The Happy Engineer Podcast

163: The Secret of Escaping Stagnation at Work

Engineering leaders, are you ready to break free from the cycle of stagnation and pursue greatness? IC, Manager, Executive… engineers at all levels can find themselves STUCK.

In this episode, I dive deep into the challenge of stagnation in your engineering career journey.

I’ll tell you about an engineering manager I spoke with recently, Alex, who’s feeling stuck in his current role.  Despite having a “good life” and career on the surface, he realizes he’s not truly fulfilled.

I share insights on how to break free from this cycle by daring to be dissatisfied and embracing the courage to pursue something greater.

Learn a practical tool, the Pain-Pleasure Matrix, to help you refocus your energy towards your desired future.

Don’t let fear hold you back any longer, get unstuck and move toward growth and fulfillment.

So press play and let’s chat about embracing the courage to pursue greatness!

As you listen… Tap to DOWNLOAD my toolkit: How to Make Doing HARD things, EASY (the Pain-Pleasure Matrix)

Want free coaching, LIVE? Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


The Happy Engineer Podcast

Escaping Career Stagnation: The Courage to Risk Your Good Life for Something Great



LISTEN TO EPISODE 163: The Secret of Escaping Stagnation at Work

Previous Episode 162: Change Your Life in 8 Steps with Dave Albin | Firewalk Captain for Tony Robbins


Top Takeaways on Escaping Stagnation in Your Engineering Career

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, I dive into engineer manager Alex’s struggle with stagnation and how he found the courage to escape it. Listen for inspiration and practical tips to level up your career.

Here are the top three insights:

1. Dare to be dissatisfied: Don’t let fear of change hold you back from reaching your full potential. Embrace dissatisfaction with your current situation as motivation to strive for more.

2. Gratitude balances dissatisfaction: While striving for more, don’t forget to be grateful for what you have. Gratitude is the key to finding balance and fulfillment.

3. Ready for change? Take action without needing grit and willpower with the Pain-Pleasure Matrix: If you’re struggling to put this into practice, reach out for a free tool that will help you refocus your energy and break out of the cycle of stagnation.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, listen to this entire conversation.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: So I had a really great conversation just last week with an engineering manager named Alex. And Alex is in a tough spot. One of the toughest spots in our career. Front line management. You understand what I’m talking about. It’s that player coach role. You’re still doing IC. Tasks at times you’re learning management for the first time.

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:25] It’s a tough place in our career. And a lot of engineering managers are just waiting for the day when they can get out and get beyond that level. And Alex is in that spot too. He’s actually been in frontline management, that first line for over eight years. And he’s reached a point in his career now where he’s starting to get that sense of.

[00:00:48] Stagnation, just feeling stuck for years now, he’s wanted to move on to senior manager, get to director, move into executive leadership in his career. One day he has aspirations for these promotions in the next levels. And you know, two years in, you’re still learning four years in, okay, you’re starting to get it down.

[00:01:12] Six years in, you’ve really got a lot of mastery. These last couple of years for him have started to feel boring. repetitive, he’s not learning, he’s not being challenged, and even more frustrating is when he looks around at his peer group and he sees people who started in management after him, who are now already promoted to senior manager before him, or his college buddies, who are now directors and vice presidents, and he’s still a frontline manager, and He’s feeling stuck that sense of stagnation is setting in and his energy is low He’s not as excited about going into work and he’s frustrated.

[00:01:52] So that’s what brought us together We’re having a conversation last week. I said, okay Alex, you’re frustrated. You want to get to senior manager. Tell me about the situation. What’s really been going on these last couple of years. And as Alex explained what he’s dealing with and where he sees the barriers to his promotion, every time he would talk about a negative, he would follow it with a positive.

[00:02:20] I’ll give you an example. He’d say, Zach, I’ve noticed in these last couple of years, That I really dislike. And I struggle with politics going into these higher level meetings, having conversations with a director or with the VP dealing with some of the People, aspects of politics in the company, having to be careful about what I say, when and to whom.

[00:02:47] I don’t always know how to handle that. I don’t really like it. And I think that the political side of moving up the ladder has been a barrier for me. But I don’t want you to think that our company is super political or really toxic. I actually do like my boss. I think my boss has been pretty supportive of me.

[00:03:06] I have good relationships with the senior leadership team. And so it’s not like the worst company culture or a toxic environment. It’s just something I have noticed I struggle with and I don’t really like. Now, do you see what happened there? He started to address a pain point. But then followed it with this positive, or like a softening.

[00:03:29] Saying, oh, you know, it’s not that bad. Here’s the thing that’s bad, but it’s not that bad. Maybe you can relate to this. Thinking about your own career journey, there’s probably something that’s not the way you want it. But if you’re being positive, if you’re putting on your rose colored glasses, you can always say, well, it could be worse.

[00:03:51] You know, at least it’s not this. I’m really happy about the fact that my boss at least talks to me and he’s not a total jerk. I’m really glad that she is supporting me and not throwing me under the bus. Okay. Let’s be really honest with each other for just a moment. I understand that pattern. Because none of us wants to come across as seeming like a total arrogant prick or a self centered jerk or a complete victim of your situation when you’re the one who took that job and got into that place anyway.

