John Maxwell: Climb Out of That Rut

UPDATED: May 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 10, 2012

Have you ever felt stuck? Like you couldn’t get where you wanted to go? That you couldn’t break free of the confines of your current situation? When you couldn’t move up to the next level? Maybe you were in a rut, and maybe you feel like you’re in one now.

If that’s the case, you need to be willing to do something about it. Why? Because as writer Ellen Glasgow said, “The only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions.” If you allow yourself to stay in a rut too long, it could mean the slow death of your dreams. Nobody wants that.

If you’re in a rut and you want to break out of it, then I encourage you to take the following advice:

1. Accept responsibility for your own life.

I believe it is human nature to look elsewhere for the source of our difficulties, but the truth is that the older you are, the more responsible you are for your circumstances. True, many things are out of our control, and bad things do happen to good people. But we also make choices every day that contribute to our conditions.

Michael Korda, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief, observed, “Success on any major scale requires you to accept responsibility.… In the final analysis, the one quality that all successful people have… is the ability to take on responsibility.”

Think about your life; where are you shirking responsibility or playing the victim? Have you blamed others for bad choices you made? Are you failing to follow through on anything that you know you should be doing? Are you doing things that you should never have agreed to do?

Take time to examine your life and how you’re spending it. Where can you take responsibility to make changes—even if your past choices haven’t led to your present predicaments? Getting out of a rut begins with the acknowledgement you must make the choices to do so.

2. Know where you want to be.

I have known a lot of people who hoped and dreamed of being successful, but their goals never become more specific than that. Hope is not a strategy. To quote baseball great Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you want to go, you might end up someplace else.”

You must define where you want to go in life; it’s not a guarantee you will reach your goals or achieve your dreams, but if you don’t define them, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t.

You’re going to spend your life doing something. It might as well be what you really want to do. Have you given yourself a target? Have you written out your goals and described your dreams? If not, you need to.

3. Divide your dream into manageable parts.

One thing that often paralyzes people is having a dream or even a big goal with no realistic way of achieving it. How do you solve that? By breaking it down into bite-sized pieces that you accomplish with focused effort.

Motivational expert Tom Hopkins advised, “Take it in steps. If you’ve never made more than the minimum wage, don’t aim for a half-a-million-dollar goal the first year in selling or with a new company. Always aim for the earnings level that excites you a lot and only scares you a little.” And figure out the smaller steps necessary to get there. Break it down from your dream, to major goals, to intermediate steps, to annual goals, to monthly or weekly steps, and on down to what you need to do today.

4. Take action today.

Now you’ve arrived at the next step: taking action. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Well done is better than well said.” All the dreaming, hoping, planning and goal-setting in the world won’t do a thing for you if you never follow through.

Says producer-director Brandon McCormick, who owns the Atlanta-based boutique film company Whitestone Motion Pictures: “I meet artists all the time who learn about Whitestone and say, ‘I’m a director’ or ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I’m a composer,’ but they don’t actually make anything. It’s very frustrating. At Whitestone, we’re a community of artists and artisans who actually make things.”

McCormick and team follow through. They take action. They make films, starting small and getting better as they go. As I write this, McCormick has 19 producer credits and 15 director credits on And he’s only 28 years old!

What kind of action can you take today that will start moving you out of your rut and take you one small step closer to your dream? It doesn’t have to be a big step. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a significant step. It just needs to be a step in the right direction.

5. Grow into your tomorrow.

While the steps you take today don’t need to be earth-shattering, you don’t want every step forward to be small and insignificant. You want your steps to be progressively bigger, smarter and more strategic. The only way I know to make that happen is to be intentional about getting better every day.

In my new book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential (in bookstores the first week of October), the last law, the Law of Expansion, says, “Growth always increases your capacity.” Tenure won’t make you better. Experience isn’t any guarantee of success. Having the best resources doesn’t automatically help you improve. The only thing that guarantees that you will be better tomorrow is growing today.

If you don’t have a highly intentional plan for personal growth, you might get out of today’s rut and dig yourself a new one tomorrow. Don’t do it. If you keep getting better, keep climbing higher, you’ll never find yourself stuck—at least, not for long.

My one final piece of advice is to tell you to get help. Too often we are so embarrassed about where we are that we become afraid of admitting to someone else that we’re stuck. That shouldn’t be. There’s no shame in getting stuck—only in staying that way when you have a choice to change.

There have been times that I’ve had to ask others to give me a hand to move forward when I couldn’t figure out how to do it. And there have been times when others have asked for my help. That’s the way it ought to be. I believe that God put us on this earth to help one another.