My eyebrows raised towards the ceiling, my head leaned back, and my stomach dropped down to sit squarely on my pelvic bone. I leaned back into the broken arm of the green couch I’d picked up on Craigslist at the beginning of the semester.
A chuckle and a smile were all I could muster. There’s a shit-hitting-the-fan inflection point where all I can do is laugh. Everything is so terrifically fucked, outrage is pointless. Better to bask in the absurdity of the situation than start trying to sort it out.
It was one of those moments when I knew deep down everything just changed. You know those moments?
An idea or opportunity bubbles to the surface of your consciousness.
At some level, deep down, you know you’re going to take it, but you don’t. You hesitate. You can’t quite admit it yet. Saying it out loud would hurt.
The Germans have a word for that – Hintergedanken – a nagging unconscious thought.
Looking back on major turning points in my life, there’s a small handful of moments that I can point to as turning points. Individual moments in time, which dramatically changed my trajectory.
One was sitting on that green couch in Birmingham, Alabama. My calendar had buzzed for Dr. Law’s ‘Cold War Perspectives 342’.
I closed the 4 Hour Work Week and thought to myself, “well, so much for Law School”
“And what the hell is SEO?”
How to Get Stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory
I spent the next two years stuck in what I’ve come to call Hintergedanken Purgatory. A turning point had passed, I knew it deep down, but it took me a while to admit it. I felt stuck.
“What am I going to do with my life?”
I’ve spent a seemingly disproportionate amount of my life in a state of limbo where I saw a clear next step but didn’t take it.
There’s a simple, clear process for how I and other people I’ve talked to, and worked with, get stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory.
- An idea or opportunity comes up.
- You consider it, usually for a relatively short time.
- You have a moment where deep down, you believe it’s the right thing to do.
- You don’t do it.
Welcome to Hintergedanken Purgatory! You’re stuck.
Hintergedanken Purgatory looks normal from the outside.
On the inside, it feels much like this Medieval portrait of Purgatory.
The Three Principles of Hintergedanken Purgatory
“Stuck” is usually the word we use to describe being in Hintergedanken Purgatory. Before we go into how to get unstuck and out of Hintergedanken Purgatory, there are a few principles to understand. I’m going to talk about Hintergedanken Purgatory in primarily the personal context, but it’s just as real in business and organizational ones.1
The First Principle of Hintergedanken Purgatory: It’s Domain Dependent
Saying “I feel stuck” is never true and it’s also unhelpful. In reality, a single part of my life or business feels stuck and if I can define it more specifically, it becomes easier to get out of.
Your marketing could be in Hintergedanken Purgatory while the rest of the business is doing well. Or the whole business could be in Hintergedanken Purgatory, while your personal life is going fine. Or your dating life could be in Hintergedanken Purgatory while business is going well.
The 2nd Principle of Hintergedanken Purgatory: Most People and Businesses are Stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory Most of the Time.
It took me two years to get out of my professional Hintergedanken Purgatory after reading the 4 Hour Work Week for the first time. That’s a fair amount of time to hang out in Purgatory.
When I managed the sales and marketing for The Portable Bar Company, our marketing spent eleven months in Hintergedanken Purgatory. I realized in March of 2013, that the company needed to do trade shows and get in front of customers in person, but we didn’t go to the first trade show until February of 2014.
The reason it took us eleven months to show up to a Trade Show is the paradox of Hintergedanken Purgatory, and the main phenomenon behind the 2nd principle of Hintergedanken Purgatory: escaping Hintergedanken Purgatory in one context, almost always creates it another context.
We didn’t start going to trade shows right away because it meant pushing other elements of people’s lives and the business into Hintergedanken Purgatory. I needed to move from Asia to the U.S. to do sales, operations had to run short-staffed while we were at the show and we had to develop organizational skills around trade show marketing.
And that meant… Welcome back to Hintergedanken Purgatory!
