What to do when you “feel stuck”
“You’ve got problems. Your friends have problems. We’ve all got problems.”
This quote comes from Designing Your Life, a top-selling book written by professors of an extremely popular class at Stanford University.
In fact, according to one of the authors, “the class took off because everyone has the problem and they need a good solution.” The problem he was referring to here is none other than “figuring out what to do with our lives.”
I definitely have this problem, and as a result, I often find myself feeling stuck.
I have dreams I’ve yet to realize, milestones I’ve yet to hit. I don’t know exactly what I want to be doing 5 years from now, but I do know I want to be doing a lot more.
If I had to guess, this feeling of being weighted down, of not knowing what to do or how to pull ourselves out, is something many of us can relate to.
The difference though, between those who can eventually achieve their goals and those who can’t, is what they do about this feeling.
The biggest takeaway from Designing Your Life is to “build your way forward.”
Its philosophy is to approach life as how a designer would approach an app.
You start with one (or a few) prototype. You iterate from there. What gets you the final product is not sitting on the couch for 24 hours thinking to yourself what would make the best user experience.
You draw mockups, you A/B test different ideas, and after several iterations, MAYBE you finally hit the desired traffic.
“Designers try things. They test things out. They create prototype after prototype, failing often, until they find what works and what solves the problem.” — Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
I’ve found, through trial and error that the greatest remedy to this “feeling stuck” is indeed simply getting off the couch and do things.
Several examples in the book shared one theme, and they all resonated with me. It’s the theme where people are stuck in a job they don’t enjoy; every day they watch the clock moving and clock out ASAP. Yet, they feel like there’s nothing they can do.
I’ve been there too.
My life has gone through a series of prototypes in the last few years.
It started with me abandoning my former life as a pre-med and quitting biology altogether.
Like the author of the book himself, Dave Evans, I studied biology and stuck with it for years because I had the misguided belief that it was my destiny to be a biomedical researcher. Both of my parents have a biology background and have been professors for years.
When I finally decided to quit, I didn’t know software engineering was my calling. How could I have? I’ve never tried. But I did know I wasn’t happy doing research or being in academia. So I did something about it.
My first job in tech out of the bootcamp was fun a few months. It got boring quickly because I spent most of my time working on small features. I wanted greater ownership of the codebase and projects much bigger in scope, and so I joined a smaller startup.
I struggled with weight and self-image. I tried zumba, running, pilates, yoga, and many other forms of exercises. Though I liked them, I wasn’t passionate about them. I wasn’t able to keep any of them as something I would do at least 2–3 times a week. Then, I tried pole dancing. And I found my calling.
Yes, though there might still be many places I’ve yet to see, I’m nevertheless a lot further along on this road than I used to be. I’ve been sprinting ahead every day, at an accelerating rate.
The secret, or rather no secret at all, to feeling unstuck, is simply doing things.
You don’t have to think for endless hours what to do or what’s the right thing to do. You just have to start with one idea, and iterate from there.
I know I’ve always liked to perform. Whether it is giving a tech presentation, a speech, or a dance show, I’ve always enjoyed being a performer.
I explored various dance groups in college, but I found I didn’t particularly enjoy group performances. Then, I started dancing at S Factor and performed in front of the instructor and other students at the end of each class. Yet I wanted more. I signed up to perform at a high-end exotic night club and found myself living a thrilling, though short-lived, double life. And now, I’m competing in various pole dancing competitions around the US.
I find competitions incredibly energizing and fun. I love choreographing new routines, perfecting new tricks, and in the end, put on a show exceeding my own expectations.
It took several rounds of iteration to find this satisfying activity. I certainly did not come up with this idea sitting around thinking. I did things.
The number one killer of productivity at work is the lack of clear and immediate action items. The same can be applied to the way we approach life.
Having action items and following through them gives us energy and puts us in a state of flow.
There’s no point spending extra weeks or months thinking through 100 different prototypes before testing any of them.
Get into a state of flow.
Stop thinking, and start doing.
“Life design is an iterative process of prototypes and experimentation.”
I’m Lily Chen, software engineer by day, writer and pole dancer by night.