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How to know if you’re stuck in your career (and how to fix it)

“Contentment can be settling for less when you deserve more,” says this author. But first you have to admit that you’re stuck.

How to know if you’re stuck in your career (and how to fix it)
[Source photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images]

Being content sounds like a worthwhile goal. Google’s dictionary defines contentment as “a state of happiness and satisfaction.” Who doesn’t want that? But being content can have a downside, too, says Joy Fitzgerald, author of Finding Authentic Rhythm: How to Win on Your Terms in Corporate America.

“We’ve been conditioned for contentment, but contentment can be settling for less when you deserve more,” she says. “Fear and a lack of support allows one to settle. The risk is leading an unfulfilled life.”

Fitzgerald says people usually don’t recognize they’re stuck in contentment. “Our definition of success in many regards is quite narrow,” she says. “Based on what we’ve been taught to expect from a job or career or corporate America, we’re just living every day going through the routine and very few of us have the awareness or the understanding that we are stuck.”


Fitzgerald says she didn’t realize she was stuck in her career as chief diversity officer for a large Midwestern company until a speaker she brought in for Black History Month recognized it for her.

“We were meeting with the executive team in the grand executive office, the speaker and I were the only women of color,” she recalls. “As she began to give her brief of what she would talk about to our employees a little later that afternoon, she stopped midway and said to the group, ‘Hey, do you mind if we take a break? I need about 10 minutes.’ She turned to me and said, ‘But I want you to stay in the room.’ It became eerily quiet.”

When everyone else left, the woman told Fitzgerald, “Stop apologizing when the mere essence of who you are intimidates the hell out of them. Being who you are is the best gift you can give to the world.”

“I felt seen for the first time in a way I had never felt before,” she says. “I realized that there were some telltale signs that I was stuck.”

One of the biggest signs is if you’re relying on others to lead your career, as she had been doing. This is often described as “waiting to be tapped on the shoulder,” such as being invited to interview for a higher position.

“Many of us in corporate America have been taught to wait for others to validate us or to see something in us and to give us permission to have aspirations beyond our current roles,” she says. “If we aren’t tapped, we believe that we’re incapable and that we’re not competent enough or that we don’t deserve to join.”

Another sign is lacking aspiration. “People come to life coaches and mentors looking for the answers relative to their lives in their careers,” says Fitzgerald. “They’ve not done the self-work and self-discovery to think about their path and their destination. There’s really no intentionality around their actions or they don’t have a vision.”

You may also simply feel unsuccessful. “In most cases, we define success as having a good job and being able to financially care for our family,” says Fitzgerald. “That definition of success is pretty narrow and oftentimes leaves a person lacking purpose.”

Instead, Fitzgerald suggests redefining success on your terms. “You will only win in your career or even in your life if you understand what success looks like for you,” she says. “It should be on your terms.”

The fourth sign that you’re stuck is if you lack fulfillment. Success and fulfillment are two different things. On paper, you may look successful, but unless your accomplishments bring you a sense of fulfillment, you’re not engaging in your purpose.

“What’s your ‘why’?” Fitzgerald asks. “That’s your sense of fulfillment. Then ask yourself, ‘Where am I on that continuum?’”

If you realize you’re stuck, Fitzgerald recommends three steps for correcting the situation.


Many of us think dreaming is limited to childhood or an early stage in life, but Fitzgerald says it’s okay to reimagine your life regardless of your age.

“One of the best gifts any of us can give ourselves is the ability to capture and mentally create an ideal life or an ideal workday,” she says. “Dreaming removes some of the mental constraints of doubt and fear and allows us to access that part of the brain where we’re not afraid.”

Dreaming also allows you to visualize your gifts and talents in a way that creates meaning around the role or body of work we should be doing.


The second step is reflection. Fitzgerald says you are your own best teacher if you take the time to listen to what you’ve learned and do some deep reflection about how you show up in the world.

“The art of reflection is one of the most powerful self-assessments and accountability tools you can engage in,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I doing when I am my most productive? When do I feel the most accomplished? What brings me joy? What gives me energy and what depletes my energy?’ Those questions will bring about answers that will give you some direction.”


The third step is the most powerful. Acknowledging requires that you confess to yourself and affirm your purpose. “Here, we’re not looking for permission or the validation of others,” says Fitzgerald. “When we acknowledge our purpose and our ‘why,’ it’s ours. We own it. It’s empowering and should give you a sense of strength and resilience to be able to go after and create a plan around what we want to accomplish in our careers.”

Becoming unstuck involves understanding your purpose and connecting to it. These three steps help you create a solid foundation upon which you can pursue your purpose and create a life that’s fulfilled instead of just content.

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