What’s the point of getting out of Hintergedanken Purgatory in one context if it just pushes you into it another organization? As humans, we’re happiest when we’re out working on problems and chasing goals and, all other things being equal, bigger goals and bigger problems seem more fun to work on and there does appear to be a gradual “up-leveling” of Hintergedanken Purgatory.
My Hintergedanken Purgatories today don’t feel any different internally, but externally they look different. Instead of the “How does this internet marketing thing work?” “What do I do with my life?” purgatories I hung out after reading the Four Hour Work Week, I’m trying to get out of “What’s the ideal balance between consulting and writing?” “What are the business models behind online publishing?” and “Where do I want to live?” purgatories.
These are objectively nicer purgatories to hang out in.
The 3rd Principle of Hintergedanken Purgatory: It’s Expensive.
I dropped 11 months of the sales and marketing team’s time into sub-optimal marketing initiatives trying to get out of Hintergedanken Purgatory. Those initiatives worked in the long run and ended up being profitable, but they hurt the overall trajectory of the company. Instead of growing 527% over 18 months, I suspect that could have been in the 1000%+ range if I’d gotten out of Hintergedanken Purgatory faster. That’s an enormous difference when you start compounding it.
Most failed large organizations that have gone under in the last decade could have been saved if they hadn’t gotten mired down in Hintergedanken Purgatory. Blockbuster saw the writing on the wall, they knew everything had changed, but they couldn’t get out Hintergedanken Purgatory before Netflix ate them up. Kodak suffered the same fate. 2
I read the 4 Hour Work Week between my junior and senior years in college. If I’d known then what I know now about how to get out of Hintergedanken Purgatory, I probably would have dropped out. But instead, I spent the next two years of my life in Hintergedanken Purgatory. I knew everything had changed, but I couldn’t accept it and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Escape from Hintergedanken Purgatory: How To Get Unstuck
I’ve gotten better at realizing when these moments are now and how to accelerate the path out of Hintetgendanken Purgatory.
In retrospect, I see why I got caught in Hintergedanken Purgatory for so long. The first step to getting out of Hintergedanken Purgatory is a head-on collision. And, those are no fun.
Peeling Back the Scale: The Benefits of Feeling Like an Idiot
Pivot is the sexy term now for startups. I’ve used it plenty of times. “I’m pivoting!”
Popularised by Eric Reis’ Lean Startup method, it’s defined as a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.”
At best, pivoting is a misnomer. My trips through Hintergedanken Purgatory rarely feel like pivots, they feel more like head-on crashes that I happen to walk away from with a handful of salvageable parts in one arm and a dirt-stained suitcase in the other. It’s more than what I had when I started the trip, but it never feels like a glancing blow where all I need to do is touch up some paint.
There’s your ego that has to get bruised and battered before you get out of Hintergedanken Purgatory.
Imagine an executive from Blockbuster walking into a meeting after he had the “aha” moment about Netflix and saying “we need close down all our retail locations, move everything online, and rebrand!” or someone from Kodak walking and saying, “no more film, that stuff is out.”
Most people lack the courage and egolessness to do that. If you can keep your ego small and your courage high, it’s easier to escape Hintergedanken Purgatory.
The best way to do this is to talk to people that make you feel like an idiot. When I know I’m stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory now, I talk to everyone I trust about it. Invariably, it always makes me feel like an idiot.
In my head, it’s as though I’m peeling back a hard scale to expose the soft underbelly and saying “stick me!” I know it’s going to hurt my ego, but I need to say it out loud to get it out there and have someone come back at me with it.
The reason it took me two years to get unstuck after college was that I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Partially that was because at the time I didn’t have a lot of people around me that had read the book to talk to, but more than that, it was my ego.
Peeling back the scale is a learned skill. It’s the inverse of what we naturally want to do. The natural human tendency is to hunker down like Blockbuster and Kodak. Even now when I set up a meeting or am about to hop on a mastermind call where I’m going to air out something I’m stuck on, I feel stupid.
