For the first nine years of my working life, I had one goal: Move up the ladder as fast as possible. If I wasn’t making quick progress through the ranks of my profession, I didn’t see the point of sticking with a line of work for more than a few years.
Lately, though, my thoughts on this matter have evolved. I’m now happy to hang around the middle levels of an organization, even if I end up doing so for my entire career. Below, I’ll explore how I got to this point and, with the help of a professional career coach, I’ll discuss why others might want to consider a similar path.
Missing the Forest for the Trees
My first post-college job was as a professional basketball player in Israel.
In the fall of 2012, after completing my third season as a player, I had a big decision to make. I was offered a contract to play for a fourth year, but I didn’t know if I wanted to take it. My issue was with the fact that I would be making the same amount of money I’d earned the previous year. I would also be on the same team, and I’d have the same general responsibilities on the court.
All of those factors made me feel like my career had plateaued. I felt like I would never achieve my real goal, which was to play on a more prestigious team and make a lot more money.
I didn’t care that I was making a pretty good salary to play a sport I loved. I didn’t care that my job offered me ample free time to socialize, explore, and work on side projects. I didn’t care about the relationships I’d built or my deep ties to the local community. All that mattered was my lack of upward mobility with my job.
I decided to stop playing basketball at that point. While I’m happy with how everything turned out, I have regrets about the decision-making process that led me to quit. I was looking at my career through a very restrictive lens. I should have stopped playing if I didn’t love basketball anymore, or if my work situation was toxic — not because I wasn’t hitting arbitrary career benchmarks I’d set in my head.
Changing How You Define Success
A few months ago, I was offered a promotion. The new role promised more money, but also substantially more responsibilities. I was perfectly happy at my current level, so I declined. I knew full well that the new role would not be a good fit for me. Every step up the ladder comes with a new set of new headaches, and I just don’t care to deal with those at this time.
Making the most money, or having the fanciest title, is no longer my goal. I am happy to be a career subordinate.
This is a contrarian stance to take. When I told my parents about my decision, they both immediately asked, “Why would you not accept a promotion?!” The dominant message in our culture is that we should be pushing ourselves to greater and greater heights in the workplace, regardless of the consequences.
Irina Pichura, a career coach and founder of Career Manifestations, realizes that it can be difficult to combat such messages. She thinks the key to your workplace happiness lies in figuring out how you define success, a process that will be unique to each individual. “Success is different for everyone, depending on their core values,” Pichura said.
Basically, you have to do an honest assessment of what matters to you. “Not everyone wants to be a manager or a high-level executive and take on that responsibility,” Pichura told me. “It’s important to think about your individual goals and what’s going to be fulfilling to you. Everyone has different aspirations in life.”
Like a lot of good advice, it sounds so simple but it’s hard to execute. When you’re swimming in a sea of people who all have the same aspirations, it can be hard to step back and figure out what you really want. But if you make the time to do so, the results might surprise you.
Finding the Right Fit
There are people who should be pushing their careers forward at full speed, and please, don’t let me stop you. If you love what you do and you like the responsibilities that come with increasingly high-level roles, then go for it! Many people have very good reasons to tip the work-life balance further toward work.
The key is in making sure you truly are that type of person. As Pichura told me, “It’s important for people to listen, be honest, and honor what balance looks like to them as an individual, and then find a company or workplace that gives you that.”
In the real estate world, the famous mantra is, “Location, location, location.” Most buyers are willing to sacrifice quite a bit so they can live in an area they absolutely love. It seems the job-hunting mantra should be all about, “Fit, fit, fit.” Even if you don’t make the most money or have the most exciting role, if your job perfectly suits your particular skill set and personality, well, that’s pretty darn important.
My best fit is at my current company in my current role. I’d truly be happy to spend the rest of my career in my position, regardless of what my parents, friends, or the “Hustlers,” “Ninjas,” and “Growth Hackers” on LinkedIn think.
The Grass Isn’t Always Greener
Many people have found out the hard way that a higher paycheck and a new role doesn’t always make them happier. Or, as the rapper Notorious BIG famously put it, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”
Pichura told me a story that illustrates this point. She knew a sales representative that was very happy in her role as an individual contributor. She made good money and liked the work. She was also very successful, and her bosses repeatedly asked her if she wanted to take on the role of District Sales Manager. She finally relented and accepted the job. Then, she instantly regretted it.
“She now has the stress of managing six other sales representatives who have to produce and hit their quotas,” Pichura said. “She never wanted the position and only took it because of pressure from the company and the prestige of a higher role. I think it would have been better in her case to stick to what she originally doing and listen to her intuition.”
Whenever I consider taking on a new role at my company, I have to actively remind myself that I have it very good and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
I recently learned a new word that I love: satisfice. It means “to accept an available option as satisfactory,” and people who strive to be satisficers tend to be happier with their decisions. As someone who used to be a perfectionist, I now see the beauty in being a satisficer, whether it’s in where I live or where I work.
When I made my decision to quit basketball, things like work-life balance were not considerations. I had a one-track mind. Now, success in my eyes is more about having a good work-life balance than in moving up the ladder. I truly feel like I know when something is good enough, and no amount of societal pressure can sway me to think differently.