Going From Treading Water to Thriving
Ways to move forward when your career path feels stagnant
There are times during your career when you will feel like you’re treading water. You will likely be comfortable, and you will be doing fine at work, but you won’t feel like you’re being challenged enough.
I encountered this sense of “cruise control” after the birth of my first child. I gave up my role as the Product Management Director for the eBay integration team at PayPal when I went on leave and took a role in Corporate Strategy when I returned. I wrote decks for the CEO, explored acquisitions, and developed competitive analyses and trend papers.
Frankly, I was bored. I felt like I was treading water, showing up to work but never really feeling challenged. I struggled to get through the day and felt a sense of relief when I went home. I had an amazing work-life balance, but the hours seemed to crawl by. I felt the lack of purpose and progress eating away at me a little at a time. While I still loved the company, I missed the sense of impact that I had felt in previous roles: the idea that, each day, I was having a tangible impact on the company or our customers. As a result, I woke up feeling lost, with little energy or motivation.
When you are in the right place, working on something you are passionate about, you feel it every day. The hours pass quickly. That’s what it feels like to thrive. But many of us have also gone through times when we felt like we were, as Adam Grant put it, languishing. When you're in the wrong place, even the simplest job can seem like a burden.
This situation can be incredibly discouraging, and can even call into question your desire to continue down your current path. However, there are always ways to reignite the spark, to feel inspired by your work again. Today’s article will explore four strategies to go from treading water to thriving:
Redefine your purpose
Seek meaning beyond your job
Rewrite your story
Find a new path
Redefining your purpose
During the times when I have felt like I'm treading water, I've sought to reframe and reset my purpose. I was considering leaving Facebook when I learned I was pregnant with my third child, a surprise. I found out at the same time that my father had stage IV cancer. I decided to stay at Facebook because I couldn’t handle the demands of a difficult pregnancy, having two toddlers, and tending to my father’s needs at the same time.
Though my purpose was focused on what was going on at home, I took the time to consider new ideas for when I returned from leave. This led me to start working on a new strategy for what would, many years later, become social commerce.
Seeking meaning beyond your job
We spend a tremendous amount of time at work. Many of us work more hours than we sleep, and more hours than we spend with our family, on a daily basis. For this reason, cruise control can actually be a blessing in disguise. Ask yourself, "If I remained in this job for the next year, what meaning would I want in my life? How should I make this time count?"
There will be times when a job is just a job, and treading water at work can give you the time and space to do something else. It can free up your mental cycles to put towards your family, hobbies, and personal goals.
I had a friend who stepped away from a high-powered position at a hot but intense company to transition to one that was more modest. The new job was not a perfect fit, but after years of challenging work and travel, it provided the break she needed to refocus on her family. During this time, she and her husband were able to live out their dreams in a new way. They relocated and focused on raising their family. After a few years, she got a more senior role at another company and resumed her career path, but I don't think she would trade that pause for anything else in the world.
In order to achieve this, focus on areas that give you purpose. Is it spending time with your family? Traveling to discover new places? Investing your time in a non-profit? Learning a new skill? Too often we are strictly defined by our job and role, but during a time of treading water, it is the perfect time to explore what other things you value and want to add to your life.
Rewriting your story
In every career, there will be periods of drought, when it feels like it will never rain again. How you weather these dry spells will dictate the arc of your career.
If you see these seasons as the end, you won’t be able to grow beyond them. If, on the other hand, you see these seasons as temporary setbacks, you will be able to overcome them and grow. Rather than bemoaning the lack of rain, plan for planting and investing in what is to come. This human mind often thinks in fixed ways and can't imagine a different world. Allow yourself to imagine a new season arriving and start preparing for it now.
I have been told “no” many times during my career, whether after interviewing for a role I wanted or pitching a project I was passionate about. Each time I faced rejection, I had a choice: Decide to let that be the end, or decide to write my next chapter differently. Each time, I scrapped the first ending of my story and chose to rewrite it. I ended up doing some of my best work in the aftermath of rejection.
A "no" may mean different things:
Not now - perhaps the timing is off and you in a season of waiting
A hard No - knowing which doors are closed means you can focus on open doors and not waste your time on what is not possible
A soft No - soft nos are often more dangerous because it leaves hope that it is not now. Getting definitive answers can be clarifying
Once you have clarity about the answer, plan out the path from here. Sometimes the right answer is to wait and other times it is better to hear the hard no and pivot to a place that is a firm “yes”.
Finding a new path
During the time I felt like I was treading water at PayPal, I came to the realization that at heart, I was an operator. I needed to build in order to find meaning in my work. Eventually, I pitched and created the Social Commerce and Charity verticals at the company. We were a small team, but we created something that had a positive impact in the world, and that made all the difference to me. I had always had a passion for the nonprofit sector, and it was wonderful to see it come to life in the form of a product I had helped construct. At one point, our new vertical was generating the most new account creations for the company, and being able to witness this impact reignited my passion for my role.
However, I couldn't have gotten to where I am if I had not taken the time to work in corporate strategy for a spell. I was comfortable in my previous job, and it was that restlessness that inspired me to pitch building new verticals and to go build them.
A time of treading water can often signal where you are not meant to be and create more clarity for other paths. Take note of when you felt energized and when you felt drained. Seek out opportunities that open you up to possibilities and passion and eschew those which drain you. This is your body's way of signaling what path you should take from here.
Treading water happens in many careers for many reasons. It may simply be a season of drought, or perhaps it’s a signal that it’s time to take a break and reset. These periods don’t have to be the end; instead, they can be the beginning of something new. Find ways to reframe your work, seek new opportunities, or pursue new goals and adventures. When you feel like you’re treading water, rather than fighting it, use it as a chance to plant seeds for the future and watch them grow.