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.

There is no straight path out of a broken heart

I thought that sadness was something linear, like the passage of time. That it would decrease as the weeks went by and I would feel better each day.

I thought sadness looked something like this:

Sadness graph - A linear line showing how sadness decreases over time

But the more I got to know sadness, the more it looked like this:

Sadness graph - a spiky graph that shows sadness zigzags up and down

A zigzaggy shape, with spikes that go up and down.

Sometimes the sadness builds up to extreme anger, then dies down again. Like a broken heartbeat.

It’s strange to think that time heals everything when time and sadness don’t move in the same direction.

Time moves forward. Sadness moves up and down.

Time wants me to get up, go to work, eat lunch, catch the bus.

Sadness wants me to stop.

Time says it won’t wait for me.

Sadness wants me to go to his house, knock on his door and beg for an apology.

Time says I don’t have time for that.

Sadness wants to go back in time.

Time knows it can’t go back.

Sadness argues that he still cares.

Time proves that he doesn’t.

Sadness lives in fantasy.

Time lives in reality.

Time forces me to do the things I don’t want to do.

Perhaps that’s why they say time heals everything.

It’s a force against my bad judgment. It’s the pull of linear events that interrupts this rumination.

It’s the moon to my tide.

Before today, it terrified me to find that there was no straight path out of a broken heart. The way out was fraught with thorns and fallen branches. One step forward opened fresh wounds. One misstep took me to a dark place. In the midst of all the pain, the path left behind, became deceitfully safer than the path forward.

As I was contemplating which path to take, time showed up and whispered to me:

Hope is in the future, pain is in the past.

So fixing on the road ahead, I took one step forward and saw a faint light.

It is not much, but it is where I am, in my journey out of heartbreak.

The friendship pact

The friendship pact is one of those promises that you make with your friends about the future. That wherever you are, whatever time of year it is, you pick up your bags and meet at a designated place for that year.

My Dad has a friendship pact with his University classmates, and every year for 40 years, those who can make it, and those who are still alive, come together, from wherever they are in the world, some in America, some in New Zealand, to honour this pact.

Only one classmate out of the 20 or so classmates will never be able to make it to a reunion. He was shot dead in the head for poisoning his neighbour.

Last year, my entire family got a chance to attend this reunion in China. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I was more excited to see Shanghai and Hong Kong, the big, modern cities, rather than the local destinations that we would be meeting at.

But as always, low expectations turned into pleasant surprises, and this local destination became the highlight of my trip.

As soon as we arrived in Sanming, China, and my Dad spotted one of his classmates waiting by a post, he transformed from “an ordinary Dad” to an animated, loud schoolboy, exuding life and vibrancy. One by one, as more of his classmates found each other in the crowd, and embraced, there was an excitement in the air that brought this little town to life.

They talked in furious frenzy, from the platform all the way to the train ride to our hotel, until the train staff had to tell them to keep it down.

The intangible happiness that their friendship brought, was something that could not be mirrored on our solo trip to Shanghai or Hong Kong. Bustling and crowded as these modern cities were, there was only a surface-level of enjoyment that washed away after a few nights spent there.

The places that we went to at this local destination was truly magical. For one of our activities, we bamboo rafted across the lake. We were surrounded by boulders taller and bigger than skyscrapers so we had to crane our necks to take in the whole view. One of my Dad’s classmates burst into song, and the melody traveled across the boulders and echoed around to the back and the front of our pack.

Another of my Dad’s classmates caught a fish in his hands and he stared at it in wide-eyed wonder, like a schoolboy who had caught his first catch of the day.

Left and right I caught glimpses of these rare expressions that brought warmth to my heart. Whether bamboo rafting, or squeezing through narrow caves, there was an energy all around that was so special that I wish I could’ve put it inside a treasure box and carried it back home.

Our last night ended with a performance. The room was booked and the stage was set. As the youngest member there, my task was to play the drum roll while everybody else passed a bag around. Whoever it landed it on when the drum roll stopped, would have to go up on stage and perform. This was a case of anxiety for everyone who was nervous about performing, so the bag got thrown around like hot potatoes.

But when the “unlucky ones” got on stage, they performed beautifully. There was Chinese folk dancing, ballroom dancing and singing. Someone else had a go at playing the drum and somehow the bag landed between my sister and me, so we had to go up on stage and perform. Unlike the others, we had not prepared for our act, so we chose to sing Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, a horrible choice because our voices shook while we tried to sing the fast-paced chorus. I was also wearing large bathroom slippers, so they were protruding out from the velvet stage.

Since that day, I have brought back with me the memory of that trip. Those memories were locked in my mind, but now I’ve opened the lock and let them out. Instead of wishing to belong, I have made plans with friends to share experiences together. Instead of planning in my head, we have been planning together. Instead of talking, we have been doing.

My friends and I are going to Japan in November, and then South East Asia next year. And then mid next year, we are hoping that we can all make a permanent move to a new country. We are helping each other save money for these trips, by introducing each other to part-time jobs that we can do outside of our day jobs. We are sharing a common goal and most importantly, we are doing it together.

Our friendship pact is just beginning. But I hope that it will grow old with us, just as my Dad’s did.