When I decided I wanted to focus on writing more a few months ago, I started talking with people about it. Even though I felt like an idiot, people were encouraging and frequently saw it in a more helpful context than I did. I got out of that trip through Hintergedanken Purgatory in a couple of weeks.
Peeling back the scale also serves as an effective gut check mechanism. Sometimes what I thought was a stunning revelation for a new direction is actually just a really shitty idea.
I had a Kickstarter project I was thinking about a couple of months ago and started airing the idea out to a few people.
“Really? That sounds super gimmicky” was the general response. Sometimes that feeling isn’t a path out of Hintergedanken Purgatory, it’s just a bad idea.
Abraham Lincoln > George Bush
It’s important to talk to the right people. It’s a good idea to talk to people that have dissenting opinions and stances. You don’t want to pull a George Bush and surround yourself with a bunch of yes-men that blow smoke up your ass.
You do want to get other people with more experience in the domain you’re stuck in to give you critical feedback.
As president, Abraham Lincoln put the smartest people he could find in his cabinet, even though most of them had been his political enemies at some point in his career.
Yet, you don’t want to talk to people that are going to shoot it down out of their own insecurity. Since most people are stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory most of the time, one way people cope is to try and keep everyone else in Hintergedanken Purgatory.
“After all, if everyone is stuck, then it’s normal and I don’t have to feel bad about not being willing to peel back the scale” is the inner monologue of someone you don’t want to talk with.
The best way I’ve found to screen for people is shared vision. If everyone shares a vision for you, the organization, or project, then their feedback will usually be helpful and accelerate the trip out of Hintergedanken Purgatory.
While Lincoln’s cabinet was composed of rivals, they were all united behind the vision of preserving the Union. Despite personal ambitions, they all believed in preserving the Union.
The Re-start: Can You Sell Yourself? And Metaphorical Cartography?
After you crash the car, you have to have a plan for the next road trip. Once you get started, you may change your mind halfway from Hintergedanken Purgatory to New York, take a left at Albuquerque and end up in Vegas. Plans are made not to be followed.
The first step is clearly defining the purpose. If I don’t clearly understand the “Why” behind something, then I can’t get anything done. I won’t make any progress. If I’m not working on a project, then it’s often not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that the “why” is unclear, and so I need to sell myself.
I spent the better part of three days re-writing my About Page. The whole time I kept saying in the back of my head, “This is not productive. I have a huge to-do list that I could be working on.”
I suspect in six months, I will see it was tremendously productive.
Industrial notions of productivity make it hard to see this. Imagine walking up to a middle manager who asked you what you worked on and saying, “I spent all day defining the “Why” behind our new marketing initiative.”
I can almost hear the response, “Did you do any real work?”
Busy is not productive. Efficient is not effective.
I have 5000 words in an Evernote note about me trying to sell myself on continuing a project I jumped into, for lack of better options, and was never really jazzed about. The project fizzled. It would have been useful to try and sell myself on the front end.
There’s at least a couple of ways to do this. The first is to read books.
Many business books get a bad wrap for being 20 pages of information with 250 pages of fluff. I’ve recommended Sam Carpenter’s Work the System to a handful of entrepreneurs looking to systematize their business. People complain after reading the book that it doesn’t tell you what to do. No, it doesn’t. Sometimes that’s because the author is a charlatan, but more often it’s a reflection of what is hard and what isn’t.
What’s hard is selling yourself and getting out of Hintergedanken Purgatory.
Writing down the Standard Operating Procedure documentation, Sam Carpenter articulates, is trivial in comparison.
The second way to sell yourself is an exercise I stole from a fellow entrepreneur Dan Sullivan. Take out a piece of paper and write down the following questions and your answers.
- Purpose – What do you want to accomplish?
- What’s the Importance? – Make sure it’s worth it.
- What’s the best possible outcome? – Intellectually engage yourself with the best possible outcome. Make sure it’s worth doing.
