How to figure out your next step (when you feel stuck)
Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss
“If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition… you are not understanding yourself.”
– Bruce Lee
In an any career, life stage or creative practice, knowing what step to take next, in which direction and at what time can feel like an impossible task.
And perhaps it is. We rarely know where our decisions will lead us, nor can we predict what kind of career ladder will reveal itself as we take our first steps. Focusing on set goals or long-term plans can at times prove futile. As comedian Tim Minchin put it in his occasional address, 'If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.'
Following a classical pattern can close us off from pursuing what truly drives or excites us – especially in the arts where there are no set career trajectories but rather opportunities to seize.
Whether wanting to take the next step comes from a desire to upskill, from restlessness or a sense of feeling stuck, the moments before taking action can leave you feeling uncertain, indecisive, confused and even fearful.
While there is no pattern or arc to follow that will guarantee success or creative fulfilment, we can glean insights from others about how they approach the murky uncertainty of figuring out what to do next.
Ask yourself if you are ready or simply restless
'I am extremely impatient and restless so I often think the next step should happen when really I might just be bored,' says photographer, writer and creator of OK Motels, Kate Berry.
Part of figuring out the next step is figuring out yourself. For Berry, a notorious next-step-taker, it’s increasingly about reflecting and taking time to see where the impulse is coming from.
'I really want to pay attention to that and recognise that difference between boredom and motivation because I look back on the projects I have worked on and at times wish I had stuck at some things.'
She adds, 'When things are uncertain all I crave is certainty, and as soon as certainty kicks in I get bored – I can be so insatiable!'
Instead of long-term plans or goals for the future that can shut us off from what is happening right now, Tim Minchin advocates for the 'passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals'.
'Be micro-ambitious,' he says. 'Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you … you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams.'
When you don’t know which step to take, a small step can allow you to see what new opportunities appear.
It’s okay to take a break instead of a step
Sometimes, it can be beneficial to take no steps at all.
'From the outside looking in, it would appear that I’ve quit doing stand-up but in my own head, I’m still on a break,' says journalist and comedy writer Joanne Brookfield, who has recently published No Apologies, in which she speaks to women of comedy about every aspect of their lives.
'When you’re being creative, you’re giving more of yourself or different parts of yourself and you become vulnerable to criticism and public failure in a way that I don’t think is always the case in other fields. When it all goes wrong, which it invariably will, it can really knock you around. So I think it’s ok if you get hurt, or tired, that it’s ok to rest. To step away for a bit. Recharge. Reassess.'
Taking the time to fill up your tank before taking the next step can help you rediscover the passion for something, she adds. 'I’m back in love with what I do and fired up and ready to do this. A creative life is a marathon not a sprint, so it’s ok to stop and have a drink and a rest every now and then.'
Start with asking yourself questions
Having recently made the decision to step into freelance work, writer, photographer and creative director Paul Jun started with asking himself questions.
'At first I didn’t entertain the idea of going freelance, I just thought about the question – what does bigger look like and what do I want to be doing if I were to move on?'
Such questions are important to determine what the self really wants. 'I had to really check myself – is this ego, or is there something that is truly pressing my buttons and saying, "Hey, wake up, there is something on the horizon that might be more fulfilling for you, might be more creatively fulfilling?”'
Stepping outside your current setting and asking questions in a new environment might also bring clarity, explains Jun.
'I was lucky enough last year to go on a trip for a month to Colorado, there was beautiful nature and snowboarding and because I was in nature I had a lot of time to reflect and get clarity and be very honest with myself: where am I going, and why do I want to go there, what are the real reasons?'
Figure out what you want
There are plenty of pragmatic tools to use, and questions to ask yourself when you are wanting to take a leap in a new direction or clarify the confusion, explains money mindset mentor Denise DT and author of Chillpreneur.
'The confusion usually comes when you are hitting an upper limit and you want to go to the next stage but you don’t know what that looks like or you haven’t articulated it. I've done this before where I've thought I want a new job but I haven't articulated what the new job is and then I get frustrated because people tell me I should go for this job or that, and I'm like, "but that's not what I want".'
DT recommends people write a wish list. 'If you could ask for anything, what would it be? Be specific in what you want. You have to really know yourself, what motivates you and what makes you feel bad and then you can set goals that feel good to you, not what you feel like you should do.'
Dividing your list by preferences and deal breakers can also help you be discerning when opportunities come along, she adds. 'Don't feel like you have to take the first job, or gig, or opportunity that comes along. You can evaluate it against your list. Another scenario is good, better, best goals. Either way, clarity brings more clarity.'
Listen to your frustration
'I always thought frustration was a really bad thing, but it is a tool in itself,' says artist and fashion designer Frida Las Vegas.
'To feel it and not do anything is one thing, but to be frustrated and to harness that and to cause that frustration [to become] action; that is entirely my decision and I'm guided by emotion and I think a lot of people are.'
