I’m competing for a promotion against a coworker who outdoes me

A reader writes:

I work as a junior lab technician in a hospital. After a management reshuffle in 2016, one of our three mid-level technician posts were empty, and external recruitment was unsuccessful. In 2017, my boss created a temporary feeder post. His intention was for one of the two junior technicians, me or my colleague Jane, to fill the post for one year while we both continued to train. We both applied, and I was unsuccessful. The post will be re-advertised externally in the summer as a permanent post, and Jane and I will be expected to apply. My boss will want to discuss the role in my appraisal next month, and I don’t know what to say to him.

I had a tough time after the interview. I have always struggled to feel like I’m any good next to Jane: she’s younger, smarter, more well-spoken, calmer, and outdoes me in a thousand other ways … so when I lost out to her, it really hit my confidence and self-esteem. My boss knows that I struggle with comparing myself to Jane, and he tried to reassure me, both before and after the outcome, that Jane and I were still at the same level.

I followed your advice in trying to be positive and open to criticism, and I sought out constructive feedback from each member of the panel the week after the interview. The hodgepodge of things that came from feedback were:
• That the three members of the panel (my boss, his deputy and another department senior) did not agree on the decision.
• That my boss chose me; the other two chose Jane.
• The scoring was very close.
• The deputy told me, when I asked whether I did anything better than Jane, that “sometimes in life, some people are better than us at everything,” which, to me, meant that he thinks Jane is better than me at everything.
• The third senior told me that he “thought she’d blow me out of the water.”

I felt confused by the comments — we were either as good as each other, or we weren’t. I came out of the process hurt and confused, with dented confidence and self-esteem. I’m far too conscientious to let failing affect my performance, but since the interview, I haven’t felt like a valued employee.

This isn’t to say that good things didn’t come out of the failure. I sought counselling the week after the interview, and I continue to deal with my underlying self-esteem issues, but it’s not an instant cure. I also thought long and hard about my job, a job I love, and the type of technician that I want to be: the department go-to for training and development, with extensive subject knowledge. That’s helped me decide how to move forward, personally and professionally.

But this mid-level post is not one of the things that I’m desperate for right now. I just want to be an excellent junior technician. I want to prove my worth and improve my knowledge, skills, and experience. I’m also scared of failing again. I honestly don’t think I stand a chance, but my boss will expect me to apply. I don’t think I’ll come out of the appraisal without him having made me promise to apply. He’s supportive, but he also believes competition is good for the soul. I’ll have to resign if I get passed over again, and I don’t think they’ll put up a fight to keep me. I feel like it’s either going to cost me professionally if I don’t apply, or personally if I do.

What do I say to him next month? What will I do in the summer? Please help me.

I wrote back and asked, “When you say you’ll have to resign if you get passed over again, what do you mean? Do you mean you’ll feel like you don’t want to stay, or do you mean they’ll push you out?”

Neither, really. They won’t push me out because we’re a very small lab and always have trouble recruiting. Nor would I want to go – it would break my heart to leave this job.

I think I would just feel obliged to resign. I have a vague notion that there’s an unwritten rule of the working world that only fools stay when they’ve failed more than once, and I don’t want to be a fool. I also worry that everyone would perceive me as a failure forever, and that I couldn’t ever redeem myself after failing a second time.

It would be terribly ill-judged to apply for a job you don’t want and don’t think you’ll get, if it means that you’ll end up feeling obligated to leave a job you love!

You don’t want this promotion. You’re planning to apply for it because you think your boss will push you into it, and you think it will look bad it you don’t. Under no circumstances should you let yourself be pressured into applying for a job you don’t even want — and especially one where you’ll then feel obligated to leave the job you do like if you don’t get it.

You can tell your boss no. You can thank him for the vote of confidence, and tell him that the issue isn’t that you don’t want to compete — the issue is that, having spent considerable time thinking about it, you’ve realized you don’t want the mid-level promotion right now. You can tell him that what you want is to stay in your current job, improve your knowledge and skills, and be department go-to for training and development, with extensive subject knowledge. You can say you’re grateful for his support, but that you’re not going to throw your hat in the ring for a job that you don’t want right now, simply because it would look good.

Will your boss be disappointed that you’re not showing more competitive drive or ambition or so forth? Maybe! But that’s not the worst outcome in the world. It’s definitely a better outcome than you feeling obligated to leave a job you love.

Also, for the record: There is no unwritten rule that you have to leave your job if you’re passed over for a promotion twice. Sure, there are some situations where being passed over twice would send a clear signal that you’re not going to advance there, and that you should move on. But there are plenty of situations where that’s not the case — where the role just isn’t the right one, or you were good but someone else was better, and when it really doesn’t signal that you should leave. So if you wanted this promotion, I’d say you should go ahead and apply, knowing that you wouldn’t need to leave if you didn’t get it. But you don’t want it, so you shouldn’t apply regardless.

I do wonder if, while you don’t want the job itself, you do want the validation that comes from being promoted. That’s normal and natural to feel, but it’s a very bad reason to throw your hat in the ring for a job. The self-esteem boost from getting promoted is pretty short-lived, so you need to be excited about the prospect of what comes next: working 40+ hours a week for at least several years in that particular job.

As for the feedback that confused you after the last interview: It’s true that there are contradictory things there, but that’s because there were three people’s voices in the mix. It sounds like one favored you (your boss) and the other two favored Jane, and the feedback reflects that. It’s notable that none of the feedback you listed says that you wouldn’t be good at the job; it just says that Jane would be stronger at it … and that’s the reality that excellent candidates face when applying for jobs all the time. Sometimes there’s just someone who’s stronger. In your case, that someone happens to be a coworker who you have to see every day, and that makes it sting more — but it’s really no different than all the other times that someone is a very good candidate but is beaten out by someone who’s just a bit better. It doesn’t mean you suck, or that you’ll never succeed, or that your employer doesn’t value you, or that you should be embarrassed. It means you’re a normal human with your own combination of strengths and weaknesses who was up against another normal human with a different combination of strengths and weaknesses.

But clearly your employer does value you. Your boss, the person who probably has the most nuanced knowledge of your work, wanted to give you, not Jane, the temporary post last time. He was outvoted — but if you weren’t valued or if you sucked at what you do, he wouldn’t have been pushing for you. That indicates this is almost definitely a case of you being very good, maybe even excellent — and someone else very good or excellent just beating you out. That’s it.

None of this is anything to leave over. Talk to your boss so you don’t end up feeling like you have to.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. AnoninCA*

    OP, I’m so glad you’re seeking counseling! I think everyone could benefit from it, and it speaks so well for you that you’re willing to seek help becoming the best “you”. Alison’s advice is spot on. No need to give up a job your love, or to even feel compelled to do so. One thing my therapist is focusing on with me is my tendency to give too much power to other people. It sounds like maybe that might help you, as well. If you don’t want this position, you don’t have to apply for it, boss or not. That is your power, and I suspect, as Alison suggests, that a discussion with your boss will put you both on the same page.

