How to get yourself out of a rut

Getting yourself out of a rut is like playing a video game. The first few levels are easy, the next few levels get harder. So you’ve got to level up if you want to move onto the next level.

How to level up

Level 1 — Learn a new skill.

When I wanted to get myself out of customer service and into a digital career, I learnt all the basics on how to code. I went to the library, I searched up online. I filtered out the good information from the bad. I was soaking in so much knowledge.

Productivity-wise, it wasn’t too hard. I was 24 at the time, so I had the energy to study in the evenings. I would come home from my easy customer service job, and study 3 to 4 hours before I went to sleep. I did this for a few months, then I started building a portfolio.

At this stage, I was on level 1 of the game. Things were easy. My life was easy. I lived home with my parents. Ofcourse, at the time I didn’t think it was easy. But looking back, the only skill I needed was to pick up a book and learn about the basics of coding.

Level 2 — Put the skill into practice

I applied for a few different jobs with my portfolio. Eventually, I landed a role in a design studio, creating digital modules for clients.

Looking back, transitioning from customer service to a new career wasn’t too hard. It only took two months of job seeking. But now I realise that it was because I was applying for entry level jobs in the digital field.

I was still operating at level 2 of the game. The only tool I needed really was my portfolio.

Level 3 — Find out what you need to improve on

After 3 years working there, I wanted to move on. More specifically, I wanted to move up. Somewhere where I would get better pay. But I didn’t know how to. Nor did I trust myself to take that leap.

At this time, I started paying attention to the things that I was good at, and also noticed the areas where I consistently needed help with. For instance, my boss would tell me that I was really good at instructional design, breaking down complex learning into simple steps. But my design skills were not up to scratch.

To advance to level 4, I needed 2 skills. Specialised knowledge and confidence.

Level 4 — Learn again but be specific.

This is where I’m currently at. Level 4. I need to hone in on my skills. More specifically, I need to identify the skills I need improving on, and work on them to become more efficient at them.

However, the game just got harder. I’m no longer 24. I’m now 27. Yeah, it’s not so old. But I have a mortgage, I get tired really quickly, getting to work and back takes 2 hours a day. There’s absolutely no way I can study the same way I used to at 24.

That’s why at this stage, when you’re pretty burnt out and exhausting all your energy, the only way out is to educate yourself. Really identify those skills that you need to get right. Don’t spend unnecessary time working on skills that aren’t going to get you out of a rut.

For example, I mentioned how I need to improve my design skills. Now that’s too broad and there’s so much I would need to learn to become an expert. But due to years of experience, I know exactly what areas of design I need to study:

  • I need to understand which pairs of font look good together.
  • I need to understand how to use the grid system to lay out eye catching pages.

I’m not going to learn things like how to create beautiful, handwritten typography. Or how to draw. None of these skills will help me advance in my learning design career.

And I also need to learn the theories behind how adults learn. This isn’t design related, but it’s specialist knowledge that I need to learn to advance in my field.

So, levelling up becomes a continuous cycle of learning and improving. Start by putting your current skills to practise, so that you can identify what skills you lack. To move onto the next level, you have to keep filling up your inventory with more specialised skills.

If you want to finish the game and be at the very top, keep learning.

My sad freelance experience

Something happened recently that made me question my ability to write.

A few months ago, I got my dream freelance job writing content for a children’s educational app.

It was my first freelance job ever and I spent 10 hours a week holed up in my room perfecting my content. I had so much fun coming up with creative ways of teaching children about the Earth, the solar system, and the things they saw around them.

I was earning quite a lot on the side. I earnt more per hour on this job than any other job I had ever had. I thought I had finally transitioned into the world of freelance and that I could quit my full time job.

But I decided to wait just to be sure. I continued working 40 hours a week on my day job, and 10 hours a week on my freelance job. I would come home after 12 hours, then squeeze in an hour to write. I did this for about 4 months. Everything was going so well.

But that’s just the thing isn’t it? When everything goes well, something bad is bound to happen. That’s when things started to unravel.

I started coming home from work feeling extremely tired. I couldn’t think. All I wanted to do was lie down on the couch and sleep. But I forced myself to work on my freelance job. And that was my mistake.

Everybody always tells you to work hard. Work hard and you will reap the rewards. Work hard every hour that you have and don’t waste it by lying on the couch.

But that experience has taught me otherwise.

See, I was working hard. I had a schedule. I thought that if I managed my time well, if I stuck to my schedule, then that was all I needed to get the work done.

I was wrong.

My writing became less clear, and more muddled. I was writing, but I was writing pointless garbage. I was writing for the sake of filling up my quota for the day, so that I could hurry up and sleep.

I knew it at the time, but I just didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to give it all up. I wanted to continue. I wanted it so badly.

On one particular day, when my spirit was at its lowest and my nerves were at an all time high, I decided to ask the question that I had wanted to ask for so long.

I asked my client if I could extend my hours to 40 hours a week, meaning I wanted to quit my day job and take the leap into freelancing.

I hit send, then I held my breath and waited. And waited. The reply came soon enough.

It still hurts when I think about it. Part of me blames myself for not taking the time out to relax, for putting so much pressure on myself to do well.

My face is burning in shame when I write about this.

This was his reply:

“Thank you for getting back to me, but I’m not comfortable letting you work 40 hours a week at the hourly rate that I’m currently paying you. I suggest we cut it down to half and you continue working for me for 40 hours a week.”

Half.

It felt like a bomb had dropped into my gut. All of these months. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do well. It was supposed to be something that I was good at. And I couldn’t even do it properly.

I replied back to him.

I told him that I needed time to think about it and that I would get back to him once I had an answer.
I was heartbroken. I had put all my eggs in this one basket. And I was left feeling afraid of my abilities, afraid that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough.

So I did reply. Eventually. It took me four days of going backwards and forwards to finally come up with an answer. I asked friends, I asked family, I even did a coin toss.

Against the unanimous opinions of my family, I said “yes”. Yes to the half slashed wage and yes to the 40 hours. Yes to the fear and yes to giving it a second chance.

I said yes to all those things because of a dream that woke me up in the middle of the night that compelled me to write back and say yes.

In that dream, I kept getting rejected by the man who broke my heart. I kept wanting him to say yes to me, but he kept saying no. I had this horrible feeling of being given up on, of bring the woman that nobody wanted to take a chance on.

And when I woke up, I decided to turn the tables. I no longer wanted to be the girl who said no to risks, but the woman who said yes to unknown chances.

That day I made my decision.

I still have to wait for a confirmation from my client. But I’m waiting, not with bated breath, but with a sense of confidence, that whatever the outcome, I chose to give myself a chance.

Be the queen of your career

A short, voluptuous Chinese woman bends over at the kitchen sink, slurping instant noodles. She stands out from the group of giggly, 20-somethings chatting away in the corner. They work in the same startup company, but perhaps it’s their age difference, they don’t include her in their conversation.

It’s a shame, because she’s just told me something really exciting about herself. Something that’s sparked my interest because it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in a long time. (more…)