Over the years of pursuing ‘safe’ career paths and then leaping into a creative field, Frida Las Vegas has learned to think differently about emotions. 'Emotions aren’t either positive or negative, they are empowering or they are disempowering. When I say I’m frustrated what I’m really saying is I feel disempowered, so what am I going to do about that? There is only one way to gain control and feel good about my career choices and that is to lean into my decision and take control of that power.'
Get outside your own head
If your work or creative practice requires extensive amounts of working solo or navigating decisions on your own, it can be all too easy to get stuck in your own head.
'I have such a negative commentary inside my head that left alone is quite dangerous,' admits Kate Berry. 'One of the biggest challenges when doing your own projects is you are the only one telling yourself that it is great and after a while that wears thin. Stepping out and being around other people who are doing stuff is important.'
For Paul Jun, this meant creating a list of people in his direct network or that he admired in the creative industries, and methodically meeting with individuals to bounce around ideas and hear a range of perspectives.
'For two months I took 15 people out to coffees or lunches or dinners and went through the questions that keep bumping around in my mind. Every single person was able to speak from their own experience, they never prescribed me a path, they just shared what they went through. After the meetings I would write down key quotes and pieces of advice and after 15 different meetings, it was just obvious what I needed to do and where I needed to grow more as a person.'
As Jun adds, 'People can be a catalyst for those opportunities that you are looking for.'
Accept there is always a waiting period
Impatience can rear its head when we are faced with taking a next step or sitting in between projects, opportunities, or feeling stuck.
'I'm not someone who sits in a rut – I’ve always been active in trying to do something,' says writer Lisa Marie Corso. 'I like to be relentless in trying to get what I want, which becomes exhausting and is probably not the best way to go about things.'
Corso is trying to remember to sit through the waiting period. 'The advice I often get from friends is to sit in the moment and everything will unfold, and it’s true. There have been instances in the past where I haven't taken their advice and I’ve said yes to something because it was there. Then, two weeks later the thing I really wanted has came along and I’ve had to try and squish it in my life when I could have just sat in the moment and devoted all my time to it.'
As Corso adds, 'There is always going to be a waiting period – but I'm very impatient. Even though I’ve seen it work so many times, when I’m in that moment I don’t care that I’ve seen it work, I just need it to work instantly.'
When one door closes, another opens
Like many creatives, fashion designer and artist Frida Las Vegas was long told that her dream of pursuing a career in the arts was 'unrealistic and fraught with failure, danger, uncertainty and financial brutality'.
Looking back, Las Vegas credits much of her gumption and success to running on instinct, taking detours to see where they would lead, and starting small.
'While I was making strides, at the same time I knew I hadn't done what I really wanted to do – I was becoming very good and efficient at a job that ultimately didn't feel like me and was further and further away from the little girl still inside me who wanted to be an artist and fashion designer,' she says.
'I was in a rut and finding little value in my day to day work, so I decided to start small and make jewellery on the side as Frida Las Vegas and that was where my identity took a juncture. I was working my day job and increasingly learning to love the challenge again and then I’d come home and make jewellery until 2am and on my lunch break I’d post orders.'
Eventually, it was time to take the next step and let go of the day job to make room for the creative work, even if it was precarious and uncertain.
'My friend told me that when one door closes another opens and you just have to trust that it will happen, so I did and that is exactly what happened. A day later I was at an art opening with a friend and they were just about to start a creative agency and offered me a job, so I had a job to go to for the next week that was part time and it gave me the time and space to work on my creative business,' she explains.
Taking the next step won’t magically change your life
Often when we make a change in our lives or careers, we can place a lot of expectations on them and assume one step can magically overhaul our entire lives.
But as Kate Berry has observed, this is rarely the case. 'No change is going to fix everything, it might not even work out to be better but it will at least be different.'
The important thing is to put yourself in new positions and see what happens. 'When you make a decision or step it's not going to solve all your problems and it may even bring up other problems, but at least you are heading in the direction that you need to go in and pushing through instead of staying still,' she says.
Frida Las Vegas agrees. 'Doing can be your salvation – you really have to try before you can make a decision and you don’t have to be good and you don’t have to be bad, you just have to try.'
It might appear that the next step has to come in the shape of a special formula or detailed decision making process, but for some, simply trusting yourself can put you where you need to be.
'I have always acted on intuition,' says Joanne Brookfield. 'I follow my impulses, my curiosity. If I "feel" like doing something, I do. I’ve gotten quite good at listening to the guidance of my inner voice. Trusting my gut. As much as this is going to make me sound like an advertising copywriter working for a sportswear company, you just have to keep believing in yourself. Celebrate your achievements as you go, remind yourself of them if you start feeling a bit wobbly and just keep going.'
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