- What’s the worst that could happen? – Fear is a great motivator. By knowing the worst thing that can happen, you are driven to succeed. Generally, staying in Hintergedanken Purgatory is worse than any outcome from moving out of it.
- What are the criteria for success? – Must be a definable event or a number. That’s what the human brain likes: numbers and events.
If you can’t sell yourself on the new road map, start looking for other paths out.
Accelerate Out: Building Momentum with Plane Tickets
Momentum is one of the most powerful personal and organizational forces. It’s also firmly agnostic. Part of the reason it’s hard to get out of Hintergedanken Purgatory is because you have to largely crash all your existing momentum, there’s a tangled wreck of sunk cost to wade through as you leave it behind.
I was heavily invested in going to Law School when I read the 4 Hour Work Week and crashed that ride. I had thousands of hours, and dollars, invested in that path. I had an ego built around upper-middle-class status symbols including over-priced Polos and boat shoes.
But as soon as you have crashed and restarted in another direction, you’ve got to build momentum around it as fast as possible. Newton’s First Law of Getting Stuff Done states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, so as soon as you can get some momentum behind a new direction, the outcome becomes increasingly inevitable.
The best way to alter momentum is a hard pattern interrupt, something that jolts you in a new direction. The most effective are location, followed by books and new peer groups.
I can pretty clearly correlate major Hintergedanken Purgatory exit points with plane ticket purchases when I joined or started mastermind groups and my reading list.
As soon as I realized sales was an essential life skill, I moved to San Diego to do sales. I joined a sales mastermind, and I started reading everything I could find on sales. I reoriented my life around getting really good at sales (which, per the Hintergerdanken Purgatory paradox, sent other areas of my life in Hintergedanken Purgatory.)
The Sustainable Competitive Advantage of Getting Good at Getting Unstuck
In a study of sales professionals earning over $250k per year, speed of implementation was the best predictor of success.
Speed of implementation just means having a skillset around getting out of Hintergerdanken Purgatory, fast.
Getting unstuck is a personal and organizational skill. If you can develop a skillset around getting unstuck, that’s a sustainable competitive advantage personally and organizationally. Blockbuster and Kodak never built that expertise.
Getting stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory is getting more expensive and knowing how to get unstuck is getting more valuable in domains where change is accelerating. 3
Unlike most skills, escaping Hintergedanken Purgatory doesn’t seem to be domain-dependent. This is a frequently ignored advantage of organizations with distributed teams. A general sense of rootlessness in an organization makes major philosophical changes in company direction easier. When you’re used to picking up and moving your personal life, doing the same in a business domain seems to be easier.
Last Updated on July 16, 2020 by Taylor Pearson
- To overlay it with other business frameworks, Hintergedanken Purgatory seems to be qualitatively similar, though not quite the same, as the space between Decide and Act in Boyd’s OODA Loop and Pivot in Lean Startup.
- If you have a competitor stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory, that’s a good time to crank up the heat.
One of those domains is certainly everyone’s professional life. I suspect if I polled most people under 40 about their professional lives, “stuck” would be a pretty common response. Whether it’s people in service jobs, entry-level positions, or middle management, there just doesn’t feel like a satisfying path out.
The professional angst around our generation is that in a sense we’ve all, literally or metaphorically, read the Four Hour Work Week. We see other opportunities but are stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory looking for ways out.
Yet there still aren’t a lot of legible paths. The Baby Boomer generation had the promise of the GI Bill after World War II, forty years of stable employment and a pension. The road map for most under-40s, to the extent it exists, is constantly being redrawn.
Casey Ames says
“The professional angst around our generation is that in a sense we’ve all, literally or metaphorically, read the Four Hour Work Week. We see other opportunities but are stuck in Hintergedanken Purgatory looking for ways out.”
I just got around to reading your article tonight, but read the “Happiness at Work” Atlantic article during lunch and towards the end thought, “I wonder if this has to do with an access to more information and visible paths”. Made me curious if there was always the same dissatisfaction at heart in people’s careers, yet it was better dealt with in the past due to the less visible alternatives.
