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Getting out of a rut

If your life's journey has ground to a halt, blaze a new path

Karen Guzman, Staff Writer

In the dim, whispery dining room of North Hills' trendy new restaurant, 115 Midtowne, Tim Fletcher found a new life. As general manager here, amid the soft, tinkling holiday tunes and the gleaming wooden bar, he has become a new man.

But he hasn't forgotten the old one.

"I still pick up the phone and say, 'Glenwood Grill' sometimes," he laughs. "For 15 years I was so identified with Glenwood Grill, if I called somebody, I didn't say this is Tim Fletcher. I'd say this is Tim from Glenwood Grill."

The problem was that comfy familiarity had a big downside: Fletcher was stuck. He was stagnating, living the routine of a challenge that had played itself out.

How to break free

At one time or another, most people get stuck. Here are some tips for breaking out of a rut from Susan David, a psychologist and researcher at Yale University.

* Build a team:

Surround yourself with people who fuel positive emotions. Feeling inspired helps you take on new tasks and challenges.

* Play to your strengths:

When mapping out goals, identify your core strengths and decide how you can use them more.

* Challenge yourself:

Look for ways to stretch. Taking the easy way out is what leaves you in a rut. At work, take on a difficult assignment, a real challenge. It will help you move forward.

* Add meaning:

Infuse your life with a sense of purpose, however you define it. People who believe they contribute to the bigger picture are more excited by their lives.

"It was scary. I really debated with myself a while," he says.

At 51, Fletcher was a managing partner at Glenwood Grill. He had built his life around the successful Raleigh eatery since 1990.

"There was no challenge left there for me," he says. "I just felt like if I didn't do something new, I was gonna bust."

Like so many people, Fletcher was in a rut, stuck in a role that was safe and comfortable but no longer emotionally rewarding. To get out he would have to make tough choices.

The beginning of a new year is a natural time to pause and reflect; it throws a spotlight on life's big questions. If you're stuck in a rut, and everyone is at some point, change is necessary to reclaim your vitality. But it doesn't come easy.

"The first step in getting out of a rut is realizing you're in one," says psychologist Larina Kase, president of Performance & Success Coaching LLC.

Do you feel validated and appreciated at work? Are your personal relationships healthy? How about those fitness goals?

Sometimes a rut is obvious. "You're spinning your wheels. You're not moving forward," Kase says.

At work, you may have hit a dead-end. The company's mission has changed to one that doesn't match yours, or you find yourself trapped in a poisonous, counterproductive corporate culture.

Some people, however, have trouble reading the signs.

"It's one of those things where you can't see the forest for the trees, because you're immersed in it," Kase says.

The best way to tell if you're in a rut is to imagine the life you want and measure it against the one you have. Then, if you're ready to break free, prepare for a bumpy ride.

Fletcher, for instance, feared falling flat on his face. He wanted to stay in the restaurant business. But new restaurants have a high failure rate, and he was leaving a safe -- though soul-numbing -- job for the unknown. On top of that he feared losing his identity as "Tim from Glenwood Grill."

Real growth, though, usually requires risk, Kase says.

"I took a big leap, and I am so glad I did," Fletcher says. Business at 115 Midtowne has exceeded his hopes. "I am absolutely recharged. I have tons more energy. I am happier than I have been in the last two to three years," he says. His fear of losing his old identity dissipated as a more rewarding one emerged.

Fear is the enemy

Indeed, with ruts, circumstances aren't the real enemy. Fear is.

"That's where most people get hung up, when they're afraid to change," says performance coach and author John Seeley. "Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest causes of being stuck."

One approach is to break a big goal -- a new job, losing 40 pounds -- down into small steps. Take one step every day.

"You start by moving outside your comfort zone," Seeley says. "Einstein said, 'To continue doing the same thing, expecting different results, is insanity.' If we want new results, we need to do different things."

Surrounding yourself with people who understand and value the new goal can help.

For poet Jaki Shelton Green, of Mebane, her husband was key.

A divorced mother of three, Green, 52, supported her family for 20 years working first at legal services, and then for a Chapel Hill non-profit. It was valuable work she enjoyed.

Still, she was a published poet and writing was her heart's true desire. She pushed it into the background. "The path I was on was a pretty mainstream safe one: a good job and security," she says.

By the time Green remarried in 2000, her children were grown and gone. She was at a new crossroads, pondering the future, when her new husband encouraged her to pursue her true passion. It wasn't easy.

"Even if something isn't good, it becomes who you are after a while," Green says. "This was the first time anyone had challenged me to give myself the permission to not have that safety net."

She turned to writing full time in August 2004.

"Getting out of any rut is a journey," she says. "I need to remove these other voices, these other scripts in my head that I have used to measure myself. Having someone who valued my art, someone who really said, 'Do it. Don't be afraid' helped."

Breaking free of ruts is crucial to life satisfaction, says Gail Blanke, motivational speaker and author of "Between Trapezes."

"We all get stuck at some point in our lives -- in a job, in a relationship, in an old view of our lives," Blanke says. "Lots of times we lose ourselves in the process of trying to be everybody's everything."

Escaping requires vision and courage. Blanke encourages clients to envision the life they truly want and deserve.

"Create a powerful vision for how wonderful the future can be," she says. "Say, 'I'm not going to work in a place where I feel diminished because I'm so much better than that.' "

Defining moments

Then her clients do an exercise. They create a list of what she calls "life's defining moments."

"Look at the moments when you found something in yourself you didn't know you had, and you pulled it out," Blanke says.

"It's the moment when you said no or yes or drew the line, or erased one. But it's always the moment after which you never looked at yourself the same way."

Kim Grant had a defining moment in 2003. After 10 years of frustration with a boyfriend who couldn't hold a job, Grant, of Raleigh, said enough.

"I don't like being alone," Grant says. "But then I started to feel alone even though we were together, because we had stopped connecting."

To move on, she jumped into life, getting involved in community organizations and taking dance lessons.

"What's amazing is after he was out of my life, people said I seemed to have so much energy and seemed so much happier," she says.

Like Grant, Sharon Webb heeded the rut warning signs.

"Part of life is knowing when to go," she says. When her longtime job at a Triangle advertising/marketing firm grew stale, she faced the inevitable.

"When there is not anywhere up you can go, it takes the wind out of your sails," she says. "I'm a risk taker. You have to take risks to get ahead."

She is now in sales for a fledgling company she believes in passionately.

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to get unstuck.

"Defining moments very frequently are not the times you won, but the times you came up short, the times when it was so hard," Blanke says.

Filling a hole

In the end, it's not what happens to you in life that dictates the future, but what you do about it.

Barbara Risman, for instance, enjoyed her life in Raleigh.

As a sociology professor at N.C. State University for 21 years, she became part of the community. She raised her daughter in a house and neighborhood she loved.

But when her daughter went off to college in Pennsylvania this fall, Risman felt a gaping hole in her life.

"I knew I had to do something to jolt myself to make the transition easier," she says. "My way of getting out of the rut was to find a new challenge."

Opportunity came calling. The University of Illinois in Chicago recruited Risman to head its growing sociology department.

She says the decision to leave was a no-brainer. She bought a chic downtown loft in Chicago and began mapping out a new life.

"The hardest part is leaving all the people behind that I love," she says. "Luckily, I believe in airplanes."

She also believes that ultimately she is responsible for her own life and choices, for the situations she accepts and those she refuses.

"It's much less scary to keep everything the way it is and not take any chances," she says. "Sometimes, people get in ruts and just complain. I didn't want to be one of those people."

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