The Dangers and Early Signs of Career Stagnation
Written by Russell Johnson
Most of us know it’s dangerous to drink from a stagnant pond. We need to be equally aware of the dangers of a stagnant career, and to avoid them just as scrupulously.
The environment in which our organizations exist is changing faster than ever before. To survive, they must change more quickly than ever. How then could it be otherwise for us individually? As Jack Welch has stated, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
On this basis, how fast are you changing?
This is not just a matter of being challenged. The world of work is generally good at providing challenges. But if your challenges relate only to the amount of your output, they are more likely to be an indicator of danger than of growth. Taken to its extreme, this only results in stress. And not the beneficial kind of stress known as eustress, but the harmful type known as distress.
It’s vital, not only to experience growth opportunities but to seize those that will help you advance in your chosen direction. Otherwise, you are at risk of stagnation.
To avoid atrophy, our bodies require exercise and stretching – in general, the more varied, the better. It’s the same with our careers. To avoid stagnation, we need to be learning continually, in areas aligned with our interests. Variety truly is ‘the spice of life’.
Similarly, for the development and wellbeing of our minds, we need creative activity. Because every moment spent in that pursuit is unique and as a result, uniquely stimulating.
Albert Einstein defined creativity as ‘intelligence having fun’. That’s what we should seek through our work because when our intelligence is having fun, we experience fulfilment. Our minds thrive on this. What’s more, the neurochemicals released when we think creatively even benefit our bodies.
By contrast, if you are finding your role boring, you won’t go home at the end of the day feeling tired but fulfilled; you’ll just feel tired. This is an indicator of career atrophy.
When you feel tired but fulfilled, you’ll likely be ready for some very different activities at the end of your working day. Even though your work will have required your energy, it will also have ‘recharged your battery’. Happily, you’ll then have renewed energy to pursue other activities.
To be seen as a commodity – easily replaceable – is the worst of all positions in any market. Even in the case of essentially similar products, such as generic drugs or vitamins, the companies that produce them aim to differentiate themselves and their levels of service etc. They do this to obtain some bargaining power. Without it, their fate is to be ground down by price competition in an exhausting ‘race to the bottom’.
As individual service providers, every one of us operates in a market. If we don’t know how to differentiate the service we provide, and to attract positive attention, we will inevitably operate below our potential. We will be paid accordingly and taken advantage of in other ways as well.
Every one of us is unique, especially in the world of work. It’s vital, firstly, to understand your uniqueness. Secondly, you must position yourself according to the value you will add. This will help ensure you are paid appropriately. And it will pave the path to a more fulfilling career, where you use your skills at a level that keeps you stimulated and growing.
When you do this well, you’ll also have the opportunity to operate as a buyer in the marketplace of jobs, rather than as a seller. Consequently, you’ll be in a position to market your uniqueness and to attract partners who will be grateful to have attracted you. And who will be happy to provide the conditions you want.
Commoditization is a natural outgrowth of stagnation. If we allow it to happen, we are making career mistakes that can slide into a career crisis.
This is a natural result of accepting commodity status. However, it’s not just because of commodity status that our incomes become plateaued.
While few people know how to position themselves effectively, just as few know how to negotiate a package that reflects their true value. The combination of both exacts an immense penalty over time. But it’s a completely unnecessary one.
By contrast, when you learn to position yourself appropriately and to negotiate effectively, you’ll automatically command increased income and more of everything else that you value.
The right positioning, plus effective negotiation, can yield a greater return in a few minutes than any other set of skills. Once you’ve put this to the test, you’ll wonder why you let it take so long.
Commitment Must Lead to Action
In the same vein, when we learn to respect ourselves enough to commit to building the future we want, we gain more respect. We are perceived differently because we act differently.
Commitment requires making the shift from contemplating action to genuinely acting. We can’t fool ourselves in this regard. Over-analysis, or anything else other than action, erodes our confidence and is ultimately more harmful than helpful.
As Virgil stated, Fortune favors the bold.