Possibly in combination with people being less aware of the scripts they are following before it was possible to log into a social media account and get instant access to thousands of people living lives that highlight the path you’re on and force you to reconsider it. Which I guess would then put you into a Hintergedanken Purgatory.
Taylor Pearson says
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It seems like every generation in the 20th century had something they were reaching for and that need for something to stretch for is a very fundamental human drive a la Frankl.
I know for my parents the concept of being financially secure and raising a family in abundance was super important since they grew up in rural areas where there wasn’t the level abundance most middle class America consider normal now.
That was more or less clearly defined for them. The GI Bill, the rise of corporatism, it was just out of their reach but they could get if they stretched. And for the most part they did stretch and they did get it. The relative abundance we have today is proof.
No one has really laid out that promise for our generation. It seems like the entire Hipster movement is sort of a reaction to this. If there’s nothing to reach for, everyone turns to nostalgia as a way to try and return to a time when that promise did exist.
Casey Ames says
Ya that does seem to be true.
It seems to parallel Nietzsche’s fear he had when he wrote “God is Dead.” With the loss of this very defined path that we “know” is the right one to follow, and is basically the only one we know of or our entire society knows of, what do we do?
Nietzsche saw people either going two ways. The first is that they see it as a complete loss. They lost their one path, their one driving principle in life so they fall into nihilism. This seems to relate to how the hipster generation is falling into a golden age fallacy mindset of not seeing anything to believe in or paths to take currently, so they have turned back to be nostalgic about a time when things were more defined, where the generation’s promise did exist.
On the other hand though, and what Nietzsche wanted to happen was for this loss of God to actually spur a feeling of freedom. You no longer need to follow the laws passed down from God. He wanted to created a new morality, where we could move onto a next level of human society. A complete remodeling of the way we live. He wanted the creation of the Uberman (it upsets me the Nazi’s used this in a completely different way than Nietzsche intended).
It seems like we have a choice for our generation. Do we fall into nihilism and golden age thinking, or do we use the freedom to create our own scripts, like moving overseas to run businesses ha
Taylor Pearson says
Brilliant insight, was thinking about all day yesterday. Sometimes I lay it out as inevitable, but over the last few months increasingly have come to agree with your point of view that it’s not inevitable, but a choice.
The word “Hintergedanke” actually means something completely different. In theory your meaning would work, if you constructed it from the literal meaning of “hinter” (behind) and “Gedanke” (thought). But what it actually means (from the Duden dictionary) is “unausgesprochene, versteckte Absicht, die einer Äußerung, Handlung zugrunde liegt” — meaning: “unspoken, hidden intention, that a statement or act is based upon”. So the correct usage of Hintergedanke would be something like “er sagte es mit einem Hintergedanken”, meaning “he said it with a Hintergedanke”. An example of this would be if A says “we can do it at my place” and when B agrees he says “oh, by the way, when you come here, could you stop by the shop and bring me an X”. So you don’t have a Hintergedanke in respect to yourself but always in respect to others, you’re hiding your intention from someone else, but you’re completely aware of it.
Taylor Pearson says
Appreciate the explanation! I had a couple of German friends that pointed the same thing out to me. “Hidden Agenda” seems to be the proper translation. I’m only familiar with it in the context I’ve heard Carl Jung/Alan Watts use it which apparently isn’t accurate or at least doesn’t reflect how it’s used today.
I was looking for a term to coin and that was what I came up with, maybe should have stuck closer to home!
Cristina C. Ansbjerg says
Taylor, this piece is brilliant. Even if Hintergedanke is not the best word to describe what you meant, from now on I will use it to refer to those moments when I’m stuck in my own purgatory. I relate to the whole concept.
Taylor Pearson says
Thanks Cristina! The word works for me as well, just can’t use it around any Germans 🙂