Overambitious career goals?
June 30, 2012 2:04 PM   Subscribe

How do I know if I'm being overambitious?

I've recently had a setback in my career - after months of hard work toward passing some professional exams I've failed to make the cut. I did not do desparately badly, in fact I thought my result was ok, but given the work I put in, and the extremely competitive nature of the industry, it will not be enough to be hired at the key players.
I've had an interest in this work for nearly 4 years, including some initial (and remarkably successful) work experience at one of the top employers after graduating, but I was on a contract, and missed a couple of key opportunities to gain more experience there.

Instead I took (for various reasons) a detour-job elsewhere, unwitting dropping to a lower level job which I hated. Since then I've spent about two years underachieving. I feel like my career has never recovered from those early mistakes. I had hoped to pass the exams to "prove myself" and get back in at my former employer but I haven't managed.

About a year ago I spoke to several recruiters about possibly getting some better work, and she told me a story about a friend who got "over-promoted" from an entry level job, couldn't handle the work and had to spend ages at the same level to make up lost ground. I think she was trying to tell me my resume made it look like I had been accelerated too fast, and should lower my expectations and not expect too much. Accordingly she only offered me positions similar to the one I was in, which to my mind, was too easy for me and not worth changing jobs for, so I didn't bother applying.

Honestly I have no idea what to expect when it comes to career choices - my background is unusual for my chosen industry, though I can show a long-term interest and some useful skills, and family/friends etc are not familiar with the field.
Like anyone else I want a good and stable job, but I am someone who thrives on a challenge. I have been told that I 'don't do things by halves', that I'm intense and I know am not usually a balanced or slow and steady kind of personality. I've also been told I lack self confidence, and I am known for being anxious, especially with regard to big career choices/under pressure. (my career is my main source of self esteem, I have to admit) I'm worried about how my personality could be affecting my career, so here are my questions:

How do I know when my goals are overambitious? (due to wanting too much of a challenge, wanting to learn rather than leverage off what I already know)
How do I know the difference between common sense saying I'm overambitious, and lack of self confidence/anxiety cheating me out of a good chance?

My recent set back makes me wonder whether I am even cut out for such a difficult career choice, and my career confidence has been quite low for a while. How can I get it back?

I'm sorry for the scrambled nature of this post, but I'd appreciate your insights!!
posted by EatMyHat to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
To employers, you're "overambitious" if you cannot fulfill the duties of the job for which you've been hired within a reasonable amount of time after being hired, and if your skills aren't up to snuff on the day you're hired. It's fantastic to want to learn, but very rarely are professionals paid to learn unless they're already contributing in a significant way to the organization and educating them will increase that value.

So for your career, I'd ask myself (were I you) if I could contribute, based on what I know and what I know I can do, to an employer today. If you cannot, then step back a bit and figure out what it will take to get you to that point and find something you can do to make a difference in your chosen field as you work your way up.
posted by xingcat at 2:28 PM on June 30, 2012

I work in recruiting and in one of the industries we cover, exam progress can be key to career advancement. In your position, I would perhaps not underestimate the power of a seemingly lateral move because of the experience gained or the different internal atmosphere from company to company and how each measures progress.

Another thing to consider is whether you are at the stage of your career where honing your skills would be more beneficial than overcoming a challenge. This is something I'm trying to figure out right now, myself.
posted by sm1tten at 2:50 PM on June 30, 2012

So Drew Carey was the guest this week on Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me, and he told the story about how he had missed out on a chance to open for somebody big (I want to say Carson, but I'm not sure) when he was just a young comic looking for a break and as a result he had to spend three years on the road, opening shitty comedy clubs and perfecting his act before he got another chance at a big, high-exposure gig again.

And what he said was that he was really glad he'd missed that first chance because if he'd have gotten his big exposure before he had really gotten his act solid, his inexperience would have showed and he believes that his career would have had a much lower trajectory than it has otherwise had.

Part of your value, to your employers, to yourself, to your friends, is your judgment. An important part of that judgment is knowing when you need more time to be ready, because taking more time to be ready is better than failing with other people's money or time or projects.

The read I get from your question is that you think your career is like a train, with scheduled stops at various intervals of time. And you feel like somewhere along the way you got off and now your career should be two stops ahead of where it is.

There's no train. There's just you, wherever you are in your own career. Your belief about where you should be, down the tracks, is noise that may be impairing your judgment about what you are ready for. I'm not saying you're not ready for a new challenge, and I'm not saying you are; I'm saying that the more you focus on where you should be by now, the less you'll be able to assess what's going on where you really are. The less you are able to tell the difference between what you're actually ready to do and what you think you should, in an ideal world, be doing.
posted by gauche at 3:01 PM on June 30, 2012 [17 favorites]

There are goals of the type "I want to get to position X sometime," and goals of the type "I want to get to position X in six months." It's crucial not to blur these together. Someone telling you to slow down and take smaller steps is not necessarily telling you to aim lower overall -- they may just be showing you a smoother path to the same goal.

I had some setbacks in my career this year, of the "fail to advance at the same rapid rate" type, and I have tried to deal with it, practically and emotionally, by focusing on my long-term goals, and my capacity for persistence and steady growth. I could take this setback as evidence that I'm not cut out for my ultimate dream job, but that would involve an absurd level of fortune-telling, and would really just boil down to pessimism. Instead, I've been focusing on taking short-term steps in harmony with long-term goals, and letting the rest sort itself out.

Carol Dweck has studied and written some books on people with two kinds of mindsets: those who approach difficult tasks as a test of their innate abilities, and those that approach difficulties as opportunities to learn. You (and I) might be in the former category -- she has shown that we would be better off having the latter approach. You might check out her work, and think about rewiring your responses to these kinds of setbacks.

Also, you're allowed to mentally say "Fuck you" to anyone who tries to deflate your long-term dreams -- after all, what the fuck do they know?
posted by inkfish at 7:17 PM on June 30, 2012

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