Escape the Rut

This post is in response to the Litemind contest to create a list post. Thank you Luciano for hosting it.

In the early 1990’s, there was a commercial for the Isuzu Rodeo which played often. A classroom full of children drawing in their coloring books is told by their teacher to “stay between the lines. The lines are our friends.” One little redhead takes her crayon and, screech, out of the lines she draws, infuriating the teacher. The scene changes to the grown up redhead cruising the desert in her Rodeo. Grinning (with the teacher’s words intonating in the background), she zips off the highway onto to what looks like the desert floor, untamed and free at last.

I hated this commercial. I was a rule follower. I was raised to stay between the lines. How could she? It is so easy for this compliance with societal norms to lead to simply getting stuck in a rut, to do the expected, to forge on as others have on the path laid out before you. Especially in academia, the path is well known and well trodden. One must only begin and stay on track. Success, whatever that means, is virtually guaranteed if one only stays on track, between the well demarcated lines.

I was reading an advice column in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently. The questions all dealt with whether it was time to move on from one’s current position. The short answer, and it could have been a very short answer, was if you are asking then the answer is YES! This snippet really hit home for me “academics have a great tolerance for boredom and an enormous fear of risk.” The lines are not our friends in this case.

But what about the road less traveled? How then does one get out of a rut?

1) First acknowledge where you are. Did you pick a path 10, 20 or even 30 years ago? Have you cruised on autopilot during the last few years or decades not ever looking off of the path you selected perhaps as a teenager? Is this where you hoped you would be? If you could do it over, is this the life you would choose? If you forecast your current path out ten years from today, is that where you want to go?

2) Find your core values. Did your answers make you uncomfortable? Mine used to. A few years ago I hit a point where I literally did not know what I wanted only that I did not want to be where I was. Luckily, there is book out there for just this problem: I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this. This book had some useful exercises but did not really point me in a new direction. For that, I had to start at the beginning, uncovering my core values. I’ve written about this extensively in the past as I plotted out my values, purpose and vision. My life has changed in uncountable ways since I started asking myself the questions above.

3) Uncover your purpose. Once you are clear on your values, it is fairly easy to uncover your purpose. A great exercise is to create a purpose statement with this format (thank you Dr. O’Connor). The purpose of my life (career) is to —— so that ——-. Some hints, the “so that” statement should create some good in the world for many. Your purpose must be congruent with your values.

4) Create a vision. Dream. If you could do anything that was consistent with your values and your purpose, what would that be? What would your perfect day be like? Imagine it, taste it. I personally struggled with this. So many things would fulfill me it was hard to pick just one. But pick one. You must have a destination so that you can chart a course.

5) Chart a path. Once your destination is known, set milestones; create SMART goals to get you to your new future. However, do not simply start plodding down some new well worn path. The goal is not to change your current rut for a new one. The goal here is to chart your own path, to take control of and responsibility for your future.

6) Go back to school. Some paths require additional education or certifications. There are so many wonderful opportunities for the working adult: evening classes, on-line programs, and even free classes at MIT. Education can be so incredibly empowering and may be essential for your new path. It’s never too late to go back to school.

7) Share your dream. Truly, tell people. It always amazes me how supportive and helpful people can be when they know your dreams. You will never know who might be able to help unless you share your dreams with them. Obviously, be careful to not jeopardize your current employment situation by over-sharing. Remember, no one can help you reach your dream if they do not know about it.

8) Stay alert for new opportunities. As you progress on your new path, you may discover that your dreams change again. You will be amazed at how many doors open along the way now that you are not simply looking down on the well-worn path putting one foot in front of the other.

9) Beware of roadblocks. Change is scary. You might be tempted to procrastinate. Taking the road less traveled can be a frightening thing. It’s not like you have to change course; the rut is safe and familiar. Complacency is the enemy of change. The best advice I have for this is to simply do it anyway. You may feel butterflies in your stomach. You may walk around with that on the roller coaster feeling for days at a time. I know I do. Take a deep breath and do it anyway.

10) Remember. You are the one in charge of your future. It is up to you to decide what the future will hold. Things may happen in your life that are unfortunate but it is up to you how you will decide to respond to these events. How you will respond is always in your control. It’s all up to you.

Other useful resources:

8 comments on “Escape the Rut
  1. Irene says:

    Wonderful post, Cathy.
    Oh, THAT commercial! As a wife of an architect and mother of two kids who never liked coloring books because they were too limiting, we (as a family) had to laugh every time that “stay with in the lines, the lines are our friends” commercial came on. We got the analogy, but on the surface it was so us. We rarely stayed in the lines. 🙂
    I love this post because it has me thinking about my own life path. Sometimes the planned path isn’t the path one takes.
    This is also a good list of questions to revisit from time to time. Things do change.

  2. mel starrs says:

    What a great list.

  3. Cathy says:

    Irene & Mel,
    Thank you for your positive comments. Irene, I’m glad I’m not the only one who could not forget that commercial!

  4. Hi Cathy,
    This is heartwarming. I’m glad that you have posted this to share with people the importance of having a personal mission/vision.
    This is indeed a first step to getting out of the rut. People often live trying to chase others’ dreams or conforming to social norms. The above steps to chart a personal vision is a life changing exercise: it helps one to put what’s truly important to oneself into proper perspective.
    With this in mind, one can bravly stop conforming to dogma, because they know it’s not what they want.
    Thanks again Cathy.

  5. Cathy says:

    Thank you for visiting and for leaving such a detailed reply. Your comment made my day.

  6. Fier says:

    Your article is one of my favorites and my personal choice for the Litemind’s Writing Contest. I wish you luck. Please keep posting outstanding stuff.
    stumbled it.

  7. Cathy says:

    I am humbled by your words. Thank you. You have sent more people my way than normally stumble across my words in month. I hope they find value here.

  8. holli jo says:

    I love these tips! Thank you so much for sharing – I definitely needed them.