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Wait, what? How could a promotion ruin your career?
Isn’t that what everyone wants? Yes and no.
People want more money. People want more power, influence, and control.
Many people think that they want a promotion, but then things start to feel wrong:
They feel overwhelmed with Impostor Syndrome.
They feel like they’ve fallen prey to the Peter Principle.
They feel like they are barely hanging on by their fingertips.
These are all signs that you may have been promoted too quickly. Or, perhaps you were promoted into the wrong position. Companies frequently make the mistake of promoting their highest-performing individual contributors into management.
Now, you dread going to work on Monday morning. You may be living in fear that your incompetence will be discovered and you will be fired.
You no longer feel in control of your job. You’ve lost the confidence that you’re great at what you do.
Assess the situation
What gives you satisfaction in your work? When do things feel right?
Pay special attention to those details. You’ll need to ensure that promotions or changes in your career don’t extinguish that joy.
It can happen subtly over the years and you won’t recognize it until it’s too late. A series of promotions can remove the delight you experienced in your work before.
This isn’t uncommon with a move into management when you no longer do the day-to-day activities that you enjoyed as an individual contributor. I experienced that.
I also witnessed this several times with my colleagues during my career in Silicon Valley. Talented engineers and designers were promoted into management as a reward for consistently doing great work. After a few months, they realized that they were no longer able to do what gave them joy at work: actually designing interfaces and writing code.
A few of these managers privately shared their unhappiness with me. They missed their old jobs, but there was no going back.
They didn’t want to give up the promotion and raise. So, they just seemed frustrated, unhappy, and vaguely dissatisfied every day.
Finding happiness in purpose
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t chase and capture happiness. The more you seek it, the less you’ll find it.
If you actually do achieve some goal that makes you feel really happy, “hedonic adaptation” ensures that you will return to your baseline of joy.
Peaks of happiness don’t last.
At some point in our lives, I know that most of us have been guilty of saying,
“Once I achieve this goal, then my life will be great!”
Think of the times you’ve heard someone say something similar to:
When I graduate from college and get a real job, then I’ll finally be able to buy what I want and do what I want.
If I could only make more money, my problems would be solved.
When I get a better job, then I’ll be happy.
When I lose this extra weight, I’ll feel good about myself.
When I finally move to my new home, my life is going to be perfect.
In the book “Happier,” author Tal Ben-Shahar describes this as the “Arrival Fallacy.” It’s the belief that we will truly be happier once we reach some imagined destination. This can include “destinations” such as graduation, promotions, new jobs, getting married, having a baby, moving to a new home, publishing a book, etc.
What you will discover — and research has proven — is that happiness is found in pursuing purpose and meaning, not just accomplishing a particular goal. The act of seeking and striving is the key to fulfillment.
Finding your purpose may feel like it’s a goal or a destination, yet it’s much more likely to be a continuous process and that is a good thing. You will be happiest when you always have new things that you are striving to achieve.
And, yes, this can happen with your work. In one study, people in companies were asked, “To what degree do you find meaning or purpose at work?”
The individuals who said, “Yes” were:
3x more likely to stay with their companies.
1.7x more likely to say that they like their job.
1.4x more likely to be engaged and productive at work.
“In a survey of over 2 million people in more than 500 jobs by the organization PayScale, those who reported finding the most meaning and purpose in their careers were clergy, teachers, and surgeons — difficult jobs that don’t always cultivate happiness in the moment but that contribute to society and bring those doing them a sense of purpose.” (source)
Recognizing my joy and purpose
It took me years of observing patterns in my work behavior and feelings to understand this. The insight I finally had was that what I enjoy the most is meaningful work followed by a sense of completion and accomplishment.
I had some of that with my first software design job at Apple. We shipped a new operating system and it was done. We would celebrate, take a breather, and then we could move on to the next version.
As my career progressed into the emerging world of online services and software (and management), I discovered that this had vanished. You are constantly updating, testing, and iterating.
There is no “done” and I never felt like we crossed a finish line. You launched something and immediately got back to work looking at the performance metrics and making changes for the next launch in just a few days.
Once I recognized what I was missing and wanted back in my career, I had to find some way to reclaim it. I enjoy the journey, hard work, and striving. But, I also want to enjoy the feeling of wins and accomplishments along the way.
Redefining my career
I think that’s why I gravitated towards consulting. With a client, maybe their product is never done, but your work with them is most certainly done at some point. I like that “ending chapter”.
I also enjoy writing for this reason. At some point, you finish the article or the book, submit it for publication, and it’s done. It feels like an accomplishment, and I can briefly bask in that feeling before I start writing again.
We work together to improve a situation with their job and get them promoted. Or, we create a plan to redefine their career and land a great new job. Nothing makes me feel happier and more complete than the day they accept that new role.
I got my mojo back.
Reclaiming your mojo
Maybe you’re already experiencing joy in your work, so you know how fulfilling that can be. But, if you’ve slowly but surely lost that joy over the years, what is your plan to get it back?
Are you ready to redefine your career to reclaim it?
Weaving meaning and purpose into your work will help you do that. Your sense of happiness and fulfillment will come when you embrace that you will always be on that journey.