Wah wah wah wah. Wah wah wah wah wah: what I hear when people talk about “managing your career”

Copyright Charles Schulz. PEANUTS, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. (1)

I can’t help it! The moment I start reading or listening to someone trying to provide advice on “Managing” Your Career, my brain starts turning every word into the sound that all the adults make on the Peanuts (TM) cartoons. This is not a new phenomenon. At one point in the not too distant past I settled in with the notion that I was a suffering from a “too cool for school” syndrome in this regard. That is once I moved past the stage of not caring at all about not caring at all.

Recently I’ve started to realize (maybe rationalize) that my reaction was potentially deeper than my contrarian instincts(2). I tend to imagine that the people giving the advice and their intended audience have the following goals for managing their career…

  • Salary Maximization
  • Title Importance Maximization
  • Office Size Maximization

Firstly, I don’t really know any of this is the actual intent of the authors or the recipients, at least not all of the time. Secondly, there’s nothing inherently bad/wrong/evil about wanting or striving for them. In fact, I suspect that the world be negatively impacted if no one cared about these maximizations at all(3). There have even been times in my life where one or more these items have belonged on the “things I care about” list.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that while achieving in these domains may have given my ego a short term boost, after a certain point none have made me any happier in the long run. I guess spending most of my formative years bouncing in and out of the bottom income quintile has led me to a place where being in (or even near) the top 10% is more than enough (even more than I truly need). So much so then I don’t feel the desire to strive for the top 5 or 1%. Maybe I’ve seen to many a-holes with the big title that it makes wonder if it is the striving for or the achieving of that results in that particular statistically significant correlation.

More importantly perhaps, is the realization that it’s not so much about what I don’t care about, but what I do care about.

  • It has to matter on a level that resonates internally
  • It has to be mentally challenging
  • I must have a decent level of control to define the how and what
  • I have to respect and enjoy spending time with the people at work

Yes I know this is basically Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose plus People. Which is probably why when I first read Drive (Daniel Pink) years ago I thought, “ok, maybe I’m not as much of a misfit as I imagine myself to be.” I’ve been very fortunate over the last 20 years that a majority has been spent in situations where most of these conditions held true or at least mostly true. And when I look back at the “bad times” it was always the case that a majority (or all) of the items were in significant peril.

It’s also occurred to me that how I define these items changes with the passage of time. When I was younger, purpose was more about writing cool code. Today it’s more about the reason behind why the software is written. Even “decent level” of control has a very squishy and ever-changing meaning.

I’m not saying that money doesn’t matter. I’m sure that I had continued to work as a bartender or waiter it would have probably influenced the decisions to have a family and resulted in less joy in my life. But there comes a point (for me) of diminishing returns. I’m also keenly aware that absolute “do what you love” thinking can devolve into “Everybody Gets a Trophy” Pollyanna-ism. You may love Sanskrit, but there’s maybe 10 people in the world that can make a living with that knowledge and 9 of them do so by teaching it to people that will be flipping burgers.

So what’s my point(4)? Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I should stop assuming that when people talk about “managing your career” they are talking about conventional money and power aspects of a career. Maybe there is no problem and I should just keep ignoring the career advice geared toward those money and power attributes. Maybe the “I know better than you” part of me is right that too many people concerns themselves with money and power when autonomy, mastery, purpose, and people concerns are more likely to lead to happiness. Or maybe, voice in my head, I don’t have a point at all.

Tangential thought footnotes…

(1) — Upon request I will gladly pay the rights holders of this image 100% of the proceeds from this article (roughly $0). I could not find an image in the public domain that so clearly communicated my intent so I resorted to using one of your images without express written consent (of the rights holders or Major League Baseball). I apologize in advance if this was not an acceptable arrangement (seriously) and will remove the image upon request.

(2) — So deep are my contrarian instincts that if someone where to parrot back my own words my first instinct would be to argue the finer points of the opposition. Over the years I have learned to use this power for good (occasionally) and not to use it (mostly) when it is counter-productive and/or (sometimes) just downright annoying.

(3) — So … I have to get a little bit of a “holier than thou” jab in. I do suspect the world would be a better place if fewer people cared nearly exclusively about material and respect through authority maximization.

(4) — Ok, voice in my head, why do I need to have a point? It’s not like I have an expectation that more than a handful people will read this. I started writing this to help me organized thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a while now. Maybe the result is that I don’t have a point to this collection of thoughts.

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