What to do when you feel like you are not moving forward

If you had to point in the direction of progress, which direction would you point? If you had to draw it on a piece of paper, what would it look like? It might look like an arrow pointing to the right, or diagonally up and to the right. Forward. Onward. Upward.

Alison Levine, a woman who has climbed to the highest peak on every continent and skied to both the north and south poles, thinks differently.  Alison was sharing some of the leadership lessons she learned from climbing Mount Everest at yesterday’s Invent Your Future conference in Silicon Valley.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

There are multiple camps along the path to the summit, but Alison explained that climbing to the top is not a matter of starting at the bottom and then progressively climbing higher and higher, stopping at each subsequent camp. In fact, it looks more like this.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

So, even though the objective is to climb to the top, a significant proportion of your time is spent going back down to basecamp. The first time you reach one of the camps, the purpose is to help your body acclimate itself to the altitude. But, at that altitude, the human body begins deteriorating, so you need to go back down to base camp in order to rest and regain your strength to climb even higher.

“Even though you are going backwards, you are still making progress.”

This is a difficult lesson to digest for those who are used to always moving onward and upward. My clients often talk about how they are dissatisfied with their lack of forward movement, want to make the best use of their time, or don’t want to waste their time.

It may sound counter-intuitive to have to climb back down the mountain after reaching each camp. But it is only counter-intuitive if you think that reaching the summit is the singular objective. However, there is another, more important objective in play: to stay alive, both before and after reaching the summit. When you bring that objective into focus, taking the time to keep climbing back down to basecamp makes sense.

Sometimes we Type-A folks forget that there are other objectives in play. It’s easy to cling to objectives that are visible and measurable, like ascending titles, degrees earned, or salary. It can be more difficult to retain a focus on other objectives like health, fulfillment, and nurturing our relationships with loved ones, until we are sick, unhappy, or painfully absent.

So, if you don’t feel like you’re moving forward, I encourage you to take some time to examine your objectives. Ask yourself:
1) What is the objective you don’t feel like you’re making progress against?
Is the way you’re currently spending your time helping to make you better able to achieve that objective? (If not, then ask)
2) Is that truly the only goal you are working toward right now? What are the other things that are important to you?
Is what you’re doing now fulfilling these other areas of your life that are important? (If not, then ask:)
3) What can you do right now to nurture your ability to achieve any of these objectives going forward?

“Progress is not just one direction. It can happen in many different directions.” It really depends on your objective, that thing which you are trying to achieve. And, it depends on what you need personally to cultivate the strength to go after your goals.

Want to read more about Alison’s lessons learned from climbing Mt. Everest? Check out her book, On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership

Three reasons why Type-A folks need to learn to pause

There’s something about achievement that feels really good.  Arriving at the right answer.  Finishing something.  Getting to the next level.  If you identify as Type-A, you have felt the drive to continue onward and upward.  As soon as you’ve finished something, you’re looking for the next thing.  As a result, Type-A folks have the ability to get a lot of stuff done.  But the dark side of the Type-A mentality is the tendency not to pause.


What’s so great about pausing?  Well, as good as achievement feels, your go-go-go attitude is likely leaving you feeling less fulfilled and happy than you would feel if you took the time to pause.  Here’s why:

Pausing gives you a chance to re-evaluate whether you’re chasing the right goals.  In his book, The Quarterlife Breakthrough, Adam Poswolsky points out that many professionals suffer from  the “career ladder mindset.”  The career ladder mindset convinces people that the success is achieved by ascending the ranks within the field you’re in.  The problem is, “career ladders define success on someone else’s terms,” not your own.  As a result, you may find yourself at a crisis point when you realize that what you’re doing is not aligned with what you really want.  Taking periodic pauses in your career to define what success means for you will help you avoid wasting time on a path that isn’t a good fit.

Pausing gives you space to celebrate your accomplishments, without immediately burdening yourself with the next item on the to-do list.  I recently complimented a friend on hitting a major milestone on a project.  She replied that there was still so much work to do.  When you complete something, does your mind immediately go to what’s next?  When was the last time you gave yourself permission to fully celebrate a win?  Regularly taking time to reflect on what has gone well will make you a happier person.  Try instituting a daily celebration routine.  If you don’t take time to celebrate now, when will you?

Pausing gives you time to rest and recuperate, so you can dive into your next project energized.    As much as you may hate to admit it, you are human, and your human body needs rest in order to function at its best.  Whether it’s taking a moment of mindfulness to lower your stress level, or letting yourself sleep so that you can avoid damaging your brain, it’s important to take time off.  Don’t wait until your annual vacation (if you even take one!) to give yourself time to unplug.  Smaller increments of time spent off the hamster wheel, on a more frequent basis, will enable you to produce more high quality work than burning out will.  And as mentioned before, if you’re Type-A, producing high quality work feels good.

I am as guilty as any Type-A of forgetting to hit pause every once in a while.  Do you forget to take time to pause, too?  Here’s a tip from one Type-A to another: schedule it.  Block off time on your calendar, and make it a recurring appointment.  Choose to take time to reflect, celebrate, or be present.  It’s not a full-stop; it’s just a pause.  When you’re done, you can go back to your regularly scheduled achieving.


The one person you may be forgetting to be a good friend to

One of my best friends and I decided to go to a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock, a meditation center tucked into the beautiful rolling hills of Marin County.  She and I are both go-getter personalities, and have been exploring mindfulness as a way to mitigate the stress we sometimes encounter at our jobs.