  2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Oh, LW. Don’t resign over this. It’s so, so rare to find a job you love. You’ve placed an enormous amount of pressure on yourself. And so has your boss, unknowingly. If he supports you, you at least owe it to him to discuss how you feel. He clearly values you and will want to keep you around and happy (as much as feasible while at work).

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      This, this, this. OP, you have built up a lot of rules and ideas and assumptions and worries and expectations and what-ifs in your head, but they aren’t anywhere else (written or unwritten), and they aren’t all true. No one else is assuming that not getting the job is the same as failing, and no one else is overthinking this situation to this degree. But I really agree with Alison that … you don’t want the job, and for that reason alone you should not apply for it. All you have to say to your boss is that you’re happy where you are for the moment and really want to master a few more elements of your current role.

      (And for the love of Goddess, do not resign from your current job. No no no no. )

    2. QC*

      This, OP. I wish someone had given me this advice when I went through a similar situation a few years ago. I loved that job so much, but I did resign and I still regret it.

    3. CoveredInBees*

      I wonder if the boss has any idea of how pressured OP feels to apply when he might just trying to be supportive (regardless of where the disconnect is). In my first post-college job, my boss encouraged me very very strongly to apply for a position that I wasn’t really interested in. The interview went poorly and I didn’t get the job. It wasn’t the end of the world but a waste of time for all of us.

  3. ContentWrangler*

    Please, please take Alison’s advice and don’t apply for a position you don’t want. And most definitely don’t resign from a job you like out of misplaced embarrassment. You are clearly good at your job. Your boss wouldn’t be pushing for you if he didn’t think you were a strong employee (love of competition doesn’t make managers want mediocre employees to be promoted). Just tell your boss why you want to stay at your current job, and don’t make it about how you don’t think you’d get the promotion anyway. Otherwise your boss might think he needs to build up your confidence and convince you. You don’t want the job because it doesn’t line up with your current career goals – end of story.

    1. Prismatic Professional*

      This! You have a fantastic goal – to be the best at your position and known throughout the company as Someone Who Gets Stuff Done. Do not underestimate the power and political capital gained from being the best at your job. Plus – finding a job & boss that you like is super rare!

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        All of this, especially the last sentence. The last time I had that magical combination was four years ago when I was in a training program (which meant I ultimately had to leave it *sad*). I’ve been searching for that combo ever since and still haven’t found it *sigh.*

    2. zora*

      Yes, tell your boss and Be Very Specific about what you envision for yourself and what you want to specialize in, because that will help him understand you aren’t just being self-deprecating and need more confidence. It’s that you have thought this through and you really understand your goals and what you want to do.

  4. soupmonger*

    Brilliant advice from Alison. Please don’t feel in any way second-rate; you’re not. And please don’t go for this promotion!

  5. Observer*

    I’m going to agree with AnononCA.

    Another aspect of that is that not only are you worrying too much about what “everyone” will think about you, you are also WAY overstating the likely reaction of anyone who did think about it.

    Most people will NOT think twice about it – even people in your professional network. And even the people who DO think about it for some reason are not likely to see you as an irredeemable failure. Both this, and your “unwritten rule” about not being a fool are hyperbolic. That’s really unhealthy and creating a huge amount of unnecessary stress.

    I do think that if you explain to your boss what you wrote her about what you DO want to do, he’ll be much more accepting, and might give you some practical support. He clearly sees ambition and a “growth mindset” as valuable, and this would indicate to him that you do have those traits even though not in the exact manner he thought of.

    1. Clever Name*

      Yes, the thoughts of “what everyone else will think” stuck out to me as well. As I move through life, I’ve noticed that most people are focused on themselves (probably also worried what everyone else will think of them) and they really aren’t focusing on anyone else. And applying for a job/promotion and not getting it is a pretty normal part of life. It stinks, but it happens to everyone. I don’t think you’re doing as badly as you think, and I don’t think others are looking down on you.

    2. Wren*

      For sure! People spend most of their time thinking about themselves and worrying about their own problems. It’s unlikely they will think twice about this if they think of it at all. It’s a small lab, your coworker is considered the better option for this role, and you say you don’t want the role anyway. Your boss has your back and obviously wants you to succeed. It’s okay that his idea of success is different that yours. You will just need to talk to him about it, possibly more than once. If he’s even halfway reasonable he’ll understand.

      Don’t resign over this. It’s okay to have different aspirations than other people do. Really. You want to be Super Lab Tech #1 who is a vast and indispensable resource of knowledge and skills. That’s awesome! I worked with a woman like that, and oh my goodness I wouldn’t have been able to get projects done without her. She was amazing; she knew every quirk of every piece of equipment, knew not only “what” and “how” by “why” as well for procedures and could fix just about anything.

  6. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I don’t have anything to add, but I hope this story makes you feel better.

    I worked with a government employee, Bob, who had been there for 43 years in the health care field. He only had a college degree not related to his field and unlike the average expert in our line of work. In the early 1990s, Bob finally got promoted to a director role. The only reason he got that job is luck. Not many others had applied, the agency head was on his way out and didn’t care, and it was easier to appoint Bob than go through the job search. The thing to remember is that Bob didn’t get the job on his own merits because he wasn’t a very good worker. (He wasn’t a doer, which is a whole other kettle of drama.)

    For the next 20+ years (!), Bob would continue to apply for the position above his. He never got an interview. No one ever told him why because it was obvious, but he kept applying. Even though the people who got the job had field experience, licenses, grad degrees, etc. Bob never stopped applying because he sincerely thought he was a good candidate. I estimate he applied over a dozen times for that job.

    I’m telling you this because I’m touched by your letter! I wish Bob was more like you! I love that you’re so sensitive to maybe not being up to paar and wanting to remedy that. That’s so refreshing to see in a world full of bloviating, unproductive egomaniacs who manage to get promoted. Seeing your flaws will absolutely make you a better employee and person. Don’t be SO critical of yourself, but, honestly, your letter is so refreshing and humble. There really should be more people like you in this world.

    Oh and as for Bob? He eventually retired when an appointed official pushed him out for not being able to answer some very technical questions for that position.

  7. Jellydonutsandtea*

    I lost out on a job to a colleague (who was younger, more confident, better dressed, etc.) Was I disappointed? Yes. But that year I worked on myself. I sought out seminars that could help me build my expertise, I made an effort to interact with other departments, other roles that overlapped mine. My Jane just got promoted to a mid-level management spot. And good for her – it is what she was working towards. But I haven’t been standing still – while I can’t compete with her in her new role, I wouldn’t want to. I’ve developed skills that have taken me in a different direction. Sometimes you might start out on the same road, but you may end up in a completely different destination. Stop comparing yourself to the other traffic, just make sure that you are doing what interests you, that makes you stronger or plays to your strengths.

  8. Knowingbetterinhindsight*

    I once applied for a promotion, and, thankfully, I didn’t get it. I absolutely was not suited to the position, but I applied anyway because I thought I *had* to given my longevity/seniority at the institution. I berated myself for applying, knowing that I wasn’t suited. Please don’t apply just because you “ought” to. And please don’t quit.

  9. Sketchee*

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with failure. Failure is a possible result of trying. If you try, you might fail. That just means you did something amazing, you saw an opportunity to grow and tried for it.

