Leaving Ambition Behind

It’s taken decades to accept my unwillingness to get ahead.

I had read recently that millennials can expect to have not a single career, but approximately 5 careers over a lifetime. At the age of 59, I can say that I have had at least that many. Part circumstance, part fear, part choice, and part geography, I have switched income sources to respond to whatever the needs of that time in my life presented: Flexibility so I could write music, security so I could pay the bills for my family, telecommuting so I could be with my kids, and on.

This ongoing change of direction has left me at middle-level jobs throughout my career. If you don’t stay long enough, or get the next advanced degree in your field, you don’t become a partner, don’t get promoted, don’t move up the ladder to something more. The only way out is entrepreneurship, but selling myself is not a strong suit.

I have always done very well in any employment. I have been in positions where I was on the verge of moving up, but I left because there were personal needs more pressing. It is only now, as I look back, that I realize I don’t like moving up from worker bee to manager.

Never having had the experience of being purely a manager, I’ve been rather a working manager — what organizations do when they want a “two-fer” in your job description. I have learned that, as a working manager, I become very caring of the people who work for me. But personal caring does not mean that I want to “manage” what you do on the job. Managing people while doing creative work is simply annoying. They are two different parts of your brain, and I find the switching back and forth makes me irritable and unhappy. The resultant resistance to getting on board the corporate ladder leads to perpetually operational roles — what is known as lateral moves.

To some, this may be disheartening. Not to me.

During the time I was laid off, I went to a career counselor who told me that I am a “creator.” This is no news to me. I have a degree in Environmental Design and have even as a child I made my own toys and clothes. I have a near perfect color memory and wrote music from the time I was 12.

In college, I loved all nighters where I would be at the drafting board, perpetual cigarette in my mouth (it was the 1980s), drawing up renderings of products, furniture, spaces, and buildings. And in my first jobs out of college, my favorite part was the technical problem solving, and the satisfaction of seeing your drawings take shape in the real world.

But the politics and personalities involved in architecture in New York City burned me out (as did being married to a particularly odious architect). Wanting to pursue music, I became an office temp during the 90s, and spent those shifts learning every graphics program I could while having a great time in the evenings with my band and my songwriting partner.

Ah! the golden era of my life, when day job was day job, life was life, and each was kind of glorious. As a mother, it got more complicated. I needed security, health insurance, and all that jazz. I took all the computer skills I had from all those years of temping and became a web designer, which carried me for about 17 years, until I was laid off wondering what to do for my next act.

I’m back in the saddle, in a lower-level position than I had been, but very contented nonetheless. I have no one to manage, and can spend the days on the computer making things to solve problems: videos, graphics, email programs, and metrics (yes, querying data for reports is something I also enjoy — SQL statements make me giddy). I am pursuing courses towards a masters in something that has no career aspirations to it: Linguistics. I may teach or write after retirement. I just like learning about language.

I have always sought to wear the day job as a light garment. When my ego has pushed me to wear it more seriously, to hop on that ladder and reach for the top, there has been only misery. Ambition takes me out of the moment, always thinking of how what I’m doing may or may not lead to advancement. It’s exhausting.

The trade-off of staying operational is that I have to take direction from people younger than me who may not be fully baked in their roles. But, letting that get to me is a recipe for unhappiness. When Barack Obama was elected president, a rubicon was crossed, and I had to accept that the people “in charge” of this world were going to be increasingly younger than me. I work on letting go of the bruises to my ego that result— some days more fruitfully than others, but it’s inner work worth pursuing if it leads me towards happiness and peace.

I had known an older man years ago who had been a major executive in AT&T and lost it all to alcohol. He realized, after getting sober, that his pursuits had turned backwards with age. As he put it, he once aimed to be the star of the show. Now he aimed to be the guy who sweeps up the stage afterwards.

I get it. It’s taken nearly six decades to let go of the shame of non-ambition for the American holy grail of perpetual career advancement, and embrace this simple truth:

My name is Cathy, and I like to make stuff.