Our career paths (as well as our relationships and lives) are rarely on a straight trajectory. We have times when we’re climbing and times when we’re falling. Then there are the in-between times, when going through the motions, we feel stuck. This is stagnation and no one is immune. The word career comes from the Latin for “winged vehicle,” which reminds us that the experience we have at work should have motion and a direction. Your career should never feel like it’s stalled.
Stagnation is comes from the mindset that you’re doing “just fine” and you are “good enough.” This mentality deflates growth and development; it derails performance, stalls productivity, and undermines fulfillment. In some ways, it’s worse than doing poorly because it’s static. When things are bad, we tend to take action, or at least are motivated to do so. But feeling like things are okay is a sneaky trap. It means you’re treading water instead of actually swimming.
My new book, Sustain Your Game, is a product of my own efforts to break stagnation. Years ago, at the height of a successful career as a basketball performance coach, I felt my passion starting to wane. I’d hit a wall. While I still enjoyed working with players and teaching coaches, and my love for basketball will always be part of me, I was becoming less and less interested in the latest training exercises, techniques, and methods of on-the-court training. As this was happening, I found myself fascinated with principles of leadership, accountability, and communication, what I thought of as off-the-court training. The brief forays I’d had into that space tapped into something invigorating and I wanted more.
After some deep self-reflection, I knew I needed to make a change, to shake things up. I felt in my bones that just going through motions would be cheating the game I loved, the players and coaches I cared for, and myself. And I wouldn’t allow that.
I decided to take the principles from the basketball performance world and apply them off the court. My desire was to inspire, empower, and teach. In essence, I would still be a performance coach, but I would coach a different part of performance, to a different audience, in a different way. The mere thought of taking on this new challenge, working on a new skill set, and serving a new audience relit my fire.
Part I of Sustain Your Game was about performing in the moment. Part II focuses on your current day-to-day life. What is working? What is not? How can I make the next ten years an improvement on the last ten?
As I discussed in Raise Your Game, the first step towards improving yourself is self-awareness. You don’t know where to go until you know where you’ve been; you don’t know what to do next until you know where you’re at. Because we are often blind to things right in front of us, it’s helpful to use tools to find these answers.
In his book When, about the importance of timing, Daniel Pink writes about how beginnings and endings have their own natural momentum. However, it’s the pesky midpoint that “numbs our interest and stalls our progress.” When we arrive, we are full of energy and hope and anticipation. And when we depart, we are emotional, nostalgic, and reflective. But the middle? It’s harder to care. And it can be a slog—if you let it. Because the middle is where the work happens.
Pink emphasizes that it’s in our hands whether these midpoints are slumps or sparks. If we hit the wall and see it as a sign to stop pushing, it’ll likely be a slump. However, if it alerts us to the need for change, then it can be a spark. Picture a workday where you haven’t been productive. Too much distraction, too much busywork, not enough focus. You look up and it’s already 3:30 p.m. At this moment, there are two widely different responses.
The spark: I already lost the whole day; I better get working!
The slump: I already lost the whole day, might as well take off early and call it a wash.
Stagnation accumulates slowly until you look up and you feel like you’ve lost the drive you once had. It may initially rear its head as something minor like complacency, blaming others, or rationalizing low performance. Then it spreads. As we adapt to where we are in life, in a job, in a relationship, the excitement tends to fade. It’s called the hangover effect—and it’s real. Even the once-most exciting jobs tend to fall back down to Earth once you’ve adjusted to them.
When we lose our drive, it might be seem like it’s happening to us and there’s no way to break it. But our helplessness is an illusion, a story we tell ourselves. We can change that story. “If you’re bored, you’ve got to challenge yourself more and push yourself out of your comfort zone,” writes renowned mental skills coach George Mumford. “We need to be wary of being on a plateau and not moving on to the next vista because we’re daunted by the path it takes to get there.” Mumford worked with Jordan and Kobe and he understands that our approach to our work is more important than the work itself. We just have to find new pockets of inspiration during those times when we are sluggish, run down, and tired of the day to day.
So stagnation is real, and the issue is: what do we do about it? Riding it out is sometimes an option; it may go away. But once it becomes obvious that it’s not, it’s time to take action.
Sustain Your Game teaches you how to bring your A game to every area of your life. With advice from top CEOs, journalists, social scientists, and more, you’ll learn the framework for how to beat stress, stagnation, and burnout. Sustain Your Game will help you be the best in your arena, wherever that may be.
Sustain Your Game if available now at http://www.SustainYourGameBook.com