[00:04:24] So, you soften things. You follow a negative with a positive. You say what’s wrong, but you follow it with saying what’s right. Well, about 15, maybe 20 minutes into our coaching session, I paused Alex and I highlighted the pattern. I just said, Hey, hold on a second. Really quick. I want to share with you what I’m observing.

[00:04:46] You’ve told me three or four different things that are not working for you in your career. I actually have my notes right here. You told me about the political. Challenges with other people. You told me about getting visibility with the right leaders. You told me about your ability to sell and get credit.

[00:05:04] That idea of authentic self promotion of the work that you’re doing. You’re not getting credit for your great work. You told me about the challenges of being remote and that you’re having a harder time connecting with people because of that. You told me about the long hours that you’re putting in and that you’re breaking that boundary with home.

[00:05:23] But Alex, every time you tell me one of these things, you’ve followed it up with a positive and telling me about what’s good in your career. So Alex, why do you want to make any changes? It sounds like your career is actually pretty good. You have a good boss. You have a great team. You have a good home life.

[00:05:46] You have a good paycheck. You got a good performance review last year. Why are we really here?

[00:05:56] When I pressed a little deeper and I highlighted this pattern, Alex had to really dig. He basically realized, you know, I’m not letting myself feel and be totally honest about how much this is really affecting me. And when we looked a little deeper, we realized that Alex had fallen into one of the most common patterns.

[00:06:24] Points of stagnation, a place where we get stuck in our career, and you may be experiencing this right now. The great Jim Collins, who wrote the book, Good to Great, said it this way, good is the enemy of great. Good is the enemy of great. Alex got into a good situation. He’d worked hard to build his career to engineering manager.

[00:06:55] He’d worked hard to buy a house for his family. He worked hard to find a role where he could work remotely and have a bit more flexibility with his schedule. He worked hard to get good performance reviews. But what he had built had now become the exact thing that was holding him back. from doing what it takes to build what comes next.

[00:07:21] His good life, his good career, was exactly what was holding him back from his great life and great career. You see, the secret to escaping stagnation is to have the courage. To look at what you’ve already built. To look at the good life that you have right now, and to be willing to risk that. To be willing to lose that.

[00:07:52] In favor of something better. You must be willing to risk what you have to gain something more. And you see, there’s a part of you that knows you’re ready for more. There’s a part of you that knows you want more, that you can do it. Just like Alex looks around and he sees other people who started in management after him, who are now promoted to senior manager or director before him.

[00:08:17] And he sees and knows he’s capable, if not more capable than all of those leaders. And yet, because he’s unwilling to risk or let go of what he has. He’s not going to do what it takes to get what he really wants. You see, the secret to escaping stagnation is you must be willing to dare to be dissatisfied.

[00:08:42] Dare to be dissatisfied. I’ll tell you in my own life, I fell into the trap, the fear of dissatisfaction. I was afraid to be dissatisfied. I shared this with the engineering managers who I coach not too long ago. I said, look, the fear of dissatisfaction held me back from my full potential for a long, long time.

[00:09:10] And until you’re willing to dare to be dissatisfied, you will not do what it takes to get to the next level because you must be willing to put to death the life that you’ve built in order to bring to life the life that you want. And if you’re not willing to do that, Then you’re going to stay stuck.

[00:09:27] You’re going to experience a life below your full potential. You didn’t get here by hanging on and clutching, you know, with a death grip, the life that you had before you got here. If Alex was unwilling to risk his success as an IC to step into an engineering manager role, he never would have gotten to this level.

[00:09:48] The same was true that he must be willing to risk what he has as an engineering manager to get to senior manager and director. But the tricky part about this is it wasn’t the career side that was the anchor. It was all of these other areas. Right, the good life at home, the good balance, the good sense of security that he’d built up with these other things.

[00:10:14] And frankly, on the career side, he could continue to convince himself that there were enough positives about where he was at, that risking that to go for something more, Ooh, stepping into the unknown. What if you fail? What if you don’t get that greener grass that you think is there? That’s why it takes courage.

[00:10:34] That’s why I must be willing to dare to do this. There is no guarantee that it will be better. But if you let what you have be an anchor to hold you back from what you want, then you’re going to feel that sense of stagnation. You’re going to feel stuck. And it’s so tricky because what you have is good.

[00:10:55] Let’s be really honest for just a moment. The life you have is good. You make great money. You work in a company that’s probably doing some really cool technology. There’s so many things about your life that are good. And here’s the secret. Here’s the key. You must dare to be dissatisfied and never become ungrateful.

[00:11:18] You see, gratitude is the balancing force to your dissatisfaction. These two things can and will exist simultaneously as true. It’s a paradox of life. This is one of the many leadership paradoxes we must grapple with and understand. It is simultaneously true that you are ready and capable of more. And to get there, you must dare to be dissatisfied with what you have.

[00:11:49] You must be. Demand change in your life. If you don’t become dissatisfied with what you have, then you won’t become willing to do what it takes that you must go after something more. But at the same time, it’s okay, and it is good, and it is true to say that your life is absolutely wonderful and As it is that you are eternally grateful for what you already have that you are enough that you have enough and that you’re full of gratitude for what is And full of gratitude for what is to come that gratitude that you can let go of what is to go for what is yet?