    The particular combination of skills the company has decided for this job is arbitrary and some saw Jane as a fit. That job or its qualifications aren’t the best or a reflection on you.

    If you’re interested in a book about failure as a good thing, I recommend Mindset. It really has a lot of similar stories to yours. And amazing ways to think about them as positive learning opportunities.

  10. MLB*

    Also be sure the reasons you’re not applying lean more towards really and truly not wanting the job vs. not being able to handle failing again. You don’t want to regret not even giving it a shot.

  11. Decima Dewey*

    No such rule about not sticking around when you’ve failed. I failed as a branch manager in my system, taking a voluntary demotion before I was asked to demote. That was over two decades ago. I’m an acting branch manager now, until a new branch manager is promoted, and some higher ups wish I’d taken the test to be on the list (I’m good on deadlines and can keep the place open, although I don’t want to be a permanent manager). So don’t feel you’d have to leave if Jane is the choice again.

    1. Jennifer*

      I’ve applied for multiple jobs here and lost out every time to someone else in the office. There is always someone who is going to be better than you out there and you just have to accept that Jane is superior. That’s how life goes.
      However, I can’t get another job for anything, so it’d be killing myself to quit over losing out again. I just need to not apply for other jobs in this office. Which is probably no longer an issue anyway since I’ve lost out in all the areas I wanted to apply for :P Don’t quit your job unless you can get another elsewhere.

  12. Sal*

    The feedback from the deputy and the third senior seemed pretty harsh to me – insensitive at best. I know some people like and thrive on super direct, brutally honest feedback, but I think they could have given you more useful and tactful (while still true) feedback.

    1. Mike C.*

      Brutally honest feedback would have been, “She’s able to do twice the work you can with fewer screw ups”. From there, you can say, “ok, I need to be faster and more precise”. What the OP got was a bunch of ill thought out garbage.

    2. cutie honey*

      this! each comment was both mean and meaningless. she’d “blow [OP] out of the water”? what exactly is OP supposed to do about that, and why would you say that unless to make someone feel bad?

      1. GG Two shoes*

        I really wonder if OP is exaggerating this… maybe they said something nicer and this is how OP is interpreting it. OP seems to have some really damaging self-talk, I wouldn’t be surprised if the comments were internalized differently than they were actually said.

        1. Wren*

          I have a tendency to do that. Not remember the actual words but remember tone, nonverbal cues, or how I felt hearing the words. It’s bitten me in the butt many times, especially with people who *do* remember conversations words for word. However, it’s also been good because sometimes the words themselves aren’t so important but the context surrounding them is. Basically, it’s something to be aware of, and realize that you do it, and filter memories through that lens. This is a big reason I prefer to do things in writing whenever possible.

      2. Rana*

        I interpreted it as “We thought before the interview that Coworker would completely out-perform OP, but she didn’t. OP did a lot better than we thought.”

        So it’s a compliment, sort of, but not one you can really use, except to maybe ask why the OP previously came off as less qualified than they actually are.

    3. SarahTheEntwife*

      I’m wondering if these are exact quotes or the LW paraphrasing. If they’re close to exact than I agree, they’re pretty tactless and unhelpful.

    4. Wendy Anne*

      ..when I asked whether I did anything better than Jane…

      But what’s a truthful *and* tactful way to answer a question like this when the answer is no?

      1. DCompliance*

        I believe OP asked said she asked for constructive feedback from the members of the panel, not if she had done better than Jane.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            And to be honest it’s a pretty weird question to ask to the people who interviewed you that puts them in a very awkward position. It would be pretty rude of them to badmouth another candidate to you which is kind of what she asked them to do here.

      2. Lara*

        You could say “You both have great qualities but I feel Jane is more suited for the position.”

        Or pretty much anything except what deputy said.

        1. another Liz*

          Could be Jane was slightly better on all things quantifiable by hard numbers. So maybe she is better at everything, doesn’t make OP inadequate.
          Soft skills can’t be objectively measured, which is where OP’s boss’s subjective analysis comes in. For lab types, it’s hard to judge things which can only be subjectively measured.

    5. Lara*

      I just thought it was incredibly rude. As in, the boss should be shutting it down and having serious words level of rude.

      1. gmg22*

        It’s a tough one, because Allison’s advice to the OP is good in its focus on “Here’s why I feel like I’m a better fit in the job I already have and want to go on making the most of that.” But if the framing here is indeed objectively what these other people said to her, then yeah, that’s pretty damn insensitive stuff for colleagues to say to each other, and I agree that the boss ought to know about it, somehow, at some point. Just not sure that OP would be served best by getting into that right away as part of the larger conversation about her being happier where she is.

        1. Lara*

          On reflection, you’re right and that makes perfect sense. Just that if they said that verbatim then it seemed utterly outrageous.

    6. Mb13*

      Considering that by Op’s own words her insecurities are a big part of her thought process and she over estimates what other expect of her (i.e. quit your job if you dont get the promotion) I have a nagging succptetions that what the two interviewers told her wasn’t “Jane is better than you” but the op interpreted it that way.

    7. Jr Lab Tech*

      OP here, hoping to address everything in Sal’s comment and in the comment chain:

      Long story short: both quotes are verbatim.

      The conversation the deputy and I happened about ten days after the interview, and I should have declined his offer of feedback that day because I wasn’t up to hearing what he had to say. I shouldn’t have asked the question, and I regret it now. The justification I had, and it’s not a great one, was that I felt so awful at the time that I just needed one thing to hang on to. There had been a cumulative effect of being unsuccessful, then hearing people discuss it when they thought I was out of earshot, then having department colleagues people tell me “she ticks a lot of boxes” and “it’s hard when a candidate has that much extra than you”. They’re entitled to their opinions – things weren’t said with malice. I didn’t feel like I was being attacked, but I felt like “what about me?!” I’d gone through the process and all I got was to feel awful. “Don’t I do anything good?” was the thinking. I just wanted to hear that I was able to outdo her at something. If they tell me I’m really good at x, then I can concentrate on being good at x, that it’s something that they want me around for. Like I said, it’s not a great justification for it, but it’s how I was feeling.

      After six months of counselling, I am much better at recognising when my emotions are too much, when the negativity in my head is out of control. Very often, I can’t do anything about it, but I also know not to act on it either. If I had my time over, I would have waited a little longer for feedback. I wasn’t in the best state to receive it, and hey, I’m a bit wiser now. The downside is that I haven’t forgotten it. Had a bad day? Jane would have been better at it. Had an outstanding day? Jane would have been better at it. It kind of robs the achievement out of things for me, and I sort of feel like my confidence is now ‘capped’, because, whatever I do, it won’t be as good as her. (Yes, negative self-talk. I know. I’m working on it.)

      As for the department senior, is tactless at the best of times. He started by complimenting my presentation, told me that my answers weren’t in-depth enough for him and finished up with “We all thought she’d do better than you. I thought she’d blow you out of the water, and her answers were just…meh.” I can’t really do anything about that bit. It just hurt, and it hurt enough that the next day, I decided to contact a counsellor. In a way, he did me a favour. However, how do you even make yourself ‘unsinkable’, when you don’t know what to fix?

