Help me develop a sense of ambition.
March 28, 2014 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I have a good job and feel like I am on par with most of my peers in terms of current seniority and wage-level, but I don't feel the burning passion to progress much further in my career. How can I change this?

Hi Mefites. I am a mid-level office worker with no management responsibilities. I get really positive feedback from my manager, and I like what I do: a lot of research and bid-writing and not really needing to attend too many meetings or really interact with a lot of people. The pay's fine and finances my lifestyle adequately, and I have manageable debt and even some savings.

My question is why I can't develop the desire to do even better for myself than "good" or "adequate". I have no strong desire to go up a level to managerial. I don't want to manage people - it looks really difficult - or to become higher-powered than I am. Watching my boss at work attending lots of stressful meetings with the Board and negotiating delicate relationships with important people makes me fervently grateful I don't have her job.

I'm 31 and fairly happy with where I am at the moment, but I know that I can't stay at this level till the time I retire. At some point I need to develop the desire to become a manager or a Head. That is the accepted career path in my profession. How can I develop that ambition when really, it just looks like a nightmare to me?

(I think I just have a larger problem with ambition in general. I have written for many years and have amassed a pretty large 'portfolio' if I can call it that, but I feel absolutely no desire to try to publish anything I've written (I don't really want people I know to read my work and judge me). One person I know who also writes (and has had short stories published) told me that this amounted to 'literary masturbation' which... Yeah.)
posted by sockandawe to Work & Money (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a career track for non-managers? At my company, you can move up to a "Fellow" position, where you are at the VP level, but no responsibility for managing people. If it's not available, talk to HR about creating a track like that. Valuable people who know they have no interest in managing others can be a boon to a company who knows how to use them.
posted by xingcat at 6:47 AM on March 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

This isn't exactly the answer you are looking for. But it seems to me you might want to reframe the problem somehow. You are not interested in being a manager, so it may be beating your head against a wall to try to develop that ambition. xingcat's comment is apropo here. But another query I would pose is: is your profession one that really lights a spark for you? Perhaps your lack of ambition for the standard career path signals that it does not follow your dream. At 31 it is not too late to change careers if you find something else that excites you more.
posted by AdaJoy at 6:53 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm you, and I'm totally good with it.

I have no burning ambition to manage slews of people, or be working from 6:00 AM to Midnight, or to consider a vacation where I'm taking calls at Disneyland. That doesn't sound like fun to me.

I am interested in being a senior level person who is the KEEPER OF THE IMPORTANT KNOWLEDGE!

It's hard though, because in coporations today, progress/promotions is/are measured by the size of your fifedom. And that means managing people.

I think the hardest thing I had to come to terms with in my career, was that as much as I wanted to be wanted for the Executive Boardroom Development dealie, I didn't actually want the jobs that came with it. I'm struggling with it right now as I realize that the guy who works across from me, who is half my age, is being groomed for the program. I am envious of the potential wealth he can accumulate, and I'm envious of his intelligence and I'm envious that he's so highly thought of, but I don't want to be an executive, so why won't my brain turn off the jealousy?

Oh well, first world problems.

I think you should discuss a career path that suits your abilities and interests. Open discussions with your manager and be honest about, "Right now, I don't see a job with direct reports as something I would enjoy. What are other career paths for an individual contributor?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:11 AM on March 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

If career advancement is something you really want, that's fine. But if you want it only because you feel it's expected of you, and you know it will make you miserable, it doesn't sound worth it to me. Forcing yourself to be ambitious about something you don't care about seems really exhausting to me. For what it's worth, I have a friend who's doing exactly this... and he's miserable.

You sound like the "work to live" type. I'm the same way. American culture (I'm assuming you are in the US) doesn't seem to align with that, even though many people here are in fact "work to live". Once I realized that, and that it's okay to be that way, life became way less anxious for me. Where I work now there are many people who have been doing the same job for a long time, and they are fine with it. So, if a job meets your needs and you enjoy it, why not enjoy life and put your energy into what makes you happy?

Regarding the last part of your question, I think it's perfectly acceptable to do something (like writing) for selfish reasons, with no intention of ever having an audience. Why else do people write journals? There's no law that says you must publish what you write.
posted by Don Gately at 7:24 AM on March 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

It would be helpful to know why you feel the need "to develop the desire to become a manager or a Head." If it's simply because "that is the accepted career path in my profession," I'd urge you to consider whether that's reason enough to follow a path you seem genuinely uninterested in.

Everyone's professional motivations differ. For some, it's money; others, advancement; others, recognition. Personally, I'm at a place in my life where I am uninterested in climbing the career ladder and am much more motivated professionally by trying new things, developing new skills and gaining fresh insights. I'm fortunate to have a boss who understands these are my motivations and is willing to encourage them, even if that means I'm not being "groomed" for the management track.

Of course, in my case it also helps that my office-y day job is paying the bills while I'm in school to become a massage therapist, so I'm not as invested in my "field" of organizational strategy development. In your case, it sounds like you're already working in your chosen field.
posted by duffell at 7:31 AM on March 28, 2014

You can tell your friend that if writing without publishing is literary masturbation, then publishing your writing would be public masturbation which is clearly worse.

