Stuck in a Career Rut? Take a Cue From Your Travels
"My job doesn't move me anymore. I want to feel motivated and inspired," my friend confides to me. We’ve discussed it before, but today she’s feeling really down. We’re in a Boston cafe, talking through the questions most millennials face at some point: "What's next? Where am I going? How can I do something valuable?"
My life has been a lot about moving, and I often recommend travel as a cure-all for any kind of rut you’re in. Sometimes, though, you don’t actually need to go a new place—you just need to exercise a few lessons that travel teaches us. Here are a few strategies I try when I’m stuck in a rut.
(Re)discover New Passions
When I travel, I love cooking, learning to dance, and listening to local stories. But when I get home, those things usually come to a pause. Why? When you’re traveling and everything feels new, you wake up feeling passionate about the world. What you are seeing and experiencing, whether it be wonderful or challenging, motivates you in fresh ways. But if you find yourself stuck in a windowless cubicle or a position that doesn't keep you fulfilled, capturing that feeling and positive energy is a challenge.
To find inspiration, commit to developing a few new projects that move you, even if they’re simply activities you do on the side after work. Remind yourself of what you love to do, then find ways to engage in it, wherever you are.
Gain New Perspectives and Ways of Seeing
The eyes of a traveler see the world differently. Everything appears nuanced and illuminated. When I’ve returned from time abroad, it’s taken me a while to realize how unique and curious America is as well.
Your own home can be a place of discovery—your neighborhood, your city, even your workplace, if you take the time to really learn and focus. Try things that are completely out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself to see your own locale differently. We often spend so much of our time in our familiar neighborhoods, taking for granted the incredible places we have nearby. Go venture out to that Trini Roti stall you always pass or that Korean karaoke bar that serves watermelon soju and octopus.
You can try events and conferences that are unique to your field, too. Listening to speakers and panels often offers a fresh perspective, even if you don’t always agree. The key is to get new ideas constantly coming your way.
Innovate on the Road
On the road, my scarf was everything. It was always handy as an impromptu cover or bag. If I put rocks in it and tied the end, it could serve as makeshift protection. It could even be my handle when riding in the back of a truck.
While I don’t tether myself to the back of speeding vehicles anymore, I do use the skills I learned to roll with the punches. I’ve learned not to get rattled when things go wrong (say, when technology fails in a meeting) because I know that, eventually, I can find a solution.
Recently, a colleague discussing startups mentioned the phrase, “innovate or die.” Though this sounds harsh, it holds true in daily life. If you take innovative, creative risks, you’re more likely to find rapid success than if you follow a tried-and-true formula. Sometimes when you’re in a rut, you’ve got to try a completely fresh idea, even if it seems like a reach.
Avoid Burn Out
I've faced travel burnout, when traveling stopped being fun and instead became completely and utterly exhausting. It wasn’t until I started focusing on why I was living abroad in the first place that I felt connected to my work again.
If you’re feeling the signs of burnout (lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, work related fatigue), take a step back and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s okay to break away from work, even if it is something tremendously important. Take time for yourself first, and identify where the burnout is coming from, then see how you can adjust your daily routine.
Map Your Future
One thing I always had abroad was a plan for my next destination. It wasn’t about sticking to a guidebook, it was about envisioning the trip I wanted and what that included, whether it was eating cobra or gaining understanding of a new community.
It’s easy to dream about what you want to achieve, but it’s far more helpful to write your goals down. Once you’ve done that, I recommend writing exactly what you have to do to achieve the items on your list, and dividing the steps into short-term and long-term plans. You can also subdivide the sheet into headings like “work,” “life,” and “miscellaneous.” This will enable you to visualize exactly where you want to be headed, and easily reference the list to see how much progress you’re making.
After a long talk with my friend, and a map-making session, she was able to start to plan her way out of her work rut. She’s set future goals to work toward and has uncovered potential solutions she could focus on now.
These travel lessons have always been helpful in helping me out of a rut. But I also keep in mind that one of the biggest principles of travel is to “let life happen.” Most of the time, it will.
Photo of tourist courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.