      I hope all this make sense. I am grateful to everyone for their comments and insights. I’ve had a pretty good day at work today, and you guys have been a huge part of that, so thank you.

      1. Lara*

        Thanks for the update OP, and well done on getting a counsellor. I’m glad things are going better for you.

  13. Kendra Graham*

    For some reason, this question reminds me of Ron’s experience with Quidditch – he gets worked up about how he’s not very good, and even tries to resign several times. But he’s actually very good, and does fantastically well when he’s not nervous! In sixth year he worries about not being as good as Cormac McLaggen, but even though Cormac is objectively better everyone would rather have Ron because he’s nicer.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Also, Ron’s soft skills smash Cormac’s. That matters on a team, and might be part of what OP’s supervisor sees in her.

      1. Parenthetically*

        Absolutely. His humility and willingness to work hard as part of a team are incredible assets.

    2. EddieSherbert*

      not only is this comment fun and nerdy, it has an excellent point about soft skills (which people sometimes forget to include when they think of what’s needed for a job).

    3. Weasley is our King!*

      Weasley is our King!
      Weasley is our King!
      He never lets the quaffle in!
      Weasley is our King!

    4. Coywolf*

      I’m going to have to reread all of the Harry Potter books because I can never remember all of these details!

  14. Stormy*

    LW, are you familiar with the concept of talent stacking?

    The basic idea is that instead of trying to claw your way to being Employee #1 at The Thing You Do, you develop a series of interlocking talents, the sum of which are uncommon and desirable.

    I will never be the Absolute Top Llama Dance Trainer. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for me to be a good llama dance trainer who also knows how to troubleshoot llama dance injuries, help develop llama tap shoes, and write a good llama dance routine.

    I encourage you to research this concept, because “gold medal or bust” is not a sustainable career philosophy.

    1. TeacherNerd*

      Oh, I like this. This wasn’t something that was ever presented to me as A Thing, but through a weird combination of personal circumstance and the 2007 economic crash, I wound up developing an unusual skill set (unique in many cases), and that’s been tremendously beneficial, professionally speaking, in a way that I didn’t know would happen.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        I was an economics major, and having a minor in creative writing was something I just did for fun but it ended up being a real asset! It was an unusual combination (my intermediate creative writing teacher liked to complain to us about his intro class and said he wished he could ban econ majors, and he was so surprised when I said hey man I’m an econ major!) and it helped me stand out in my field.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I like this comment a lot.

      OP, I have always worked in places where there were a dozen people doing the same job I had. So how to I make myself stand out? I would look around to see what needed to be done that everyone was ignoring. (There are always these things, I promise.) I would take on those ignored tasks and knock them out of the park. Many times I was able to change the procedure to make the task more manageable. I carved out my own little square foot of space.

      The other thing I did was I decided to become a sponge who soaks up the best of the best around me. It’s funny, in the process of copying the best ideas, I found ways to make some of those ideas even better. I did not do it in a competitive manner. I just did it for me, for my own workload and my own responsibilities. This is an approach you can take home with you and use in your personal life. Soak up the best ideas around you and as you go see if you can modify those ideas to be even better. This is great stuff because it takes your mind off of How Great The Other Person Is Doing and makes you focus on what YOU are doing. Instead of competing with a cohort the competition is between Yesterday’s You and Today’s You.
      I can tell you right now, I would not win against Jane. The primary reason is that I have no idea what she will come up with next. I would end up chasing her from thing to thing to thing, trying to keep up. I feel defeated JUST thinking about this.
      You have one heck of a boss, OP. You will go a long way before you will find another boss like that. Do as Alison says and think very carefully here.

    3. Midwest*

      Oh wow, this is an excellent analogy. I sort of did this unwittingly, and it’s absolutely served my career well. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now if I’d chosen to focus on The One Thing. Am I gold-medal perfect at one thing? No. But I’m bronze-medal excellent at five things.

  15. Crystal*

    Oh, OP! “I think I would just feel obliged to resign. I have a vague notion that there’s an unwritten rule of the working world that only fools stay when they’ve failed more than once, and I don’t want to be a fool. I also worry that everyone would perceive me as a failure forever, and that I couldn’t ever redeem myself after failing a second time.” This breaks my heart and is 100% NOT TRUE. This is not a thing.

    1. Student*

      In my job, physics, if you never fail, it means you aren’t taking enough risks. I’ve had bosses tell me that if I never break anything in the lab, then I’m not trying hard enough – and I tell this to people who work under me, now. I’d expect many of my peers to have failed many, many times in their jobs and in getting promotions.

      Failure is a learning experience. It is like eating your vegetables before you eat dessert. It’s unpleasant, but ultimately it helps you grow in a positive way (if you learn from it).

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Totally agree. I’m in a STEM field also and if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. It is very freeing to get to the point where you are able to take a look at your own failures and learn from them without letting them get to you.

    2. Elemeno P.*


      I’m in a field with THOUSANDS of entry-level positions and a handful of mid-level stepping up points. I applied for a ton of mid-level stepping up points until I finally got lucky and had the exact set of skills needed for one of them. I went to a LOT of interviews (for positions with hundreds of other applicants) and was not chosen. Competition was fierce, and even though I was really good at Skill A, there were people who were better at Skill A. Nobody thought less of me or the hundreds of other people who didn’t make the cut; we tried, and that’s okay! It still hurt my feelings not to be chosen, but I found the right position eventually.

      If you don’t want the job, that’s okay! But nobody will think less of you for trying if you DO want it.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I was glad Alison immediately zeroed in on that line, answering my “What now?”

      OP, you should integrate Elemeno’s advice with Stormy’s above–your focus on mastering multiple skills is the right instinct.

    4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      It reminds me of something said a lot back when I was working with horses — “you’re not a real rider until you fall off and get back on.”

      At my barn, we would celebrate the first time someone went off a horse (assuming they weren’t injured). It was a rite of passage! Sure, it’s kind of a scary one, and not a lot of fun when it happens to you, but giving it a positive spin made it a lot easier to pick yourself out of the dirt, accept the congratulations, and get right back in the saddle.

      OP, you fell off, and honestly pretty hard — but you gotta get back up and keep on going. Everyone fails sometimes. Everyone., no exceptions.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        The parent of a rider and nonrider swore it was easier to teach the first to drive, because they had an intuitive understanding of the momentum of heavy objects.

        1. Meika Weiss*

          Ooo, that’s really interesting. Thinking there might need to be some riding lessons in my kids’ futures….

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Hah! I wish someone had told me that when I learned to drive. I was petrified of cars and drove like a mouse for the first couple years — but much better than driving like a lunatic! A little reassurance on the lines of “just think of it as a really big, really dumb horse” might have put me at ease.

    5. This Daydreamer*

      I would think most of us have been passed over for several promotions. There are always more applicants than positions.

    6. gmg22*

      To be thorough on this topic, though, I would note that there ARE a few career niches where it is kind of a thing — big consulting firms, university profs trying to get tenure, the military or the State Department, etc. I wonder whether the LW has experience with important people in her life being in that kind of career and facing that “up or out” requirement, and if so whether that is affecting her view here.

