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Why we should talk about stepping off the career ladder

As a child I loved the game ‘snakes & ladders’. The best bit was the thrill of climbing as many ladders as possible to win the game. Little did I realise it reflected society’s message that to be successful I had to keep moving up the career ladder. And in my early career that’s what I did. I chased promotions until I achieved the lofty pinnacle of Director. I admit, at the time it kind of made me happy. I felt I had achieved something and the status made me feel  recognised for my contribution. I never contemplated stepping off the corporate career ladder even after a break to have my kids. It only became an option once I realised my job was full of stress and wasn’t making me happy.

I wish I’d known sooner that choosing to travel along a ‘snake’ could open up possibilities rather than take me back to the beginning. The world of work is changing and there are alternatives to the corporate career ladder – we just need to view success differently.

So why step off your career ladder?

Don’t get me wrong, for some people, who are driven by achievement, then climbing the career ladder can very rewarding but there can be pitfalls.

Travelling up the ladder can mean you become trapped on the Hedonic Treadmill. A concept developed by 2 psychologists, Brickman and Campbell. They suggest that, regardless of what happens to you, your level of happiness returns to your baseline happiness after the event. For example, if you get promoted you get an initial spike of happiness and pleasure but then you return to your general level of happiness. The reason it is called a treadmill is that it can lead to you constantly chase these little spikes of pleasure, pushing yourself to achieve more, buy more, and have more, but ultimately not increasing your happiness quotient.

This can also provide fuel to your inner critic who may use the message ‘it’s never enough’, or, ‘if you want people to think you’re successful you must have more, do more, be more’ and this can be very stressful. Get help with managing your inner critic by developing your inner coach.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is to seek Eudaimonic Wellbeing. A concept first discussed by Aristotle, who believed that realising human potential and leading a good life brought well being rather than fleeting spikes of happiness.

Feeling that your life has purpose and meaning (and remember the definition of which is personal to you), and that you are growing and developing can be a good starting point to consciously step off the treadmill. You can then choose to pursue a life that is more enriched and rewarding. Need help? Read my blog on finding meaning at work.

How do you step off the career ladder?

  • Who are you?

Get back in touch with yourself. What do you want from life? What are your needs? What are the values that drive you? Why do you work? Be clear about your career identity.

Answering these questions lets you take stock of where you are right now and reflect on the compromises you may have made along your career journey. Be clear about your career needs. Make a Career Vision Board to help you focus on the future.

  • Design your success criteria

It is intrinsic reward that brings joy and satisfaction at work rather than salary, job title and benefits. Identify what you need in order to feel successful at work and in your life.

If you can focus more on the intrinsic elements of success and think about how you want to feel when you are successful it can be very freeing, and allow you to feel more fulfilled at work. Being able to let go of the belief about what other people think is also important.

So how do you work out what your definition of success is going to be? Try asking yourself some of the questions in my Success Definition blog and see what emerges.

  • Give yourself permission to step off

This can be challenging as your identity and self expectation can tie you to the need to climb.

Stepping off doesn’t have to mean changing career and starting again, although it might. It can also be about doing things differently based on your success criteria.

It could be making a flexible working request, taking a secondment or even a career break. Maybe it’s staying at your current level for a while and really honing your expertise and knowledge, or focusing on some specific challenges that will give you meaning and enjoyment rather than pushing upwards. Consider how a career plateau can help your career.

  • Be Mindful

Prioritise time to check in and get perspective on where you are heading. Sideways might be more engaging than upwards for a while but check in every 6 months or so to review your trajectory. And whether that is up, across, down or in a different direction altogether make sure it’s a conscious and mindful decision that fits with what you want from your career life.

Need help working out what direction you want to travel in, get in touch for a FREE clarity call.

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