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Leading Questions

How to get unstuck

Today, we’ve asked Kennon Sheldon to share his Tip of the Week.

When I started college, I was convinced I would become a theoretical physicist. I had aced physics in high school and was fascinated by the weirdness of relativity and quantum theory.

But by my second year, I was struggling with the required advanced math classes. I started to wonder if physics was right for me after all. Still, I felt like I’d committed to the major—and taken so many courses in it—that I didn’t want to wimp out.

What should people do when they feel stuck? Do they just need to wait until new options come along, or can they do something about it? 

My research finds that the nonconscious mind will provide powerful new ideas and creative directions if people have the courage to activate it. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Notice your dissatisfaction. Emotions provide information, including the possibility that you have a problem. Before you can solve a problem, you first have to recognize it.  
  2. Ask yourself questions. Your conscious mind is partially cut off from the brain’s deeper regions, but it can control the larger system. Asking yourself explicit questions like “What do I really want?” activates your nonconscious mind to start churning beneath the surface.  
  3. Recognize the possibilities. When new ideas emerge that “feel right” and check off lots of boxes, see them for what they are—possible ways forward. 
  4. Pick an option and set a goal. Verbalize—and better yet, write down—a desired new goal. Writing something down makes it feel real and puts your mind on a new track, toward action.

These four steps can help anyone move forward, whether it’s a kid who’s not sure they want to keep playing soccer or an adult thinking about switching careers.  

For me, I asked myself why I was drawn toward theoretical physics. I realized I was interested in “very big questions” but also recognized that I could find them in other fields of inquiry. This led me to take classes in philosophy, psychology, and theology. One day, I had a flash of insight: Psychology was best for me because it was the most scientific! I wrote in my journal: “Psychology looks like it. I’m going to change my major!” Then, I set out on this life path, which has proved to be so fulfilling for me.  

Don’t stay on a path just because you’ve already invested time and effort. 

Do start asking yourself questions, then be open to what emerges. And be patient. It may take time before you recognize the signposts for a new direction. If the young people in your life seem stuck, help them pay attention to how they feel. Nudge them to ask themselves questions—What’s going on? What do I really want?—and resist answering for them. Only by doing their own digging will they discover the treasure of their true selves. 

With gratitude and respect, 


Kennon Sheldon is a Curator’s Professor of Psychological Science at the University of Missouri and the author, most recently, of  Freely Determined: What the New Science of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live.