  16. I'm A Little TeaPot*

    OP, I’m 10 years into a field where it’s rare for people to stay in the field and not move into management after 5-6 years. I’m not management, and I have no interest in becoming it. It’s ok to follow your own path!

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      Seconding that 1,000%. No management interest here either in my current career. Those days are behind me. I’m content to keep doing this job for quite a while longer.

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*


        I don’t want to be a manager. I don’t want that corner office. And that’s perfectly okay. I like where I’m at. I like learning all there is about my position. There isn’t one measure for success. The trick is to finding *yours*.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      People who really know themselves and know what they want have the envy of everyone else is who is pushing too hard and trying too hard.

  17. DCompliance*

    “I also worry that everyone would perceive me as a failure forever, and that I couldn’t ever redeem myself after failing a second time.”

    All I can say is that I have been there. I have had those same fears and worries. I have learned along the way that we can be way harder on ourselves then other people. I wish you a lot of luck and just for the record, I don’t see you as a failure.

    1. essEss*

      Most of the time, I don’t know who in my company has applied for promotions. Normally this would be a private matter known only to you, your boss, and the interviewers so most people wouldn’t know whether you ‘failed’ the interview. And even if you don’t get it, they don’t know if you ‘failed’, or you were a close second that was just barely beaten out.

  18. LiberryPie*

    Do you think it’s possible that you are the kind of person others think well of once they get to know you whereas Jane looks more polished or impressive on the surface? Given that your boss prefers you, whereas the two who don’t know you as well prefer Jane, I wonder if you are just someone who doesn’t make a splash but proves yourself quietly over time. I’m like that, and it can be hard when I’m new at a job to remind myself that eventually people will see my strengths. It helps, in my experience, to know that you’re just one of those people, and it’s not bad.

    1. Former Retail Manager*

      I hadn’t thought of this, but may be a factor. I’m at an organization in which it’s not uncommon for people to brag themselves into promotions…LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!!….when in fact these people aren’t particularly great at the job once you really delve into their work, but on the surface, it looks good and they generate numbers (which is what management really wants) and they speak highly of themselves to anyone who will listen, including their peers. All impressive on the surface, but disappointing later down the line.

  19. SL #2*

    OP, I’m glad you’re seeking out counseling, because it’s really not a logical jump for you to quit your job because you didn’t get a promotion that you didn’t want in the first place. Do not do that (unless you truly feel like you’ve learned all you can from your position; it seems like you haven’t yet). It’s an extreme reaction and your higher-ups are also going to view it as an extreme reaction, like you’ve decided to blow up the entire hillside just because there’s a small rock in your way.

    You need to sit down with your boss and discuss your desired career path, and what sort of professional development opportunities you’d like that aren’t this promotion. You say he thinks competition is good for the soul. It’s good for some people’s souls, but not for others. He probably sees some potential in you and he thinks you want to pursue Direction A and wants to help you and move those rocks out of your way, when really, what you want is Direction B with different kinds of rocks. Having the conversation about it is only going to help you in the long run.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      With a boss like that I think I would ask where he saw my biggest opportunities for success. This boss is seeing something in you that I think you are not even sure what he sees, OP. Ask him.

  20. nnn*

    I get the impression that OP feels that they are not good enough if Jane is better than them. That’s simply not true. OP can be good enough, and Jane can be better. OP can be outstanding, and Jane can be slightly more outstanding. If someone runs faster than Usain Bolt, that doesn’t mean that Usain Bolt is slow. You can still be a valued employee if you aren’t the best or don’t get a promotion – organizations need lots and lots of valued employees.

    Also, another option available to OP is to apply for the promotion with the expectation that you won’t get it, just to gain more interview experience. Even if Jane gets this promotion, you’ll have been through the interview twice and will have been able to get feedback on it twice (I’m assuming that since you’ve asked for feedback before, you’ll be able to do so again). Then, with Jane promoted out of the way, you can be the best junior technician and, when you’re ready, be able to ace the interview for the next available promotion to mid-level.

    1. calonkat*

      I second loving the Usain Bolt comparison, but I’d flip it, actually. Usain Bolt beats many, many people. That does not mean that any of those people aren’t really, REALLY fast!

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        It was the 2008 Olympics, I believe. Anyway. I remember watching an interview with one of the swimmers and he said that they were all talking about how they were racing for second because Michael Phelps was in the pool. And, even though I’m not a swimmer, it stuck with me. There is no shame in not being first.

        1. Observer*

          There is no shame in not being first.

          Unless you have a “Tiger Mom”.

          To be honest, the OP’s reaction makes me think of that mind set. But this line is so much more useful.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            OP, don’t be your own Tiger Mom. There are many people out there who cannot do what you do. I am probably one of them.

  21. Akcipitrokulo*

    Agreeing with all above you wouldn’t have to resign at all! You are valued and your boss believes you to be an asset. That’s a lot – and trust your boss to be competent! He knows his job. He knows you. He values you. Trust his judgement.

    And with the interview… Jane sounds very impressive… and you came within a hair’s breadth of getting the job. OK, the job would have been nicer, but this says to me that you are really good too.

    Talking to your boss honestly about this will probably help a great deal. Then even if you disagree on your next move, you are both on same page.

    Good luck!

  22. Former Retail Manager*

    Not much to add to Alison’s great response, except to say what others have already said…don’t beat yourself up too badly. You’ve unfortunately found yourself working with a unicorn, someone better than you at virtually all aspects of the job. Rest assured, this is not a frequent scenario for most people and one that you may never encounter again.

    My own Jane story…..It happened to me with someone who came on with me about 8 years ago. We are both considered excellent employees, but she is better than me at virtually all aspects of this job. I deliberately didn’t apply for a promotion a few years back because I knew that I would be competing against her. Fast forward to now, she got that position and has now moved to a different position in a different division within the organization and is the happiest she has ever been and I no longer have to compete against her (and I later got a promotion as well). The hidden silver lining to Jane potentially getting the gig is that she will no longer be your competition nor will anyone be able to compare the two of you any longer. But above all, don’t feel forced into applying for jobs you don’t want because you think you’re supposed to. Take Alison’s advice, improve in areas that are important to you, and be the best that you can be. Best of luck!

  23. nonymous*

    I worked in a lab that had an active training ladder. We would hire people (usually fresh out of college, but occasionally individuals who had relocated midlife from other countries) and they would spend a year or so doing specimen receiving as a technician before being eligible for training into the technologist position.

    However, there were also a few technicians who weren’t on the promotion ladder. These were people who preferred 2nd shift for personal reasons, or who did not have the academic coursework to qualify for the higher paid positions. These folks were invaluable!! They gave the lab stability in an area that was otherwise a revolving door, they acted as trainers and mentors for staff new to the organization, they took on the admin duties of making sure SOPs and target inventory levels were appropriate. They weren’t the ones always doing inventory, but they were the ones that recommended we decrease stock levels of latex gloves in favor of nitrile, etc. If you want your position to grow, but like the duties and role you’re in, I’d suggest working with your boss to formalize the value you add in an administrative capacity. This will help him politically as well, because he will be managing a position that is considered fundamental.

