How to Get Past a Career Rut


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Stay in the real world long enough and you’re bound to get burned out. Longer work-weeks, toxic co-workers, poor managers and bleak prospects for advancing one’s career can be a recipe for a Catch-22, where you long to quit your job, but feel pressured to hold on to it out of fear of becoming unemployed and not being able to make ends meet.

But while it’s easy to blame the recession for these issues, experts say the real reason your career has stalled probably has more to do with poor planning and a lack of initiative, not to mention a lack of one or more of the transferable skills that every employee needs to succeed and stand out in today’s tough economy.  

“Sure, there are external factors,” says Peter Handal, CEO of the Dale Carnegie Institute, a professional development center. “It could be a divorce or health or the recession. But really it can be the individual who isn’t prepared for the real world. Intangible people skills are very important, and in a lot of respects more important than what somebody has.”

If it seems like you’ve working for the weekend, but aren’t making progress then keep reading for advice on how to put your job back on track and cut through the fog to land that promotion or your next dream job.

Stuck in Neutral

A career rut is hard to define, but Alexandra Levit, author of New Job, New You, says that any time you’re not looking forward to waking up in the morning or have trouble focusing on the work at hand is a sign that you’re plodding along in your job and are headed for trouble.

“When nothing you’re working on gets you jazzed anymore, everything is just sort of blah and even when you do something well you find it hard to enjoy it, that’s a sign you need to pull yourself out of your rut,” she says.

Other indications that you might be unhappy with your work situation include excessive drinking, physical symptoms like feeling sick or tired, doing poorly at work and lacking attention to detail.

“You might be less efficient with your time, not perform your tasks as well or pass work off onto other people,” Levit adds. “There’s just no motivation to get it done.”

If this sounds like you, Handal says it’s time to do a serious self-assessment to get some perspective.

“If you’re someone who’s been a trailblazer but just isn’t engaged anymore, then perhaps it’s just a matter of needing a change of pace or a vacation,” he says, adding that taking leadership classes or picking up a new hobby might help to improve one’s outlook.

However, Martin Yates, author of the Knock ‘Em Dead career development series, disagrees, pointing out that the issue is usually closer to home.

“The biggest cause of career plateaus is that we’ve been told since day one to find something you like and stick with it, and if you find something you like, you’ll work forever,” he says. “But successful careers don’t just happen. They are planned and pursued with intent.”

In other words, he continues, a lack of planning or sitting quietly and doing your job day in and day out, secretly hoping for a raise without asking for one is what is actually holding you back.

“If you haven’t had substantial raises or promotions, it means you don’t deserve them,” he says.

Getting Perspective

To get ahead, Yates says employees have to be committed to their professions and understand the politics of growth. When you’re committed, time flies; you’re making things happen and not watching them happen. But many workers do just the opposite, due to a lack of a transferable skills.

“The seven transferable skills, or learned behaviors, underlie success in every profession at every level,” says Yates.

Here’s what he’s talking about:

1. Technical skills - Can you effectively manage the technical tasks of your job?

2. Communication - Are you a good listener, writer and speaker? Do you have a grasp on new media and what Yates calls the “subliminal communicators” like dress, body language, emotional intelligence and social graces?

3. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills - Do you have what it takes to identify, avoid and provide solutions to problems?

4. Multi-tasking - “Most people think this is running around, but it’s not,” says Yates. Take a long, hard look at how you manage your time--and think about cleaning your desk.

5. Teamwork - This is perhaps most important, as nearly every job requires it. Do you work well with others and add to the team?

“Companies invariably make their money from solving big, complex problems that people can’t do on their own,” says Yates.

6. Leadership - Are you responsible and adept at holding others responsible?

7. Creativity - Can you come up with unique and fun ideas? If you have the other skills, this one should come easily, says Yates.

Addressing Weaknesses

If after taking stock of your skills you find yourself falling short of the mark, then it’s time to find a role model at work to provide guidance on how to acquire whatever skills you are missing, says Samantha Zupan, spokesperson for the job search website

“Maybe some other colleagues have a similar job as you, and if so you need to be thinking about who’s shining and what are they doing to advance themselves,” she says. “If not, ask yourself who had that job before, and maybe schedule some time with them to ask what took them to the next level. If you’re not learning what those things are, that’s you. You have to learn about your own career growth.”

But for hard workers who already have the skills we listed, the issue might be the job itself. In that case, it's time for a change.

“A career rut is when you’re not fulfilled,” Yates says, “but what fulfills you does not fulfill me and pursuing growth has to be your plan of action, whether it’s a step up the ladder or sideways, when sideways is a means to take a step up the ladder. You have to know where you want to go.”

If your career rut is really more a lack of direction than a lack of skills, then Yates suggests doing what he calls a “target job deconstruction,” which entails identifying the dream job you want, then finding six job postings that describe that position. After combining what each lists as employee requirements and the words they use to describe them, you can evaluate which of those skills you don’t have and should work on.

“Do this and you have just got a personal professional development program for yourself,” Yates says.

And don’t be afraid to tap your boss for help, either, though we recommend keeping that document to yourself.

Finding New Opportunities

“If you’re looking for an internal promotion,” says Yates, “then you have to treat that internal promotion with the same kind of seriousness you would in your job search. Prepare a resume and develop skills for a job within your own company. That’s what you do if you want to get a promotion.”

Also, our experts say you should be networking all the time.

“Building the relationships with the people who do that target job that you’re going after and who have the authority to hire for that target job is key,” says Yates. And if that job is somehow related to your role, find opportunities to reach out and work with the people in a position to help you move up the ladder.

“Whatever that job is you’re after,” says Yates, “it’s related to your job today.”

Joining professional associations and networking with other people currently in your dream job is another smart way to forge connections that can help you down the line.

“You want to meet the best-connected and most committed people in your geography,” Yates adds, before offering this nugget of wisdom: “We’re raised on instant gratification: ‘buy this and you’ll be sexier, younger, you deserve it, have it now.’ Careers don’t work that way. You’re not going to get instant gratification, you have to work at it. If the average career spans half a century or 50 years, every time we wake up on the right side of the grass, we ain’t got nothing but time on our hands. We owe it to ourselves to do it.”

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