Stepping Off the Career Ladder: Is it time to pursue the life you really want?

I was hungry. I wanted it all. I wanted the power suits, the company car, the briefcase and the corner office. I wanted to be Tess McGill (80’s reference – read Working on the Road to Hell – Our top 10 Travel Pet Hates to find out more about her and why I really hate one aspect of my job).

Working hard in my 20s and 30s, I was hungry for promotion. I wanted more money (who doesn’t), but I wanted the career I studied for. Being loyal, dedicated and hard working, my initial roles in my career were easily obtained. Interviews were always a piece of cake for me and I always got a job offer or promotion when I went for an interview. I was in control and it felt great.

However, promotion comes with a downside and you need to have a thick skin to cope with it. When you are young and not considered a threat, you fail to notice that your colleagues are not really your friends. Those people you chat with, laugh with, share your secrets with? They show their real colours as you start to climb the career ladder, and when you are unprepared for their reactions, it comes as a bit of a shock.

I was in my 20’s the first time my colleagues turned on me. Our manager was trying to reduce his workload and asked me to help him out with some of his admin tasks. One of the things he asked me to do was to simply help him manage everyone’s leave – I was not responsible for approving holiday requests, but he wanted everyone to be aware of who was off and when.

The simple solution was a big holiday chart on the wall. Unfortunately the only wall space available was near my desk. This became a huge issue for the whole team who got it in their heads that I was now approving their time off and so began the office politics and sniping. I was really shocked and a little bruised.

The team would even ask me if they could book some time off and I was forever reminding them that they needed to check the chart before putting their request into our manager for approval. He didn’t help by copying me in on their request approvals so I could update the chart for him. The whole situation made me feel very awkward and uncomfortable.

After a merger with another business, an opportunity arose for me to move sideways and join the field team. That was the final straw for my colleagues who cut ties with me completely when they discovered I was moving departments. Were they jealous? Maybe.

But the same opportunities were all over the business for them, too. I still feel sad now when I remember packing up my things for the last time, moving to a new life on the road or working from home. Not one of them wished me luck. Not one of them said goodbye.

The sadness stayed with me for a long time, especially as months later my old team faced redundancy. The knives came out once more and I was accused of jumping into my new role because I had perceived ‘inside knowledge’ or was somehow in the MD’s pocket. My role was perfectly safe whereas only one of them survived the cull.

To this day, none of those who were made redundant stayed in touch. These were people I socialised with, celebrated Christmas with – they even danced the night away at my wedding! I was beginning to learn that there is a massive difference between friends and colleagues and from then on was very wary of mixing the two.

Fast forward to today and I have new challenges to deal with. Throughout my career I have always done a job I love, using all the skills I studied for and learning new ones to keep me up to speed with technology and processes. I even have Google Alert emails set up that I read on a regular basis to ensure I keep up to date with new innovations that compliment my role. I might be getting on in years, but I have knowledge, experience and a huge range of skills. I am adaptable and love my chosen career as much today as I did when I was fresh out of college.

The new challenges I have now are interesting. I have much younger colleagues who assume I’m old and know nothing, I have similar aged colleagues who struggle with keeping up with technology and show their distaste at my enthusiasm, and I have some colleagues who feel threatened by my skillset while they do nothing to improve theirs. But the biggest challenge I have faced over the years is having staff that report to me – what a bloody minefield that is!

Lately I’ve noticed that I’m spending less and less time on the things I love and instead more and more time is being spent on managing my team, fighting fires, measuring performance and mopping up tears. Looking after the welfare of my team at work has meant I have become their coach, their shrink, their shoulder to cry on, their manager – I know things about them I would not have known outside of my role, I keep their secrets, I have their back. It’s exhausting, rewarding and hard work. But I’m starting to resent them because my role that I worked hard for is not what I thought it would be.

Is it time for me to ‘step off’ the career ladder? If I go for any more promotions, I fear the loss of no longer doing the role I love. I fear saying goodbye to the job that has brought me joy all of my career, as any more responsibility will mean I will no longer have the time to perform the tasks that are rewarding and enrich my life. Is it time for me to measure my success in a different way?

Until recently, I’ve been driven by my achievements and of course, the financial rewards. Anyone who has had a promotion, moved to a new job or even been part of a new project team will recognise that initial feeling of excitement when everything is shiny and new. Eventually, however, those initial spikes of joy will soon fade away as everything becomes normal and routine again. So to combat this, we chase the next challenge, the new project that will feed our hunger for excitement.

Our inner critic will whisper in our ears, telling us we need more (if you need help with that, read Give ‘Me’ a Break: How to Practise Self Compassion). We begin to worry about what other people think of us and our success as we want ‘more’, maybe even putting ourselves under pressure to earn more so we can fund a certain lifestyle. Life then becomes very stressful as we struggle to maintain a lifestyle that balances on a treadmill where we don’t actually have any control.

I’m fortunate. My mortgage on my home is my only debt and very soon that will be gone. My husband has a job he’s happy in and we both have personal pensions on the back boiler. In a few years I’ll be able to make some life changing decisions – decisions that will allow me to get back to a life that I enjoy. I’ve suddenly realised that I can give myself permission to step off the career ladder. All my hard work has paid off!

Some of you reading this will be younger than me and still have that hunger. But I am learning new lessons from life, more than ever in recent years as the COVID-19 pandemic has given me the pause I needed to reassess what I need. I don’t need a bigger house, fancy jewellery and foreign holidays. There is less of my life in front of me than behind me and any more advancements in my career are going to make me time-poor. What’s the point of another promotion and pay rise if I have to spend more time at work?

What I need is a career plateau. I need to switch off that treadmill and push away that career ladder. Right now I’m in a job that I’m really good at. I get to use all the skills I have learnt over the years and I get a huge feeling of satisfaction when I hand over a completed piece of work that is exactly what the client asked for. I want to change my life, but not change my job.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have that hunger inside me. But there is no shame in making a decision to stay in my current role, support my team and continue to add to my skillset. What is important to me now is that I understand what motivates me – a huge desire to learn and to be creative. Any further promotion now will not increase my skills – I’ll feel less motivated, do less of what I enjoy and will not feel happier in my role than I do right now.

By stepping off the career ladder, I can start to pursue the life that I really want. A life free from the stresses and strains of added responsibility. Today is the day that I stop climbing and I start growing. Who’s with me?


Published by So Just Be

Switch off the day and So Just Be

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