If Your Career Has Stalled, it's Time to Embrace Chaos

Pete Ross


Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

When we think of career progression, it’s usually in a very linear fashion. You start at the bottom, you work hard, show improvement and value, and as a result you get promoted semi regularly until you get to a decently high level. I think most of us at this point know that to be an utter falsehood and the worst kind of idealism.

It works for some fields though. Think knowledge workers that have a skill that can only be picked up in university with a competitive field. I’m talking about:

  • Accountants
  • Lawyers
  • Doctors
  • Consultants

It works for them because they are responsible for billable hours. The longer you do the job, the more expertise you gain and the more you can charge by the hour. That will gain you a fairly linear progression at a large firm because the path is well laid out and relates mostly to dollars. That’s assuming you like that kind of work and lifestyle.

But where the hell does that leave the rest of us mere mortals? Those of us that work in companies and do jobs like administration, marketing, human resources and all the other things that are required to keep a company functioning. We don’t make the dollars like sales or the above mentioned fields, so career advancement is an utter crapshoot for the vast majority of us.

One of the biggest problems in trying to advance your career is getting stuck in the same company. People are still in thrall to the concept that if you’re loyal and stay at one place for a long time, you’ll be rewarded. In most cases, this is utterly false. We know it’s false, because we know that people who change companies more often are better paid than those that stay put.

So much for loyalty huh?

The problem with familiarity

While the concept of job switching and earning more money gets a lot of press, one thing I have never seen discussed is why this is the case. There are, of course, the more mechanical reasons for being stuck in a position:

  • No available positions higher up the chain
  • Too much competition for the next rung up the career ladder

With either of these you essentially have two choices: stick it out and distinguish yourself from the pack, or find that position somewhere else. The advantage is that you know exactly what you stand to gain or lose by making either decision.

But what happens if you’ve been at your company for a number of years, and you’ve either been passed up for promotion several times or you’ve applied for other positions and not come up successful. What then? This is a position you absolutely don’t want to be in, where you could spend years spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

You’ve run into what I believe is the problem of familiarity. One of the reasons people who grow up in small towns want to get the hell out of them is because everyone there only ever sees you as what you used to be. They don’t even see you as who you are right now, because it’s influenced too much by their past knowledge of you. They certainly don’t see what you could be in the future. It’s why people in small towns get laughed at for having big ambitions — they still see you as the little kid they knew years ago, even though you’re almost an adult.

I even had that happen to me at a bar I used to work at while studying. One of the mangers said to me “you’ll never leave this place.” I scoffed at her, because the entire reason I was working there was to fund my studies so I wouldn’t have to work there!

But I digress.

At a company what that level of familiarity means is that you’re effectively stuck. People see you as your job, and they can’t imagine you doing anything else. The people that are either being promoted or moving internally every 2–3 years are seen as go getters, on their way up kind of people. They have the energy of expectation from everyone around them. You, on the other hand, are now seen as the steady, reliable person who gets the job done and isn’t “management material.” Or you aren’t cut out to work for that other department. There are plenty of cliche lines here.

Step then into the realm of chaos

If this is you and you’re truly unhappy with where you are in your career, you’ve really only got one choice: to leave for a job elsewhere. “Well duh, that’s freaking obvious”, you might be thinking, but hear me out. There’s a lot lurking below the surface of this seemingly obvious idea.

People will tell you that you can stay at your company, but you just need to really level yourself up. That you should get involved in more projects, that maybe you should start dressing better. Here’s the problem with that: it will clash with what people think they know of you.

That clashing generally isn’t good. People don’t like their expectations being messed with, and in my experience they’ll default to a negative interpretation of this new person you’re trying to be. They won’t be like “wow, Johnson has really upped his game. He’s dressing great and really doing some big things.” Nope, more likely they’ll wonder something along the lines of “what’s he trying to prove?”

The result is the same: you go nowhere, but now in addition to feeling miserable, you feel resentful as well.

Enter chaos, and the opportunity it represents. We love order, and that’s what you have at your current job. You know who’s who, you know how everything works and even if you’re miserable, you’re comfortable in that misery. The problem with order is that it stagnates. There is no room for movement. That’s where you are right now.

A new role at a new company is chaos. Chaos is the unknown, and the unknown terrifies most people. Instead of seeing the gold that the dragon is guarding, you just see the dragon. Your new boss might turn out to be awful. The new company might have a lot of rules you despise. The people you work with might not be so great. You may be uncomfortable having to learn some new systems or processes. Whatever the case is, you won’t know until you get there and the only way to find out is to step into the unknown. For that reason most people will cling to the order they have right now, even though it means stagnation and misery.

Chaos, however, provides unbridled opportunity. When you turn up on day 1 at a new job, no one knows you. No one knows that you’ve been previously knocked back from applications or not been promoted. No one knows that you’ve felt unappreciated. You aren’t weighed down by the baggage of people who think they have you all figured out. You turn up on day 1, dressed to kill and ready to change everything. And you actually have the potential to do that.

That’s because even if you’ve only taken a sidestep by moving from the same role you’re doing now to another company for the same salary or a bit more, you’ve done something really important: you’ve flipped your position. At your previous company everyone thought they knew everything there was to know about you, so your role was the ceiling. You couldn’t move any higher than that.

Now it’s the ground floor, and the only way is up.

For most people though, they just can’t bring themselves to rip off the band-aid. They look at the negative rather than the positive possibilities and use that to talk themselves out of it. If that’s you, there’s a question I want to ask you.

Even if the new jobs sucks and has more negatives than positives, what if you really lean into it and give it all you’ve got? What could you do for your career in just 12 months if you learn from all your past mistakes and did everything right?

That 12 months could be the starting off point to career success you’ve only dreamed of until now. Or, you might need to go to another company. The difference is, you’re always going to be negotiating from a position of strength and a higher salary.

I’ve seen several people make this jump. They got stuck in their careers and unable to progress, so reluctantly they left. As they were already highly motivated and competent, their careers didn’t just take off, they skyrocketed.

Don’t think you’ll be immune

It’s also important to remember that even if you’ve enjoyed a couple of promotions or decent success, you shouldn’t just assume that things will continue that way. The order which has suited you until now will eventually trap you. Maybe you get a new boss who doesn’t like you. Maybe the company becomes less profitable and your position is in jeopardy. There are a dozen different factors that can take your career progression from smooth and steady to a screeching halt.

So it pays to not get too comfortable with the current order you enjoy. Chaos is always preferable when it’s embraced willingly and proactively, rather than when it’s forced upon you. Just having it in your mind that the good times won’t always last is a useful attitude, because it means you won’t be blindsided.

Final caveat

All of this assumes that you’re actually unhappy with your current career progression. You may love what you do and the company you work for, in which case you don’t need to be constantly pushing your career forward. This is going to be the case for most of us as we get older and our priorities change, because we’ll reach a point of diminishing returns when we balance increased income with increased responsibility.

So get out there and take a chance. Chaos can be scary and is often uncomfortable, but those are usually our greatest periods of growth. If you prepare appropriately for the chaos and meet it head on with eyes wide open, chances are that sooner or later, you can have everything you’ve wanted.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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