Ages ago, I embarked on a road trip with my best friend and my boyfriend. We lived in Virginia and decided to spend a long weekend exploring Boston: the map said it was an 8-hour drive, so we packed our bags and went on our merry way.
It was not an 8-hour drive.
We had not accounted for rush hour traffic. After 2 hours of going nowhere fast, we decided to stop for something to eat at the IHOP in Laurel, Maryland. Surely traffic would clear up in the 45 minutes it would take to load up on pancakes.
We were quickly seated at a table, and soon Boris came by to take our order. He was a new server, and things were a little awkward, but he got the order and we saw him head over to the machine to enter it into the system.
We chatted for a bit, trying to map out what we’d see in Boston: museums? Harvard? Salem?
Tables near us started to get their food, but ours was nowhere in sight. We hadn’t seen Boris for awhile, but then we spotted him: wrapping silverware at the hostess station.
We waited a bit longer, but Boris seemed to be very intent on his silverware duties, so we waved down another server to check on our food.
Our food, as it turned out, had never been ordered. Boris forgot to ask us how we wanted our eggs – and he couldn’t enter our order into the computer without our choice of eggs.
Boris got stuck. And so he fell back to doing what he already knew how to do well: wrapping silverware.
Now, Boris could have done something different when he got stuck. He could have come back to our table, apologized, and gotten our complete order. He could have just entered ‘scrambled’ into the computer. He could have asked a coworker what to do.
Instead, he stayed stuck. He delayed moving through the problem by falling back to duties that had previously brought him success at his job.
Why did he stay stuck? Maybe it was poor training; maybe fear of getting in trouble; maybe the last table he had apologized to for not getting the complete order had treated him badly.
It was easy for us to shake our heads and say, “Oh, Boris” – but – how often do we stay stuck?
When faced with a challenge in life: how often do we stay stuck? How often do we back away and fall back to the things we know how to do? How often do we spin our wheels?
Here’s the truth of it: it can be really hard to do something new. Unpleasant, uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassing because we know there are people who could handle the challenge without breaking a sweat.
It’s human nature to want to avoid the uncomfortable. Especially when we made a mistake, and we can’t move forward until we’ve fixed it somehow.
We all get stuck. We all find ourselves in moments where we don’t know what’s next.
But: we don’t have to stay stuck.
How do we get unstuck?
Google it. I’m a software engineer by trade, and, well, google has served me well. There are a lot of people out there who have been in your situation, and sometimes their experiences can get you unstuck. (Caveat: timebound this. Give yourself an hour or 3, or you can easily fall into a rabbit-hole of research and actually find yourself staying stuck. Ask me how I know this …)
Step away from the situation for a bit. I don’t know how many problems I’ve solved by getting up from my computer to walk to the vending machine for chocolate. There’s something about releasing your brain from the tight focus of your problem that actually lets it come up with potential solutions to your problem.
Ask for help! This one can be humbling. Especially at work, where you feel like you got the job because they assumed you could, well, do the job. But here’s a secret: part of the job is also learning the best way to do the job. And sometimes that means asking peers – or managers – how to proceed. A good manager wants you to succeed. A good manager does not want you to stay stuck and will gladly help get you unstuck. (Caveat: in many cases, they do expect that you’ve tried some things first, or come to them with options you’ve come up with.)
Life is full of unexpected challenges and opportunities that take us to places we’ve never been before – and that means we mess up. And get stuck.
But we don’t have to stay stuck.
That long weekend, our stop at IHOP took quite a bit longer than we expected it to. On the plus side, though, Baltimore traffic had cleared up by the time we hit the road again, and we were able to start our pancake-fueled adventures.