Earlier this year I found myself in one of those dreaded career/professional ruts. My job has been extremely busy with new projects over which I had no control, talks of a big upcoming merger, and lots of annoying issues, both technical and non-technical, that have put a real drain on me. So, come summer, I found myself with little energy and even less inspiration while I was in the office. It’s unlike me, but truth be told, I’ve fallen victim to this dilemma a few times over my 25+ year IT career. However, with each passing birthday, I found it harder to bounce back and return with the same gusto. Many a car ride to and from the office I found myself thinking about why I felt like I was stuck in quicksand and at the end I would come to no reasonable conclusion.
In late August, my family and I took a much-needed vacation. My wife and I decided to treat our two kids to an old-fashioned family road trip. We drove from Baltimore to Atlanta, minimized use of electronic devices, and stopped to see all the interesting things on the right side of the road, repeating the same process on the drive home. (Why Atlanta you may ask? For starters, the Georgia Aquarium is amazing. Their main tank holds four whale sharks!) By the time we made it to Atlanta, we had found 34 of the 51 state license plates, as well as plates for D.C., Mexico, and Ontario, Canada. (We finished the trip with 41 plates total.)
We spent four days in Georgia seeing the sights, the parks, the museums, and some friends. The whole family had a great time. But I was still unable to shake the feeling that I was “stuck” in my job. Driving to Atlanta you spend a lot of time thinking and I did just that. I asked the same old questions, “Is it me? Is it my boss? Is it my staff? Am I missing the big picture here?” No answer made sense and I found myself no closer to finding peace of mind. My brain was beginning to feel like oatmeal as I processed the same questions and scenarios. Then I analyzed other people around my age who have had similar career paths in IT to see how I measured up. There are many far ahead of me, but there are almost an equal amount behind me in terms of success. What I realized is that I wasn’t as passionate about IT as most. “Have I officially become an old man? Am I starting to resist all this change in IT and the constant expectation of learning new technology? Is my subconscious trying to protect me for fear that I might not have the energy to keep up?” These are scary realizations, because to stand in place in IT and not accept change is career suicide.
Now I love what I do, and I love the position I hold. I have the freedom to be creative with my SolarWinds platform to tell my story. I’m not technical anymore, but I know the technology very well. And I can translate the technical into potential business outcomes. I meet with teams frequently and I start off by asking, “How can SolarWinds make your life easier?” I follow-up with “Did you know that SolarWinds can do…” Doing this and helping people always leaves me with a profound sense of satisfaction.
Driving back home through northeast Georgia, I saw a road sign for the town of Toccoa. “Honey! We need to make a detour for about two hours!” I told my wife. Right outside Toccoa is Currahee Mountain. This is the mountain the original U.S. Army Airborne paratroopers trained on, and cursed about, during WWII, and was made famous in the pilot episode of the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” Full disclosure, I’m a big WWII history buff, have watched the miniseries at least 20 times, and I like to run when I can. My wife dropped me off at the start of the Col. Robert Sink Memorial Trail and said goodbye to me for what could have been the last time. I threw on my running gear and up the mountain I ran. Immediately I thought to myself, “What was I thinking? This really is a mountain! I’m in no shape for this!” “Three miles up! Three miles down!” the soldiers would curse to themselves. In reality, it was closer to 2.4. (The paratroopers started inside the camp, which is closed to the public.) I ran some of it and walked the rest. I never stopped until I got to the top. (At one point my organs began to hurt. Seriously.) Currahee is Cherokee for “Stand Alone.” This mountain is away from others, so the view in every direction is gorgeous.
I spent about 30 minutes alone contemplating so many things. I thought about the thousands of young men who ran up this mountain almost daily in full battle gear as they prepared to go to war, many of whom never came home. I thought about who I was, thought about my family and friends, and I thought about my career. The answers I’d been looking for didn’t come to me, but my brain was fresh. And other than my pulsating spleen and sharp kidney pains, I felt invigorated. Eventually I ran, mostly walked, back down Currahee, and I felt that sense of accomplishment that I had been missing for so long. I wasn’t stuck in quicksand anymore.
For me, the lesson learned from this exercise in self-inflicted agony is that the next time I get stuck in a mental rut is to not to dwell on it… but run until it hurts, and to knock off a #bucketlist item. I’m not suggesting this diagnosis for everyone. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through heck, keep going!” Stop dwelling and change things up. Push yourself in another direction, challenge yourself on a different level. Identify a short-term goal in your life and reach it… and then bask in the glory of a job well done. You will assuredly see your challenges from a whole new perspective.
As for me, it’s been almost two months since Currahee and I’m a changed man. I like to think I escaped my rut was through climbing Currahee. The view from the peak was the change in perspective I needed. My answers are now in view, even if they are still far off. And my descent renewed my energy to pursue my goals. My attitude towards my work and my career are like they used to be.
If you find yourself in a rut and you can’t think your way out of it – run! Or maybe walk, climb, paddle, build, swim, or whatever inspires you to lift you out of your rut and inspire you again. As Col. Sink would yell, “Currahee!”
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