Getting Off the Treadmill: Six Ways to Break Out of a Rut

Do you ever feel that you are in a rut? Have you ever thought about what your "rut threshold" might be? Some people seem to be able to exist for years on a work plateau. For others, particularly creative types, the threshold is a few months at most.

The priorities of scientists seem to differ dramatically from those of workers in other industries. With the right environmental factors, for example, employees producing widgets of some kind can be productive and happy for a lifetime. But if you ask a biochemist to run the same assay every day for a week, she will be screaming for relief.

One of the advantages of my job is that I get to talk to people who have succeeded in breaking out of their routines in many creative ways. For some, a slight change of course for their career plan gives them a temporary burst of fresh enthusiasm for their work. For others, breaking free of a rut brings the clarity of vision and insights that are necessary to make dramatic strides in their science or product development.

Here is a short list of six methods of "breaking free" that I have seen used successfully by technical professionals:

  • Do self-analysis exercises to know yourself better: Have you seen that classic old movie starring Gregory Peck, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit? This film has an interesting scene in which a fellow goes through the interview process for an "executive" job (one that pays $9000 a year in the 1930s). He is put through a great self-analysis exercise during his interview that I would recommend to anyone.

    Peck is given an office, a pad of paper, and a box of pencils, and asked to write a short statement entitled "The Most Significant Thing About Me Is ..." The employer gives him an hour to do it and asks that it not be more than three or four sentences long. Although it is easy to write page after page about our strengths and accomplishments (isn't that what a CV is?), it turns out to be quite difficult to focus on one most "significant thing." Writing succinctly is always difficult. Writing succinctly about yourself is extraordinarily difficult.
    Gregory Peck's essay lands him the job. In your case, while it won't by itself get you out of that rut, it will indeed help you focus on what is really important. This is the first step in breaking out and moving on.

  • Take some coursework in something totally different: For example, sign up for a few business courses, or get some outside training in an area like conflict resolution or public speaking. Here's a wild idea: Try a Dale Carnegie course, as I did. Carnegie once said, "Even in such technical lines as science and engineering, only about 15% of a person's financial and career success is due to technical knowledge--the other 85% is due to skill in human engineering and the ability to lead people."

    A few years back I signed up for the Dale Carnegie training after my wife had taken the course. She raved about it and signed up again, asking me to join her. Originally, I did it only to appease my wife. Within a few weeks, I realized that it was one of the best things I had ever done. It completely changed the way I viewed the relationships between people. My enjoyment on the job increased, and although I didn't realize that I was in a rut at the time, I found myself making a few much-needed changes in my job and circumstances.

  • Find an industrial mentor: If you are caught in the postdoc rut and desire to make the move over to an industry job, how about focusing on finding some help rather than finding that job? The frustrating part about the "rut" of looking for the job in industry is that it can seem like an endless cycle of responding to ads, calling people about jobs, getting postcards in the mail, etc. Try changing your focus. Instead of targeting the job itself, approach it with the desire to develop a mentor on the other side of the fence who can help you through the transition. Looking for this person is a lot less threatening, and a lot easier, than looking for a job.

    Sure, this sounds like networking, and that is difficult for many people. But it isn't the sheer numbers of contacts that eventually get people hired--it's the quality of the contacts. And a mentor doesn't have to be an older, seasoned veteran. Instead, it could be a scientist just like you who made the move to industry 2 years ago. That person will still be freshly acquainted with all the frustration of the postdoc mill and will be able to guide you with what you might be doing right and wrong in your own search.
    Don't forget that industry is a lot like a private club. And if you were trying to gain membership into a private tennis club, for example, you wouldn't write letters to the Membership Chair. Instead, you would find a member to sponsor you.

  • Determine your ideal mix of challenges and repetition: You may be the sort of person who likes to fine-tune your expertise on a given instrument system, so running a variety of assays using that technique all the time is not a problem for you. On the other hand, your colleague in the lab could be the kind of person who would be driven nutty by "fine-tuning" a technique. He or she requires a constant diet of change and experiences. For those people, job satisfaction is personal growth most often measured by the extent of new challenges and "learning situations" experienced. Some people find that when the learning process slows and the job becomes more and more repetitive, trouble begins. But it is in the ideal mix of these two types of work that we all differ.

    Sports psychologist Dr. Robert Kriegel, who wrote the bestsellers Inner Skiing and Inner Tennis, calls this fine line the "Challenge/Mastery Shuttle." He believes that we all need a little of each--both new challenges as well as work in our own area of personal mastery. Kriegel says that success requires us to discover our own place on this scale. Have you thought about what measure of each works for you? Is the rut you may have fallen into something that you can break free of with a few new learning experiences?

  • Make a lateral move: In the world of industry, "lateral move" has an undeserved negative connotation. Usually, it is the offer to move somewhere else and take on a new job at a similar level of compensation and responsibility. But there are few better ways to break out of a rut than to transplant yourself into a new environment!

    Although this advice may not translate as well over to academia, the point still holds true. As management guru Tom Peters says, "Repot yourself like a houseplant for a lot of fresh, new growth." If you are in your third postdoc, heck--you don't need another one. On the other hand, if you find yourself caught in a rut and the ideal situation (a job in industry, perhaps) seems a bit elusive, then consider the merits of a change of scenery and the new experiences that will come with it. A lateral move might allow you to regain the excitement you had for your work in earlier days. And along with that fresh burst of excitement usually comes some new insights about how to reach that elusive end goal.

  • Focus on becoming an expert in a particular skill area: While much has been said about the value of new experiences in breaking free of a rut, it is also possible to do the opposite--to take some area that you are good at and make it something that you are very good at. Find the focus necessary to totally dominate your skill area. There's an old saying up in Alaska that has some meaning here: "If you aren't the lead dog, the scenery never changes."

If you have occasionally felt that you are in a rut but haven't found the energy or time to make some of these changes, don't procrastinate. Being in a rut can take a toll on your quality of life. The energy and enthusiasm that you bring to your job is what you will become known for throughout your professional career.

As it is said, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

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