    Don’t underestimate being the rote and routine person in the lab. If you can do this while being a friendly and accommodating person, I’d probably nominate you for lab person of year every time. The amount of whinging from technologists when the technicians weren’t around to check in samples was auh-mazing. Use that kind of stuff to your advantage.

    1. Ex-lab person*

      There is definitely something to be said for being a stable and dependable person in an otherwise “revolving door” type of role. OP mentions wanting to be a go-to person, so just gaining more experience and knowledge in the current role sounds like it would be more interesting than taking on something different. Some other options for building skills and knowledge:

      -Become an SOP master. I don’t know how many times I’ve read an SOP only to find that I’ve been doing X Test One Way the whole time because that’s the way Bob trained me, and the way Jane had trained Bob, all the way back for years…only to find out we really could be doing it This Other Way that makes the job easier/better.

      -Become a mechanical trouble-shooting expert. Do you have equipment that fails frequently? (I’m guessing if “Sysmex” or “Atlas” are in your lab, the answer is yes.) Be the one who fixes the problem (including calling support, if necessary) so you build a knowledge base around common issues and solutions.

      -Become the QC expert. This may not be possible depending on how/when QC is done, but if this interests you, offer to do more of it!

      -Learn the science behind what you do. If there is an expectation for procedural competence without knowledge of underlying principles, then take the initiative to learn them!

      And most importantly, it sounds like your boss really believes in you. Use him as a resource to help guide you in making improvements if you’re not sure how.

      1. The OG Anonsie*

        Adding to this list, be the person that the folks outside the lab can trust. A lot of hospital labs are like black holes, and when you need to get specimens or results in and out it’s often an onerous and stressful process. If there even is a process! A few times I’ve worked with labs that had some assistant or tech here or there who kept an eye on everything, who you could contact to track down information or help you get something sorted out. All of those folks have spread their good reputations far and wide by breaking that little barrier down .

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          THIS, my lord. Even beyond labs — a lot of back-office departments in a corporate setting can be like this, too (for those who aren’t OP but are in a similar boat) and being The Go-To Person will make you a quiet rockstar.

  24. ENFP in Texas*

    “I think I would just feel obliged to resign. I have a vague notion that there’s an unwritten rule of the working world that only fools stay when they’ve failed more than once, and I don’t want to be a fool.”

    I sincerely hope you speak with your therapist about this internal belief. I say “internal” because it is 100% NOT true, and you should not let some incorrect “vague notion” about an “unwritten rule” make you leave a job you love.

    People fail at things. It’s part of life. Whether it’s going for a promotion or getting published or trying a new way of doing something or any of a million other things in the working world – failure happens.

    Heck, even in baseball the batter gets at least three strikes… ;)

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Actually this sounds like advice my parents would give me. It would be an extension of “The Man is out to screw you and everyone else” advice that they leaned toward. At best it is faulty logic. At worst it is self-defeating logic, because by subscribing to this type of thinking one can make a lot of judgement calls that end up being shots to the foot.
      You have go situation by situation.
      You know, OP, one of the emptiest feelings a person can have is when they realize they have no goals. It can feel like we have nothing on the inside, we are rudderless. So. Part of your solution here maybe to think about goals.

  25. Student*

    OP, it sure sounds like you personally think your co-worker is a better candidate for the job than you are. That’s perfectly normal and OK to feel. Given everything else you’ve written about yourself and your feelings towards this job, maybe you should listen to your own gut telling you that it’s better if you stay where you are for the moment and your co-worker gets promoted instead. That doesn’t mean you never go for a similar promotion again; it just means that it’s not the time and the position for you right now.

    If you think your talented colleague could be an ally to you professionally if she was slightly senior to you (like maybe coaching you on some of these things where you feel she’s better at the job than you), then just tell your boss that you think she’d be the better candidate for this role.

    Recognizing and promoting someone else’s talent can be a great way to network and build a management structure that supports you and values you. It takes maturity and self-awareness to recognize you aren’t the best choice for every job you are eligible for. I’ve done that myself – I strongly encouraged a peer to apply for a job managing me, because I felt he’d be better at that role than I would, but also that having him as a manager would ultimately be beneficial to me, too. It worked out great for me.

  26. Stacy*

    I have a happy ending story that sounds similar to your situation.

    One of my former employees applied for a position at my level twice. He was always so good at his current job and one of the go-to people, but he just was not cut for this management job. He definitely felt confused and discouraged after being rejected twice. He just wanted a promotion, but he didn’t want THAT job.

    After the second rejection happened, his perfect position was created and that’s what he does now. He is now my peer and he’s much happier in this than if he had gotten the job he didn’t want.

  27. YarnOwl*

    For what it’s worth OP, I think you are doing yourself a serious disservice in thinking about not getting the promotion as “failing” at something. Clearly your boss values you, you love your job, and you want to be a great employee. By most people’s metrics, those things equal being a successful employee. It definitely sucks to get passed over like that, but you’re not a failure because of it!

    1. lulu*

      Yes! your wording threw me off actually: “We both applied, and I was unsuccessful.” instead of we both applied and they selected her. Not everything is about losing. You had a job you like before, and you still do, and you happen to be very good at it.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yes! I was surprised not to see more comments along this line. There were two internal candidates for the job and one of them was always going to not get it. I would not consider that a failure. Especially since it’s not really even a job you want!

      And the fact that the person who knows you and Jane better would have picked you says volumes. You should really take that to heart. The other votes only mattered for getting the job. But your boss is the one you need to value you and he clearly does!

  28. Auri*

    I don’t know if this helps you OP, but if you really aren’t interested in the position then it is always okay to not apply. I recently had an experience in my job where my manager was promoted leaving that position open. Everyone expected me to apply, encouraged me to apply, and even told me that not applying might look bad to our director (like I’m not interested in development). But, on consideration, I really didn’t want that job at that time and it didn’t seem like a good use of anyone’s time or resources to go through the process. So I talked to the director and just told her that while I’m excited about future advancement opportunities and definitely want to continue to grow and develop that I just didn’t feel like this was the right job at the right time for me or the company. As it turned out she thanked me for my thoughtful approach, involved me in the interview process more than she would have if I were applying, and has continued to talk to me about future opportunities and professional development for when I am ready for the next level. And we hired someone who will excel in that role and I’m excited to work with.

    Obviously our situations are different, but don’t be afraid that saying “not right now” means “no forever” or “I have to move on from a job I enjoy”. I wish you the best and hope that you have a positive outcome!

  29. ThursdaysGeek*

    Don’t compare yourself to Jane – compare yourself to your self of the past. That’s what really matters. You’ll always find someone better than you at some things (and always find someone not as good, too). But if you’re improving, that matters a lot more than if you are better than someone else. Maybe that means that Jane will always be higher than you are in this company. But if you’re getting better, then you are successful too.

  30. Augusta Sugarbean*

    I’m wondering if the LW is ex-military or comes from a military family. In the service, if a person gets passed over for promotion more than a couple of times, they often don’t get re-upped. That happened to me and may have to some family members of mine. As commenters have been saying, this isn’t generally the case in the civilian world.