Nthing that it is OK to do something other than the accepted career path when it looks to you personally like a nightmare. It may seem like "everyone" is doing it, but actually there are plenty of people choosing other, less nightmarish-to-you paths. Listen to your inner voice.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:33 AM on March 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

There's no reason you can't stay at your current level until you retire. I don't think anyone's going to fire you for not following the "accepted" path in your profession. After all, if everybody was a manager, there'd be nobody to manage.

Many professions have ways to move up into senior roles without necessarily taking on people management or executive-level wheelings and dealings. Ruthless Bunny's advice is great. If your manager can't help you, there may be places online where you can connect with other people in your field and discuss career options.

And tell your published friend to shove it.
posted by neushoorn at 7:39 AM on March 28, 2014

If you have no interest in managing people, you should stay away from it. If you're a square peg you don't need to force yourself into a round hole.

In most companies or organizations, the number one way to make yourself valuable is to Bring The Money.

People who manage others fall either into the categories of "this person can teach and inspire others to Bring The Money", or "we need a warm body and tag, you're it" (the latter being the group from which all of the awful "my manager sucks at managing people" AskMe questions originate).

It would be more worthwhile to you to discuss your career path with your supervisor and perhaps a higher-level manager or two. It's valuable, and refreshing for managers, for an employee to say "I've done some self-assessment on my strengths and weaknesses, and I know that I have no interest in managing people. But I like working here and I would like to continue on an upward trajectory. What should my next steps be?" Don't be too disappointed if they don't jump up and down right away; relative to xingcat's answer, this may be an idea that you need to sell for a while. If your dream job doesn't currently exist, you may need to take the reins in creating it.
posted by vignettist at 7:39 AM on March 28, 2014

Yeah, there's no specific reason you need to become managerial/supervisory. Technical staff (you do research, that is you) are just as valuable and can move up too.

It's hard though, because in coporations today, progress/promotions is/are measured by the size of your fifedom. And that means managing people.

I don't know how feasible this is in your field, but the keyword in Ruthless Bunny's comment is "corporations": in the government offices where I've worked, there have been about as many Senior Advisor positions (that's keeper-of-technical-knowledge staff) as there are upper-level management. The earnings are not too different.
posted by psoas at 7:59 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi! I'm you. Absolutely zero desire for any management role whatsoever, perfectly happy with my job and level of responsibility.

We live in a culture that expects- demands, really- that everyone be obsessed with more, more, more. Promotions, higher pay, "success"- and a shit-ton of work, way too much stress, and zero time for the really important things in life.

Well, fuck that noise.

it is perfectly okay to not want the C-level job or the stress that goes with it, it is perfectly fine to recognise and accept that you will not be happy there, or even capable of handling it. And if it sounds like a nightmare to you from the outside- trust me, living it is worse. I was offered the opportunity to manage a tiny team in the company I work with. Two weeks in, I asked to be given back my old role because being a manager made me a stressed-out, sobbing mess to the point I was failing spectacularly at what I was actually hired to do. Not everyone is management material, and that's fine- managers need minions, after all.

I like what I do: a lot of research and bid-writing and not really needing to attend too many meetings or really interact with a lot of people. The pay's fine and finances my lifestyle adequately, and I have manageable debt and even some savings.
Congratulations, you've hit the jackpot- and I'm not being sarcastic, I swear. This- a job you like that pays you well- is something people spend their entire careers looking for and never find. Don't throw it away for some abstract idea of what you think you 'should' be doing.

Finally, about your "friend"- I'm glad they're not within reach of me, because I would have had a hard time not socking them for that comment. The value of art- in any form- is in its creation, and what it does for the creator. Anything that happens after is extraneous. You don't have to publish something for it to be valuable. Hell, I'm currently 100K+ words into a completely ridiculous Harlequin-esque romance novel that's more fit for kindling than the submission pile. But I keep at it, because it makes me happy, and really, that's all the reason anyone needs to do anything. (an it harm none, of course.)
posted by Tamanna at 8:01 AM on March 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

but I know that I can't stay at this level till the time I retire

Why not? If you like your job, make enough money, and get positive feedback, I don't see why you need to push yourself in a direction that you don't want to go in. Now, if you were unemployed or barely scraping by doing part-time retail work, this would be a different story, but it actually sounds like you're doing great by most (reasonable) people's standards.

Not everyone is meant for the "management" track, and there's nothing inherently valuable about having lots of ambition, despite what a lot of (at least U.S.) culture tries to make us believe.

Also, you're only 31. You still have plenty of time to stay where you are for now, and then if your goals change in the next decade, you can adjust your actions accordingly.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:13 AM on March 28, 2014

You know that little voice telling you that you don't want to manage people? That you don't want to trade your personal life for professional demands? That you enjoy your writing for its own sake? That you don't want to abandon your current life for what appears to be a nightmare?

