A Taoist guide to career road blocks

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.

One of the key frustrations people come to me with is the reality that to a greater or lesser extent co-workers, bosses or subordinates often create create barriers to achieving your goals. Sometimes these are the deliverables stated in your position description, at other times - and this is where dreams go to die – it’s where you can see how amazing things could be if only things were different. This latter scenario often creates deep discontent and at times can feel insurmountable. It's the boss who shuts down ideas or who thinks your idea is ‘great, go for it’ but won’t sponsor you when push comes to shove (or worse still, turns their back if it fails). A peer who undermines an initiative or builds road blocks to avoid scrutiny of their own work. Or maybe it’s just not having the resources you need and seeing them allocated to something that you know will have less impact than your vision.

We rail at these injustices, at the perpetrator’s lack of vision, the delays they cause or the reduced quality their contribution results in. If you just had a different boss, or co-worker; or perhaps ... if only you were in charge, things would be so much better. Likely one or even all of those things are true. But the reality is things they’re unlikely to change in the immediate term, even with your very best efforts. Behaviours like these and the cultures they create are often ingrained and driven from the top by what is rewarded and what is overlooked or even shunned. So what can you do?

First and foremost, you have to recognise the limitations of your situation. There are realities here that are never going to be resolved by wishing them to be otherwise. You have very little control over these people and their flawed humanity. But you do have control over yours.

Recognise that you are almost always going to come up against road blocks to achieving your goals. So it's wise to remember that whatever it is, this is just your current roadblock incarnation.

So. What to about it. My suggestion is to channel your inner Taoist. No, really. I am not usually one for adding spiritual quotes but read this, think about all the experiences you had in your life and Lao Tzu nails it. Amiright??

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong” - Lao Tzu

If the outcome really matters to you, realise you might need to reset your expectations about how you’ll get there or even what ‘there’ means. But if you know it matters, persist.

Determine whether the problem is short or long term. If it’s short term (waiting on funding/a person who’s in an interim role/a key person on leave/a skill set to be developed) manage your own and other’s expectations by communicating the situation professionally and thoughtfully. Let people know your mitigation strategies for any flow on effects and keep working toward the moment when you know you’ll be able to hit the ‘GO’ button. Be patient. Be persistent. Don’t allow all momentum to be lost.

If it’s long term, then you might have to take a different tack. You have to accept you may never get the outcome you were seeking, but you can probably still make a difference. I work primarily with purpose driven people who are hugely committed to their clients and outcomes and have ambitions for a better world. They are often frustrated by the many road blocks (funding, management capability, too many fingers in too many pies, lack of systems) they face. And yes, the world should be a better place. But right now it’s not (and if it were you'd have no job right? I think there's some logic in there!) So what’s the next best realistic outcome? If the problem is a boss or a peer who you know is not going anywhere anytime soon (for all the various and often unfair reasons that happens), decide whether you can accept it and the limitations it will pose. You then have three choices.

a) You can keep hitting your head against a brick wall and hoping for a different outcome. I don't think it was Lao Tzu, but someone pointed out this is madness.

b) You accept the human limitations of these blocks and then pivot. Maybe you’ll have to go slower, or maybe you’ll need to adjust how you communicate. Maybe you’ll have to iterate rather than get there in one go. Maybe you get 10% of the way before you have to stop and re-energise in some way. But hey, you made something 10% better than it was ever going to be if you hadn’t tried.

c) If you’re already exhausted or your road block is a genuine bully or you’ve other stuff going on in your life and that makes b) out of the question for now, it’s ok look for an environment more aligned to your values and ways of working. You haven’t failed, you’ve just recognised where you’re at. You can't save the world when you're worn out. But don’t forget about the power of water when you start again.

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The Curiosity Company acknowledges the Bunurong People of the South East Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land on which we work and live, and recognises their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.  We celebrate the stories, culture and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders of all communities who also work and live on this land.