates their decision making as they embark on life after college. Our culture treats graduation as a rite of passage, and yet college does such a poor job of preparing graduates for the working world. I see four common patterns in particular:

1.    You've been enriched by a wonderful liberal arts education, but as graduation looms, you're convinced you don't know how to do anything, that you haven't been trained to do anything. You love the humanities, and you write well, but you have no idea how to translate those skills into a meaningful job. You don't know the "business world" very well (at all, really), but you feel pretty certain that you won't like it, or won't be good at it. The job search process seems overwhelming, and your instinct is to stay in school a bit longer. Many of your friends are applying to law school, and it starts to sound better and better. You don't need any prior work experience or specialized training to apply, you figure you know how to write well, and the paychecks look awfully good. Plus, you'll get your parents off your back. They're certain that if you don't go to graduate school now, you'll never go back.

2.    You've been preparing for a particular profession since you were a teenager -- say, medicine. You've been studying a specialized curriculum for many years and invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in that track. Over time, you've become less and less enchanted with your training, but becoming a doctor has become so central to your identity, and is so expected of you by this point, that you charge ahead. Each step of the way is already planned and fairly predictable, and deviating from that plan and the career you chose as a teenager becomes unthinkable.

3.    You wrote all those wonderful essays about your career goals and made it into a top business school. To get in, you had to sound very focused and knowledgeable about your career plans, but in truth, like most people, you had hoped to figure that out in grad school. As business school graduation approaches, you have many wonderful options, but you're still not entirely sure what direction you should choose. You're feeling the pressure to "pick a horse."

4.    Your parents came to this country with nothing and have struggled to give you only the best opportunities. Because of a mix of their own life challenges and cultural norms, they insist that you follow a particular path during and after college. Maybe you want to explore another direction, or you have no sense of direction at all yet, but you feel obligated to follow the path they envision for you.

Do any of those scenarios sound familiar?

How wonderful, then, that there's a new book called Getting Unstuck by Dr. Timothy Butler. I've been a fan of Tim's for years. He co-authored one of the books I frequently recommend to my own coaching clients, Discovering Your Career in Business, and he more recently published The Twelve Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back. Getting Unstuck is his third book, which focuses on how people can break through mental impasses that hold them back personally and professionally.

Tim brings many years of research and coaching to the issue. He is a psychologist as well as a Senior Fellow and Director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School. One of his long-term research and practice interests is the relationship between personality and work satisfaction. He uses the term "deeply embedded life interests" to describe those innate preferences, specific to our own individual personalities, that make us jump out of bed in the morning and want to go to work every day.

So what do we do when our work lives don't engage those embedded interests? And -- more relevant to twenty-somethings -- how do we discover those embedded interests in the first place? This week I sat down with him to talk about his new book and explore what advice he would give to twenty-somethings in particular.

Fear of the Dark

In his book, Tim talks about people holding themselves back because they essentially fear "the dark":

We want to move in the sunshine, walk along familiar streets, and have experiences that are sure to give us pleasure. We want to feel that most of life can be planned and that we have a reasonable chance of avoiding pain.

I would argue that for many people, merely graduating from college is moving into a "dark place," and that rushing off to graduate school is a way to stay well within the familiar and the comfortable. I asked Tim for his thoughts.

His advice is to recognize that feeling anxiety at these important junctures is not a bad sign. He also emphasizes that your twenties are ideally a time of exploration. At this stage in your life, you don't know enough yet about the world (including the working world) or how you fit into it, and you're going to be testing yourself in different situations and environments. His advice to recent graduates is to give yourself permission to do that exploring and testing, to look around and take it all in.

Not having a plan

Tim also emphasizes that clarity about your career and the kind of life you want to live doesn't come to everyone at the same time. If you're looking around at graduation and panicking because everyone else seems to have such a clear plan, don't. It's OK not to have that clarity right away, and trying to fake clarity won't serve you well at all.


He also concurs that some parents don't realize what a negative impact they are having. They want what's best for their children, and in their minds that usually equates with lining up the best grad school options, right now. That sense of urgency precludes any meaningful period of exploration. In your twenties, all you should be doing is getting a general sense of North, South, East, and West — a general sense of direction, not a specific "Point A, then Point B, then Point C." Parents would do their children a big favor if they encouraged a phase of career exploration. (My mantra, especially when I'm talking to parents, is: "Grad school isn't going anywhere.")


Tim is a big fan of career assessment, and your twenties are the perfect time to start engaging in assessment exercises to get that general sense of direction before narrowing in on a particular career. (He says that it's in one's thirties that the challenge becomes how to narrow in. Twenty-something don't need to be doing that yet.) Getting Unstuck has two exercises that I encourage people to try. One is called the 100 Jobs exercise, and the other is called the Ten Basic Interests exercise. You'll have to buy his book to do them -- a very cost-effective investment.


So many of the people I work with who are going through the admissions process fall into a very common trap of defining themselves by where they went to school or where they hope to go to school. So much of their sense of self-worth seems to hinge on a standardized test score or admission to a particular program.

Tim agrees that parts of our culture reinforce that equation very strongly, especially on the hiring front when we read that certain firms hire primarily from a small number of schools. He adds that the obsession with pedigree can be a source of suffering and pain for people, and that this is just one factor that can cloud their ability to recognize what kind of career is going to be meaningful to them. A great resume does not equal happiness, he points out. And ultimately that's how he defines what makes a good career for someone: a role that allows you to feel that you're making a contribution because you're in a place where your talents and energies and embedded interests have the best chance of being realized.

Read more about Tim's book here.