Listen to that little voice. That's your deepest self. That's what's right for you. Craft the life you want to lead, centered on the qualities and values that are meaningful to you.
posted by scody at 8:28 AM on March 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

What scody said. My managers have told me that there is no shame in not wanting to manage. It's a lot of stress and hell.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:30 AM on March 28, 2014

You can't develop the desire because that career path is wrong for you! It sounds pretty awful, frankly, I kind of agree with you; that high-powered stressful life is not for me, thanks.

Life is short. People who suffer through careers they hate end up going through crises, or become miserable shells, or eventually figure out that they would rather chance a more precarious but more alive existence of teaching yoga or opening a cafe or whatever sings for them inside. Or they find ways to dial down their responsibility and take more time in their personal life for the things that really matter for them. You really don't have to give yourself up in order to follow some notion of an accepted career path; you really don't.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:43 AM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I will recommend the updated version of The Peter Principle. It explains a LOT!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:01 AM on March 28, 2014

Ambition is about the desire and effort spent to obtain a goal. The obvious question is "What is the goal?" And more importantly, "Who decided that should be my goal?"

When people tell you that you should want to move up the ladder into management, they are assuming that (1) they know your goals in life and (2) this is the best way to meet them. Lots of flaws in that reasoning.

Think about WHY people might want to move up and you can see if you actually agree with both the assumed goal and that management is actually the best path.

Why be a manger?
- Make more money. How much money do you really need? Or can a simpler life with less stuff work for you?
- Respect and prestige. This is just about what other people think. Do you think people will respect you less if you are stalled out a mid-level position? Some probably will. Do you care what they think?
- Power. Not necessarily true - often individual contributors have more discretion and control over their own day than managers caught in power politics. If you have enough control over your own job, do you need/want control over other people or over money too?
- Impact. The belief is that more people and money under your control means that you have more influence or impact on the world, what you do matters more. Do you agree? Do you care?

There are also some things that are really, really important that usually aren't on those lists
- Competency - doing a job that you are good at, taking pride in the quality of the work that you do. This often goes down in management jobs, especially if you aren't real suited to the new role. Who wants to be promoted to their level of incompetence? See the Peter Principle
- Work/Life Balance - there is more to you than just your job, you need to keep the big picture in focus
- Moral integrity - You need to live in alignment with your own values.
- Happiness - isn't that what it is all about? There are many things that go into a happy life but certainly going into management is not a prerequisite to getting them. Figure out what matter to YOU, make that your goal and you will probably find that you have the energy to pursue what you truly want. If you are still having problems pursuing your own goals, then maybe ambition is an issue but it is not lack of ambition to lack energy to pursue someone's idea of what you should be wanting.
posted by metahawk at 10:22 AM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

First off, everyone who's saying it's ok to not be ambitious is totally right. Maybe that's just not for you.

As for the pressure you feel from everyone else around you striving for those management jobs, I think that will dissipate a bit as you get older. When you're in your twenties and thirties, your peers will tend to be really ambitious, but that seems to settle down. I mean, not everyone gets a management job, right? Some people chill out as they start families and their careers become less important. Some, like you, decide that management is just not what they want.

But at the same time: I was in your position when I was 31, just uninterested in moving up and feeling at a bit of a loss because of it. Now I'm 36, and I actually just moved into management and I'm super-interested in what I'm doing and feeling pretty ambitious.

What changed? I shifted careers. I stayed in the same general field, but switched to a subfield, one that I am much more interested in and have more natural talents in. When my current management role came up, I was excited about it because there were lots of things I wanted to do that I knew I could only accomplish by having a higher-profile position, so I jumped at it gladly. I think my lack of ambition 5 years ago was an indicator that I was burnt out and really just not that interested in my old field.

That said, it sounds like you do enjoy the work you do - but do you feel challenged? Do you feel like there are new things to learn and new projects to try? If not, then you may want to talk to your boss, or even seek out employment somewhere else, where you can grow and be challenged without having to take on management. Or you may try what I did and just shift careers a bit, and find something that gets your engines revving.
posted by lunasol at 10:43 AM on March 28, 2014

My dad was a fish salesman before he retired. In my biased opinion and from what I heard from others, the best fish salesman in the region. He loved the job and the company would have been dead in the water without him (other local fish distribution operations were pushed out of the market by Sysco). When I was a little kid, he was made a Vice President of Sales and had to start attending meetings and managing other salesman, some of whom were real jackasses. He was making a larger salary but was losing out on commissions and wasn't doing what he liked (visiting restaurants, meeting with chefs and managers and learning what they needed from him and the company).

He hated management more than anything and it was making him hate a job he loved, so after a few years, he was able to find a niche that made him valuable without having to spend much time managing other salesman. He spent most of his work time back on the road where he wanted to be and was helping other salesman succeed less by managing and more by touching their markets when he could. I think he ended up liking his job more after this metamorphosis.

If you can find your niche and pursue it, I think you can find a balance between what you want and what benefits your employer enough to get paid at a higher level.
posted by coreywilliam at 11:45 AM on March 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

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