  31. Em Too*

    So I work for a large company. When a promotion opens up, there’s often 7 or 8 people who are good enough to move up a level, and they all apply. Some people get a post after 2 or 3 attempts, others get rejected 8 or 9 times. Some of the more, erm, self-confident types may apply to more than that before they are the best person for a particular post. And it’s fine. It says very little about their performance in their current job. And I can promise you no-one sees them as failures.

  32. Luna*

    Hi OP, Alison’s point about wanting the validation that comes from being promoted really struck me. Providing validation to good employees is really important, and seems to be something that even the best managers often struggle with or overlook. It’s definitely a bad reason to apply for a job that you don’t want, but it might help to think about what other things could help you feel validated and if any of those are reasonable requests to make of your manager instead. Maybe it’s getting a raise, or getting to help with certain projects that you have an interest in, or maybe getting to take extra training classes, etc.

  33. Espeon*

    LW you’ve had plenty of great advice here already, so I’ll just chip-in that I’ve just turned down applying for (what everyone else considers to be) a promotion as well. My manager, and his manager, really wanted me to go for it (as much as they love my working for them!), and yeah, to them my reasons aren’t what they’d choose but, I’m not them!

    I believe I would’ve got the job, and I know I could excel at it – but I just didn’t want to! A lot more stress for not a lot more money in an unknown department, when I have a job I enjoy with people I like overall and enough money? No thanks! I’m not a high-earner, but enough is *enough*.

    Contentment is key, LW, you stick with what makes you happy, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.

    1. Cassandra*

      This. Not long after I started my present position, I was asked whether I would be interested in a specific leadership position when its current tenant retires.

      Partly because I had just come from Toxic Ex-Job, I took this as personal validation and eagerly agreed. On sober reflection, however, I realized that I would have to change my approach to a lot of things in ways I don’t like and that I believe actually damage my value to my workplace. So when the subject came up again, I begged off.

      I’m not sorry in the least. I get to keep doing the great things I’m doing, and when Current Leadership Position Tenant retires, someone who is not me will step up and do fine.

      If this sounds like what you want out of life, go for it.

  34. Anon Pixie*


    I was passed over for promotion four times in five years, in a job I didn’t love but liked enough. You do not need to resign if you aren’t promoted after so long a period. You definitely do not need to apply to anything if you like where you are now. I think your goal sounds perfectly admirable. 100% do not feel like you must do anything.

    YMMV, but try to take your boss suggesting you throw your hat into the ring for this position as a kind of compliment. Your boss does want you to succeed and thinks well of you, and that’s an important thing for you to remember, even if they’re not showing it in the best of ways.

  35. Heather Chandler*

    I can’t believe more people aren’t mentioning how rude that feedback was! “Sometimes in life people are better than us at everything” sounds like something a rich jerk in an ‘80s movie would say. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the panel members’ opinions.

    1. Lynca*

      Agreed. I can’t believe they thought that was professional. I would have been mortified if a hiring panel member gave that kind of feedback to someone. I’ve worked in labs where soft skills were lacking but that delivery is pretty rough.

    2. BadPlanning*

      The best light I can put it in is that they were on the spot and didn’t have a concrete answer so this stupid answer came out. Like Jane is just better at public/interview speaking, but the answers are the same…so he couldn’t say Jane’s lab technique is better. Or Jane has published more.

    3. Sal*

      Ya, I mentioned that upthread. It’s rude and it’s not at al helpful – doesn’t tell OP what they do well, where they could improve, etc. A VERY generous reading of the “some people in life” one could be they were trying to support OP (although I don’t personally think so, it sounds like they were just being a jerk). Like, “there are always going to be people that are better at things than you, and there are always going to be people that are worse at things than you”. But they were crucially missing the “there will always be worse” part. And the fact that they said some people are better at EVERYTHING?! It’s pretty messed up.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      It sounds like it comes from a person who is not familiar with OP’s work the way the boss is. That is why the generality rather than useful information.

      OP, I would like to point out that your boss got overruled. He wanted you and instead he has someone else. He’s not really happy about that, but he can’t say too much.

    5. chnellociraptor*

      Interesting, I didn’t interpret it that way! It’s a pretty common platitude to say, “No matter how good you get at something, there will always be someone better.” It’s another way of saying, “Don’t get fixated on being the best, just focusing on being YOUR best.”

  36. Bookworm*

    I’m not sure why you would feel pressure to resign, especially if your boss was supportive. If your boss is willing to have your back and you don’t want to apply, don’t. Your boss may have just been trying to be encouraging in light of the other feedback.

    I’ve been in a position where I was passed over for a promotion (it was different from your situation though: it was retail, the department was looking for things that I just couldn’t provide and in retrospect I may have been pushed as a candidate against that department’s will and then the person they picked ended up flaming out spectacularly, oops). I was asked to re-apply after the initial debacle and was recommended for other promotions but eventually decided to leave on my own. But they never made me feel like they were trying to get rid of me or that I *should* go.

    This may not apply to you but you may be reading too much into the interview (and they didn’t do you any favors as to how they proceeded!). It’s up to you if you want to leave, since it’s not necessarily uncommon for people to do so if they get passed over for a promotion but it doesn’t necessarily seem like they’re trying to push you out. Good luck!

  37. NW Mossy*

    It is incredibly common at my org for employees to take multiple shots at promotions before landing them – just about every manager here who’s home-grown (as opposed to hired in as a manager from outside) has a few thanks-but-no-thanks in their history. I’ve got some, and it definitely burned at first to see others rise faster than me.

    Ultimately, though, I’m glad my path has been winding and slower, for many reasons. The transition to this level was easier because my skills and mindset changed. I gave more weight to who I’d be reporting to, not just the role by itself. I’ve gotten a lot better at keeping my chill when things are hard. Now, I know that I’ll be able to identify when I’m truly ready for a director role and be able to aim for the one where I can not just succeed but thrive.

    OP, you’ve got such a good insight in this concept of excelling where you are – it’s a place you’ll find yourself many times in your career. Sometimes it’s not about what’s next but what’s now, and the ability to set your focus in a place that meets you where you are is a skill that will serve you well. You can do this!

  38. Kelly White*

    OP- back a few years ago I worked in a very busy department that got decimated- there were 5 of us when I started – 4 workers (of which I was one), and our Team lead. In the span of about 8 months, we ended up being a department of 2. Me and a co-worker.
    We handled it. We were both pretty good at our jobs, and had been there quite a while and were very supportive of each other.
    Management approached both of us (separately) about applying for the team lead position (more than once). They were ASTONISHED that neither of us wanted it. We liked what we did, we were good at it, we didn’t want to be Leads and give that up. We kept the department running until they could get us re-staffed and we did get a new Team Lead (whom we trained).
    My point is, that, it’s fine to be happy where you are. I think there is often a lot of pressure to make people feel like they should be more ambitious. But, if you like what you are doing, and are satisfied, that is a very good thing!

  39. Jenn*

    OP, I chased promotions for some of the reasons you’ve outlined here – mostly that I did not feel like A Good Enough Person if I was not getting promoted.