[00:12:31] to come Gratitude is the balancing force of dissatisfaction But what happens is we become afraid to say I want more You I am ready for the next level and I’m going to risk what I have to go for something better. If you’re not willing to do that, then stop complaining about stagnation and feeling stuck.

[00:12:57] Stop telling yourself that you want a promotion, that you want a bigger paycheck, that you want a better life, that you want better balance, that you want a better lifestyle, that you want a better relationship. If you are not willing to let go of what you have, the lifestyle that you have, the relationship that you have, the paycheck that you have, the role that you have at work, then you won’t be able to gain what you want.

[00:13:24] Dare to be dissatisfied. You must be willing to risk what you’ve built if you want to build something better. The secret to escaping stagnation is to allow that pain Of not being where you want to be to grow and create a sense of need and urgency and demand for yourself to step into that unknown of your future with courage.

[00:13:57] My company is called the Oasis of Courage for a reason. I learned a long time ago. That everything we’re talking about here, and really creating the life that you’re capable of, it takes courage, man. I’ll tell ya, it takes courage. It’s not gonna happen easily. It’s not gonna happen easily. If it were easy, everybody would have six pack abs and a million dollars and a career that they absolutely love.

[00:14:22] But they don’t. Most people are like Alex. They feel stuck. They feel stagnant. They’ve been in the same engineering manager role for eight years. They’re ready for something more and they know it. But they’re not doing what it takes to get there because in their subconscious there is a fear of letting go.

[00:14:47] That life that they’ve built that is good Has become the exact ball and chain, the anchor that holds them back from going for great. And I don’t want that to be you. I really don’t. I want you to know that that risk is worth it. If you need to be afraid of anything, fear regret more than you fear failure.

[00:15:15] I don’t want my life to be driven by fear at all. That’s the truth. I want to be driven by purpose. I want a purpose driven life. I want a life that is built around who I can become and focused on vision and my values and the things that I can go create and be inspired and be motivated. But fear is a force.

[00:15:37] I get it. So if you need to be afraid of something, if fear is welling up in you, then consider this. It is better to fear regret than to fear failure. Don’t get to your last days on earth wishing you had tried, wishing you had gone for it. Fear regret more than failure. Dare to be dissatisfied and never become ungrateful.

[00:16:05] That is the secret to escaping stagnation. Dare to be dissatisfied and never become ungrateful. ungrateful. If you want some help bringing this idea into the real world and actually getting the nudge and the push that you need to leverage this, to use it in a, in a practical way, let’s get pragmatic for a second.

[00:16:28] I have a tool that I would be happy to share with you. We call it our pain pleasure matrix. The pain pleasure matrix, and I won’t try to describe it here on the podcast, but what it does is it helps you to refocus that energy in a way that’s going to create pain around what you don’t want anymore. The life that you are ready to let go of and pleasure behind the life that you want.

[00:16:54] It’s going to nurture this daring of dissatisfaction. With the life that you have and it’s going to multiply and put energy behind the life that you want and the things that you want to become so that your subconscious mind breaks out of this conditioned pattern of good and gives you that courage and that impetus to go after what is great.

[00:17:16] So if you want some help in practice on this, you’re like, Zach, I agree with you, but I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to bring that to life for myself, then I would love for you to reach out to me and I’ll send you this tool for free. It’s one of the same. Tools that we use with our paying clients in the lifestyle engineering blueprint program.

[00:17:33] I’ll send you a copy of that PDF. It has instructions on how to use it right there and give it a shot. I think it’s a super powerful way for you to take this idea, put it into practice and get going towards the things that you want. Alex had the same revelation that I want you to have. He sat on that call with me and he realized that he had fallen into a place of honestly being unwilling to take any risk, unwilling to step into that unknown because so many things were good.

[00:18:10] And we left that call with an agreement. He was going to go have a chat with his spouse and say, Hey, look, I want to go for something more. I want to go to the next level. And I recognize that it may come with certain risks. Will you support me? Will you be with me? Can we go on this journey of an adventure towards something more together?

[00:18:33] You know, what’s awesome. She emphatically and immediately supported him in that. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it. I can’t wait to see what you can do when you step fully into purpose and passion and vision for your future. And you let go of the life you’ve built. That is good in favor. of going after a life that you desire that is great.

[00:18:58] Great in your career, great in your family, great in your health, great in your faith, great in every area of the wheel of life that matters to you. Go for it. If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re feeling stagnated, ask yourself, have I been afraid to be dissatisfied? Dare to be dissatisfied and along the way, keep that gratitude journal going.

[00:19:23] Because I never want you to fall into the spirit lacking gratitude. Gratitude is the key to balancing this along the way. Reach out. If you want that pain pleasure matrix, you can send me an email. Zach at oasisofcourage. com reach out on LinkedIn. All the ways to connect with me are in the show notes.

[00:19:43] Let’s make sure you don’t stay in stagnation one more day than you have to. Let’s do this.