(A version of this post was originally published here on January 8, 2017)
I was a kid when The NeverEnding Story came out. There is a scene in the movie where the hero, Atreyu, and his horse are making their way through the Swamp of Sorrows. The swamp can only be passed through safely if you don’t dwell in your sadness and misery. I cried every time I watched Atreyu and his horse sinking deeper with each step they took. Atreyu finally makes it through, but his horse cannot free himself of the sadness he feels. He sinks deeper and deeper, and despite Arteyu’s desperate attempts to save him, the horse is consumed by the swamp. In the Swamp of Sadness, each creature can save only themselves.
Many times I’ve been in a coaching relationship or session with someone who feels stuck with a leadership challenge. Sometimes it’s something in their workplace culture that desperately needs to change. Sometimes it’s a really difficult team member or peer. Sometimes it’s something in their own leadership, like a short fuse or way too much on their plate. They have tried and tried to make changes, and they’re at the point where each failure makes them sink a little deeper into that muck.
So what do you do when you feel stuck? When you’ve tried and tried and nothing changes? Trying again can feel futile. But even in the worst situations, you always have three choices:
- Stay in the living system and choose to accept how it is.
- Stay in the living system and change your behavior, which will change the system.
- Leave the living system.
I’ve explored these options with several leaders over my years as a coach. Just exploring the three options helps people start to feel less stuck. They realize they have choices. Most people I’ve worked with choose step 2 because new ideas start bubbling up about how they can change their own behavior and the effect that might have. Again, we usually haven’t even started formally talking about how to do step 2 when this starts happening automatically. Isn’t that amazing?
Beliefs are so, so powerful. If you believe you are stuck, you are stuck. If you believe you have no options, you will be blind to any options that emerge. Just by listing the three options we always have in even the worst situations, our beliefs start to change. And when we suddenly believe that we have agency in a situation, new options and ideas start to emerge.
What beliefs might you need to shift right now? Where do you feel stuck in your life or leadership? How might it help you to remind yourself that you always have at least three options, and likely many more than that? What choices are right for you and the system you are in? If you want to talk through any of this, we are here for you, to listen, coach, or celebrate a new resolution to lean into these hard changes.