Most of my career goals were developed when I was in my teens -- I dreamed of being a Captain of Industry, the modern-day equivalent of the (fictional) heroes I’d read about in the works of Ayn Rand. And while there were a few minor course corrections along the way – most coming as my understanding of the way the work world really functioned grew – I stuck with that goal until I was in my late-forties. Tenacity can be a virtue, but just like a lot of things, too much of it can be a problem.
Saying I “stuck with it” however, is a vast oversimplification. I was fixated on it. Obsessed by it. The goal became an end unto itself apart from the reason it was ever formulated. Making progress toward “the goal” became the measuring stick for my life. When I felt I was making progress, I felt good. When I felt like I wasn’t, I became alarmed, stressed, and generally grouchy.
Alas, I don’t think my personal experience is unusual among career-primary types.
Setting the autopilot
While the specifics of how and why I ended up running my life for thirty years on autopilot are unique to me, setting long term goals and hunkering down to drive for them (without serious midcourse corrections) isn’t unusual. I’ve met many careerists who have their “eyes fixed firmly on the prize,” taking every conceivable step they can imagine to enhance their chances of hitting their goal – often at the expense of family, relationships, and even their own health.
And their employers love it.
This type of employee – often termed “ambitious” – work long hard hours, make numerous personal sacrifices, and are focused on achievement at the expense of virtually everything else. They also are generally more political, harder to satisfy, and at times push their bosses to the point of distraction. Despite the negatives, on balance they are generally seen as “valuable assets.” Nothing is done to discourage their view of the importance of “career” nor to curb their self-destructive behaviors. Often company rules, norms, and processes are deliberately arranged to encourage progressively deeper commitment of careerists to the company, even though few have a realistic chance of achieving their ultimate goals.
It’s a conspiracy of deception that begins with self-deception.
Check your goals
The problem with this variety of blind ambition is that it often goes on for years, if not decades, without being reviewed, checked, or critically evaluated.
When I was fired for the first and only time, the discord I experienced was profound. But rather than sparking reflection, the event caused had me immediately leaping into another, similar position. What I should have done was to “come up for air.” I should have spent a period of time emotionally “processing” the job loss, then critically examining if I still wanted to push for the goal I’d set when I was 17.
But I didn’t. The familiar corporate career ladder was comforting. It was what I knew. And by continuing to pursue it, I was avoiding the difficult work of re-examining my life from basic principles. I avoided asking questions like: What did I really enjoy in life? What did I desperately want to avoid? What did I want for a legacy? Was my thirty-year-old goal still relevant?
When I finally got around to pondering these questions (and others) I’d been in the new job half a year. I hated it. I had made my way back in the “rat race,” and it was obvious I no longer belonged. This time however, I was about to get out.
I started spending an hour each morning in my office with the door shut. During that time, I forced myself to contemplate these weighty subjects – happiness, satisfaction, duty, my suitability to the kind of work I was doing, and what I enjoyed before I found myself on the corporate hamster wheel. I realized that in many ways I was a round peg trying to fit myself into a square hole.
I also realized that the job I’d been aiming at was a myth. I really wanted to be a “Captain of Industry” but even CEOs have masters to satisfy, politics to play, and spend much of their time on things they don’t necessarily enjoy. I had the data to realized this years earlier, but had been studiously ignoring it. In short, my “goal” wasn’t worthy of the effort or sacrifice I was giving it.
Then one afternoon, while complaining about everything that made me unhappy at work, my wife said the words that finally sent me over the edge: “I don’t know why you still work there.”
In reality, I was there because I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was a default, and I was now simply going through the motions. Finally, I made the critical decision – to get out – but where “to go” was still an enigma. My morning sessions became an exploration of alternative futures. I planned a year-long sabbatical to investigate these and anything else that serendipitously came along.
I didn’t have any illusions about returning to my current position – I knew there was no chance my employer would hold the job open for me. Besides, I hated it. Eventually, I quit with little more than a list of possible activities and occupations I wanted to consider.
The change was liberating. For the first time in over three decades, the world was an full of possibilities. While a few directions had closed simply because of age, training, and family obligation, there were literally hundreds of options. I began investigating them, allowing my direction to be determined by the weight of my emotions (Did I really enjoy it? Was it satisfying? Would I like the daily tasks, or quickly become bored? Did it fit with my family’s needs for my time? What about my obligation to provide?).
Within a couple of years, I’d reinvented my life. And while my new self wasn’t as financially rewarding as my life as a corporate climber (although one hit novel could change all that,) it did deliver satisfaction and happiness.
Someone recently asked me if there was anything I missed from corporate life. The answer was a surprising “yes.” I missed the social interaction, and the friendships (both real and even the friendship- of-convenience). But the list of things I don’t miss is much longer. I don’t miss obsessively checking my email at all hours. I don’t miss disrupted vacations. I don’t miss being away from home a hundred nights a year. I don’t miss gigantic “dog-and-pony-show” presentations. I don’t miss the dirty politics.
Mostly, I don’t miss feeling like every word, action, and decision are under a microscope, where they are examined by a boss in an attempt to extract and interpret – mostly searching for negatives.
In short, I traded up and can’t imagine ever going back.
Every career-oriented professional owes themselves a regular re-examination of goals – and not just a superficial “yeah, sounds good” flip of the hand, but a deep dive where fundamental motivations and satisfactions are compared to the path they are currently on and the reality of the job or role they are aiming toward. My only regret was not forcing myself to do this at age 30 or 35, rather than waiting until I was 48.
While you might not have the same epiphany I did, you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re happy with the direction of balance of your career. Don’t ignore feelings of fear, frustration, and stress – they’re the tell-tale signs that something might be wrong. Think big. These decisions are all about family, legacy, and your personal satisfaction. And do it now -- the longer you wait, the more your alternate future is limited. 34.4
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES. This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States. Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.