I’m a typical Gen Y’er and if you’re a Gen Y’er like me, you probably grew up with the same mantra – do well in school, go to a good college, so you can get a good job. Then work work work so you can get all the promotions and climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Making lots of money, having an executive title – THAT was success, and hence what we all should strive for. This mantra was repeated by our parents, our teachers, our mentors, and reinforced in the media. So I adopted it, and I set my sights on achieving it. I started college as an engineering major and interning at a Fortune 500 company. I switched my major to chemistry but headed to grad school, to further my training, and hopefully make more money after graduation.I had a brief flirtation with the idea of going into academia, but in the end I decided to go the corporate route.
When I started my “grown up” career at 24, I was full of new grad optimism and enthusiasm. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and overachieve so that I could get promoted, because that’s what I was expected to do, right? So I volunteered for all these extra projects at work, and did the career development stuff that is pushed to new grads in large corporations. I believed all those stories that said if you work hard and don’t be a lazy young person, you’ll be rewarded. And I was, at least monetarily. My salary grew by leaps and bounds but that promotion? I had to change companies to get it. Despite my work, networking with allies and mentors and career development, for whatever reason, promotions in role weren’t coming my way.
It’s been almost ten years since I started my corporate career, and my view of success has changed drastically since I was a new grad. I had a feeling that my priorities and career goals had changed, and last week showed me that my definition of success has changed as well.
Last week I had my performance review. I wasn’t super excited about it and expected the worst, not because of my performance but because of the drastic changes happening within my company. I survived many layoffs in 2015, and the subsequent personnel changes resulted in numerous changes to my chain of command. I’ve had 5 direct managers, plus many VPs and other executives that I report to. When the review period started, I realized that there was no one left in my department who could reflect and comment on my entire 2015 performance, because everyone was gone. Crazy, right? So I didn’t have high expectations for my performance review results. My score was decent, and I received a small raise but once again, I was not promoted. When I started with this company 3.5 years ago, getting a promotion was high on my list, but due to circumstances beyond my control it has yet to happen.
I expected to walk away upset, questioning myself, questioning if this is the place for me – the types of reactions that I’ve had before. This time I walked away with a #kanyeshrug and went about my business. And then I paused, and I asked myself if I should be upset because I wasn’t promoted. Like my initial reaction went something like this:
Me: Still got a job? Getting more money? Cool
My brain: Wait, you’re still at the same level you were when you started. Aren’t you upset? You should be upset.
Me: Wait, I should be upset? For why?
My brain: You’re supposed to get promoted! You’re supposed to want to be an executive with a fancy title and a big office! Did you forget?
Me: OH. For real? I’m supposed to want that?
My brain: DUH! Everybody wants that…right?
And that’s when I had to have a quick DM chat with a couple of friends, who talked me off the ledge. I was totally fine until I started thinking, and all those rules about success that I was taught as a child started flooding into my brain. I grew up with a message that success meant a fancy title, a big office, the big money, etc. Everyday I see lists about the Top 30 under 30, or see LinkedIn updates from people I went to school with announcing their promotions and fancy jobs and whatnot. I’ve been conditioned to want a specific type of success but I have not been able to achieve that, at least not yet.
I’m OK with where I am in my career. During these ten years I’ve worked, I see what it takes to get to those high levels, and nothing about it is appealing to me. I don’t want to spend my nights and weekends working. I don’t want to have a company cell phone and spend every waking moment being available for work. I don’t want to go on vacation but still log into work each day (that’s not a vacation). I don’t want to work 60+ hours a week, and not have time to do anything other than work and sleep. None of that is appealing to me. I love my work-life balance and I love that I can leave work at work and pursue other things in my free time. I don’t love that my hard work doesn’t directly benefit my bottom line, but I love that my direct deposit hits my account on a regular schedule.
I’ve arrived at a state of peace in my view of my career. I’ve realized that my passions lie elsewhere and that I value different things than I did when I was 24. I’ve learned that a successful career doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that I have the ability to define success for myself. After a moment of angst, I realize that not getting a promotion is a blessing as well, as it gives me time to focus on the things I enjoy, and less pressure in the office. If I do climb a ladder, it’s going to be my ladder, not a predetermined corporate ladder. I probably will never have an executive title, unless it’s a title for my own endeavor. And honestly, I like the sound of CEO of My Thing better than VP of Corporate Whatever.
What say you readers – what does a successful career look like to you? Have you achieved it?