You are one of the lucky ones: You like your job! The problem is, you like it so much you’re really just not very ambitious. And you worry that in the age of Workism, you’ll regret not trying harder to “get ahead.” Is being satisfied a problem?
Dear Human Resource,
I’m a lawyer at good-sized firm, and I love my job. I am rewarded, challenged, engaged and interested. I like Mondays. I’m that person.
However, I need help with career trajectory and the pressure to be ambitious. Specifically, I don’t feel a ton of ambition. I don’t feel the need to compete with my peers for exciting assignments, to rub elbows with senior partners so they’ll ask me to work with them, or to actively pursue development opportunities. I like the work that I do and the lifestyle and balance that I feel in my current role. (By way of background, I’m in my mid 30s, married with two young kids.)
I’m worried that I’m stunting my career prospects by not pushing harder. If I don’t pursue challenging opportunities now, maybe in 10 years I’ll wish I was doing the “cooler” work but discover I’m lacking the skills I didn’t bother to build when I was young.
On the other hand, why should I race and compete and push when my current role is satisfying, and could possibly be satisfying forever? I really can see myself being very happy with what I do, long term.
Any wisdom or guidance you can provide will be graciously accepted. Thank you so much!
Ambition is certainly crucial to achieving a standout career. But maybe the issue isn’t that you lack ambition — it’s that having a standout career just isn’t your top priority. Maybe other things are simply more important to you. And that’s ok.
It can be easy to forget that this is ok, because we live in a culture, and a media environment, heavily geared toward the assumption that everybody is absolutely consumed with getting ahead at work, all the time: Find your calling, pursue your passion, lean in, crush it.
In a recent essay in The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson pointed out that the whole notion of clawing your way up to Senior VP, or whatever, as some kind of gauge of personal value, is an early 20th century invention.
And that’s gradually led to the emergence of what Thompson calls Workism, a near-religious take on the importance of one’s job: “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centrepiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
You can reject Workism and live to tell the tale! On some level, in fact, everybody should probably think about being at least an occasional Workism heretic.
Stay on your game
To be clear, I’m not telling you to blow off your job. To the contrary, be vigilant about doing what’s expected of you, and seeking clear feedback from your managers.
The difference is you’re not obsessing about executing some grand long-term plan for total career domination. You don’t have to marinate in books and podcasts that float tactics and strategies for maximum productivity. You can just, you know, do your job.
In some work scenarios, your managers might expect you display a lot of ambition. But it’s more likely that what they really want to be sure of is your engagement. A manager might, for instance, really value you taking up some thankless task that your more ambitious colleagues avoided — not because it’s your stealth get-ahead move, but because you’re paying attention and you take the organisation and its goals seriously.
There’s no upside in flat-out announcing, “I’m just not that ambitious.” But in communicating with managers, in review sessions or just day-to-day conversation, think about how to get this message across: You’re satisfied with your work, you care about getting it done correctly, and you’re open to learning new things. But you believe you’re ultimately happy and effective as a role player rather than as someone trying to battle their way to the top.
Once you’ve thought through how to make sure you’re not accidentally broadcasting total indifference to the gig, you can safely focus on Workism apostasy.
The pressure you feel to display ambition probably isn’t coming from your boss. It’s coming from the culture in general, and all the gurus suggesting that if you’re not striving to reach the very top of your field, then you’re some kind of loser. So you better start building those uber-productive habits that, according to these gurus, will somehow let everybody rise to the top. We can all be Number One if we try!
In reality, this obviously impossible variation on the Lake Wobegone effect is exactly what makes so many people miserable. It’s one reason that burnout is such a popular topic lately. And it’s one reason that unhappiness with work is so prevalent among the so-called “educated elite,” who have been so thoroughly primed to be the best.
There’s an argument that this pressure is even more acute for Millenials like you, and is being further amplified by workplace technology; thanks to tools like Slack we not only work hard, we perform working hard.
But we can’t all work harder than everyone else; we can’t all be the best. And truth is, not even being an elite, NBA-level star in whatever your profession may be, guarantees happiness. (Plenty of literal NBA stars end up unhappy.)
Writer Matt Haig, sketching an argument for not taking work too seriously, quotes Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
So sometimes we’re better off accepting that if we can’t be great, it’s totally fine to be good. We should all do the best work we can, and play the role we’re meant to play. It’s ok to be ok with being ok. Remember that there are other things to be “passionate” about. I can think of some. I hope you can, too.