The day we went was bring-a-friend day to the day-long meditation retreat at Spirit Rock.  The instructor, Anushka Fernandopulle, pointed out that in addition to bringing a friend to the retreat, we would learn how to become a good friend to someone we often forget to be a good friend to — ourselves. Continue reading

It’s always darkest before the dawn

“Hi Michelle.  I’m calling you about the Operations Manager position you interviewed for.”

Finally.  The call I was waiting for.  

I was very specific about the type of job I wanted after grad school.  I wanted to manage operations for a network of charter schools.  In the bay area.  Of which there were only five.

My top choice employer was on a hiring freeze.  One didn’t want someone with their MBA.  Two of the five were not growing.  And after three months of searching, I was in the final round at the last organization where I had a chance to get the job I wanted.  I thought I had done well in the interviews, but when I answered the phone, something was off in the hiring manager’s voice. Continue reading

The lie that keeps me up at night

This was the week I was supposed to catch up on sleep.

It’s Spring Break for Main Stacks, so there are no 8pm-midnight dance practices after I get home from my full-time job, and no 12+ hour competition day this weekend.  And yet, I’ve only woken up well rested one day this week.  What’s wrong with me?  Well, I’ve had trouble sleeping.

I’ve been accruing sleep debt for weeks now, my body is exhausted, and I’ve been perpetually sick for a month.  But there’s one sentence that prevents me from letting my body do what it’s supposed to do.  It has occupied my mind in the past, and I’m sure it has settled into your brain at some point, too.  It goes something like this:

I can’t sleep, I need to figure out how I’m going to meet that deadline tomorrow.

I can’t sleep, I need plan out everything I need to get done on Saturday.

I can’t [sleep, eat, exercise, or other action critical to maintaining health], I need to [do something that isn’t really as important].

It’s a big fat lie.  With every year that goes by, I’m learning that there are fewer and fewer things worth sacrificing sleep for.  Here’s why: Continue reading

Getting back into the swing of things

I haven’t written a post in a month.  It’s been on my to-do list, but it just hasn’t happened.  Why?  At first, it was because life got busy, in a wonderful way.  I spent an inspiring weekend making vision boards with my sister and cousin.  I got engaged.  I met up with friends from different parts of my life who I hadn’t seen in 2 – 12 years.  I started the spring competition season with my dance group.

Life is full of things I enjoy.  Writing this blog was another thing I had enjoyed.  Why had I put it off for so long?

Because inertia is a powerful thing.  For those of you who don’t remember Newton’s first law of motion, it basically says that something at rest will stay at rest and something in motion will stay in motion unless some force acts on it.

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Learn to stress less with PIE

Two Saturdays ago I was at the airport, all lined up and ready to board the plane, when the gate agent announced that we couldn’t board just yet because we were waiting on a flight attendant. Oh, and that flight attendant was currently on a different flight that hadn’t landed yet.


As we continued to wait, I could hear people around me start to grumble about the delay. What is taking so long? How late are we going to be? I hope I don’t miss my connection. How will I alert my friend who’s picking meup?

And then they started to grumble about anything and everything. Ugh, there’s a baby on this flight – it better not cry the entire way. My battery is dying; why does my phone suck? I have so much work to do, but instead I’m stuck here waiting in this dumb airport.

I was pretty proud of myself for tuning them out and staying in zen-mode, but two years ago I probably would have been with them, letting travel hiccups create stress.

For the longest time, I led an unnecessarily high-stress life. Continue reading

Defusing the I-need-a-job-freakout

Let’s be honest.  Two years ago, after I graduated without a job,  I had days when I freaked out.  Last winter, months after my friend also graduated without a job, she freaked out.  A few months ago, when my boyfriend realized that his under-employment was not sustainable, he freaked out.


We’re all bound to go through it: the “I need a job!” freakout.

It’s ok.

Freaking out can be legitimate. We all have bills to pay in order to maintain life’s necessities, like food and shelter.

Freaking out can also be therapeutic.  If you’re around a bunch of other people who don’t have jobs, it’s something you can commiserate about.  Aaaah freakout! Le freak, c’est chic.

But there’s a point where all that freaking out isn’t healthy.  And I doubt it’s making you happy.
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Breaking a bad habit

Even though I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions (you can read my new year’s post to find out what I did instead), there is at least one bad habit I’d like to break. There’s something I say all the time, without thinking, and for no good reason.

My boyfriend pointed this out to me, a couple months ago.  I had the refrigerator door open for about a minute when he asked,

“What are you doing?”

“I need to figure out what I want to eat.”

“Do you? Do you really need to?”


Continue reading

New Year’s List and the Law of Increase

The holiday season is officially over and it’s time to return to my regularly scheduled life.  Around this time, it seems like everyone is making lists, and I am no exception.  I feel compelled to make lots of lists: of things I would like to do differently, of places I would like to go, of people I want to see, of things I want to make, and all sorts of other stuff.  It’s not even a new year’s thing; I just like to make lists.  Lists make me feel like I have a plan, and crossing things off my list makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.

However, a lot of the cultivation-of-happiness work I’ve done this year makes me feel like creating another list of things to do isn’t the best course of action.  One of the lessons I learned in 2011 is that I spend far too much time thinking of the past and the future, and not enough time in the present.  So instead, I’m going to apply one of the lessons that popped up in a number of things I read this year.  Srikumar Rao calls it:

The Law of Increase
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