Painting with words

Photo by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash

I’m an Olympic swimmer standing in a bucket of water.” That’s how Marcia started our Spoon by Spoon conversation. She painted a picture of everything she needed to say in just ten words. Marcia is from Brazil and has worked in different countries, trying her hand at different types of roles. When we caught up, she was working in an embassy and felt trapped, with no career path and no opportunity to grow. This image of her confined to a bucket shouted loud and clear: she had great potential, but was held back, unable to show her full range. “This is exactly how I feel. I just feel I’m ready. I’ve got the muscles. I’ve got everything, but I just keep my feet there in the bucket.”

Marcia believes she can do more. “I know I have the strength and the capability of swimming in the whole ocean. I’m just standing in the bucket and watching everything around me. And that is very, very frustrating.”

Then what is holding Marcia back? “The frustration is with myself because at the end of the day, it’s me – I’m the one who needs to make the move.” She knows she wants to change but doesn’t know how. “I just overthink things and don’t really act. My issue now is to act.” She tells herself this: “’Even if I don’t know where I’m going, just walk. Even if I cannot see the steps of the path, I just need to keep walking.’”

It’s clear she’s annoyed with herself. “I’m going to be 40 years old soon and I still have a lot of work to do if I want to get to where I want to. I want to be able to get my own place one day. But for that I need to make more money. I imagined myself being a couple of years further on. I just trapped myself in this thing… this small bucket of water.”

I’ve written before about how we often think and speak in pictures. We turn to metaphors to describe how we’re feeling, often when our emotions are hard to explain in rational terms. They can be very powerful, giving a real sense of the depth of feeling behind our current situation.   

Stefania was an interviewee from Italy who talked about “running in circles.” She had her first daughter when she was young and it impacted her career as a management consultant. “I’m working three days a week. I have no promotion prospects and I cannot even do much training for my personal development because most of courses are on a Friday.” Stefania doesn’t work on Fridays. “You take a pay cut when you go part time, but you’re still working overtime because you always end up doing more than three days. It’s this vicious cycle.” You can hear the circular motion she’s feeling, going round and round and not getting anywhere.

Photo by Maxime Lebrun on Unsplash

Stefania has struggled for years – it comes out in her voice when she talks about being an outsider. A “black sheep almost…everyone is very determined. They know what they want. They want to progress quite quickly. And I just felt I was in the wrong place. And I wasn’t even sure what I was good at anymore. I was thinking I didn’t have enough time in my life before having a child to figure it out.” 

Stefania is torn between two different sides of her life – bouncing back and forth between them both. “Obviously I want to spend time with my family. But at the same time, I also want to figure out what I want to do with my career. It’s an important part of my life… you only have so much energy and you need to look after your mental health. So that’s when things started to drift. I was running in circles. I felt like a hamster on a wheel.” 

Here we are with Stefania, going round and round. “That’s how I used to describe it when I was talking to friends or family, or my husband. I keep on running on the wheel. I never stop. I don’t know where I’m heading.”

Painting pictures isn’t just for artists. Jack has a background in science and has followed quite a clear path. As he says “I was pretty good at the more academic subjects of maths and sciences and pretty poor at the kind of more artistic ones. My brothers and I joke with each other that we’re all very boring. My older brother did an IT degree, worked in IT. My younger brother did a degree in town planning and is a town planner. I did a degree in chemistry and I’m a chemist.”

We can still paint if we’re scientific and data driven, linear and structured. We’re just painting pictures that fit our experience. Here are some of Jack’s: “There is a feeling at the moment that I am just a small cog in a large machine. And there’s little I can do to alter how that machine functions.”

He talked about a lack of fit with the way his colleagues work. “There was a new demand – ‘can’t we get this out, we need this now!’ It felt very at odds with my more methodical way of working, where there needs to be time to examine a process and then get it right. Whereas their reality was ‘I don’t care – just bolt something together.’” Machines, bolting things together, cogs. This is Jack painting with engineering. 

Here is another example, this time a frustration in a later role: “Much of what comes into the university finance-wise is not related to teaching undergraduates. Universities are massive multi million (or multi billion in some cases) industries and with that you get an enormous amount of bureaucracy and politics. As a technician, who is at the coalface dealing with the actual students, I don’t feel there is any input or control over university policy – how subjects are taught, how budgets are laid out. I find the lack of control difficult.” Now we’re at the coalface. I can picture Jack there, pick in hand. 

Later in our conversation Jack leaves engineering behind to sail out to sea. He talks about a career change course he joined – how helpful it was being with others going through the same thing. “It gave me context, it gave me grounding, it gave me comparative experiences with others. The feeling that you’re not the only one going through this… at least you’re in the same boat as somebody else, instead of stuck out on the ocean on your own.”

We’ve come full circle, painting a story about water again. We’ve moved on though. From standing in a bucket to travelling in a boat out to sea. 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

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