    Here’s what happened: I liked my job! But I needed the shiny validation. I was promoted and promoted and promoted into roles that were less and less right for me, with a string of about three of them over 5 years while everyone else around me was laid off. Those promotions landed me into a job that was so wrong for me that my mental and physical health took a hit after 3 years of fighting my way through every day.

    _Luckily_ I was finally laid off (super common in that industry) and ended up in a role that was an individual contributor role and not on the senior management track. I loved rediscovering how much I enjoy being the person that actually does the work. I had ended up in the wrong end of the field (more glitter than growth) and this year I took a much less prestigious job for less money in a small business and I am starting to feel like…my real self again.

    I get calls from my old industry asking for me to come back, and I honestly think part of it is because I radiate my old original enthusiasm.

    When your esteem is coming from a ladder of promotions or gold-star reviews, you can end up really outside of what gives you a great feeling at the end of the day. It sounds like you actually know what would give you that feeling. Don’t be afraid to go for it, where “it” is work that satisfies you!

  40. CM*

    OP, it’s not clear to me whether your request for feedback was framed as “Why is Jane better than me” or if the feedback you got was focused on Jane. Either way, what will help you is not comparisons to Jane, it’s ways that you can improve or be more valuable to your organization. If you’re the one saying “Why Jane?” then change that question to “What do you think I should work on?” If they’re the ones saying, “Sorry, Jane is just a rock star,” then shift the conversation and say, “Okay, but I’m really interested in improving. Is there an area where you think I should learn or could do better?”

  41. Slow Gin Lizz*

    OP, don’t make the mistakes I made when I was younger, that you should apply for All the Jobs simply because other people want you to! I used to apply for jobs that I was unsuited for because I was flattered that someone thought I would be good at them. I applied, got the jobs (not a lot of competition in that field), took the jobs, and was *miserable* because I was, as stated previously, unsuited for them. I did this at least two or three times when I was in that field. From this personal experience and from reading AAM I’ve learned that it’s perfectly okay to say “No thanks” when someone asks if you’re interested in a job.

    You can still feel flattered by the thought that your manager thinks you’d be great in the new position without feeling the pressure to actually apply for and accept the position. Good luck!

  42. A. Ham*

    Did you genuinely want the job the first time around, or did you feel pressured to apply that time too? If you did genuinely want it, what changed? Besides the (understandable) blow of not getting it?
    I have, in multiple situations in my life, been that person that convinced myself that I didn’t want something because it hurt less than admitting that I did want it but then failing. It was just a defense mechanism, and I regret it now.
    My apologies if I am projecting and reading way too much into what you said in your letter. If you honestly don’t want the job then you shouldn’t apply. But if deep down you DO want it, then try not to worry about Jane and please go for it (easier said than done, i know!).

  43. Jennifer*

    Your boss may consider you equal to Jane, but the other people don’t feel that you are equal. There’s your answer there.
    I think you should tell your boss that you really don’t want to apply for the job, especially if Jane is a rock star. The “competition” depresses you and hurts your feelings, you don’t want the job anyway, and even if he thinks you two are equal, others don’t feel the same. Let her get the job so you don’t have to always be compared to her any more.

  44. BadPlanning*

    A good boss will want you to “move up” and not get stuck and frustrated. But if you’re enjoying your role, then you’re not stuck and not frustrated.

    I once asked to move internally (which is a semi formal process at my job), failed to get the job and stayed in my department and kept working. I was concerned that I’d be seen negatively or pushed out — but honestly, at the end of the day, they were happy to keep me and not have to train someone new.

  45. tamarack and fireweed*

    Here’s what I want to say to the OP:

    Friend, don’t quit your job over that! Yes, failure hurts, but it’s something we all need to learn to deal with. I first experienced serious failure (the kind where you fail at something you really care about and think you SHOULD be good at) in my mid to late 20s, and that was way too late: I wish I’d have learned how to handle myself and my feelings 10 years earlier. (And yeah, I can talk about self-esteem issues… good thing you’re dealing with them head-on.) And avoiding situations where you’ll fail isn’t the solution because we all should WANT to work with people who are smarter, more accomplished, more mature than we are, because that’s how we, and the organization we’re in, are improving and learning. So yes, that means that the more accomplished colleague might get the promotion first, and you don’t seem to think it was undeserved. Just continue on progressing towards excellence in the role you have and things will work out.

    Also, the “mixed signals” from the interview panel don’t sound strange from me. Don’t forget that hiring for this position is surely occupying only a small part of the thoughts of the panel members, and they’re really not invested in your feelings anywhere close to the level you are. So if one says they thought Jane would blow you out of the water, but in the end the decision was close, that’s a compliment to you. And it isn’t rare: A hiring panel member often has a pre-conceived notion (“A looks much stronger from the outset than B”), and when they are then professional enough to give all candidates a fair, hard look, it turns out that the difference between A and B is actually small. So the decision still comes out in favor of A, but B has had a chance to prove their mettle.

    Your manager clearly thinks you’re doing a good job (and would have chosen you), and you yourself, if you had been an outsider to the situation, sound like you might have chosen Jane over yourself, so all is really in good order. You like your job, and you can continue to grow and learn in it. Now if Jane moves on to a more senior position, maybe you’ll no longer be the more junior co-worker in your (junior) position.

  46. Kala*

    I wonder if what your boss really wants is for you to get more interview experience.

    You’ve called out Jane for being well-spoken and calm — qualities that play very well in an interview situation. Of your interviewers, the one who could best judge your entire work record favored you. The two that were primarily judging based upon the interview chose Jane.

    It may be worth talking to your boss about what skills he’s hoping that you’ll build by the “competition” of applying for the job again, and what other paths you could follow to achieve that.

  47. Scattol*

    “obligated to leave a job you leave.”

    I suppose Allison meant:
    “obligated to leave a job you love.”

  48. Agile Phalanges*

    LW, I once saw (probably here) a very apt comparison for being a finalist for a position but ultimately not being chosen. It’s like winning the silver medal at the Olympics. You didn’t beat out the ONE person that mattered, no, and that sucks. But it doesn’t mean you’re not a good athlete (or candidate). You beat out the rest of the field in that event (the other candidates who were finalists), you beat out the rest of the people who tried out but didn’t qualify (the other candidates who were phone-interviewed, for example), you beat out the rest of the people who are athletes in the sport but didn’t even qualify to be in the qualifying events (applicants whose resumes went in the “no” pile immediately). So while not “winning” definitely sucks, and is hard to swallow especially in the immediate aftermath, it’s not them saying you’re not a good person in general, or a good athlete, or a good candidate for the role. The other person might have beat you by only a thousandth of a second, after all. Hopefully that helps you as much as it helped me. Again, it’s not that it doesn’t sting, but try not to think of it as being the same as coming in “last place” or not even qualifying for the Olympics at all. You came in second to someone who is also very very good. Maybe next time your luck or skill will enable you to get the gold medal.

    And to extend it even further, the same is true even if there were only even two of you to begin with. If two Olympic athletes challenged each other to a face-off, does that make the “loser” any worse of an athlete? No, they just came in second to an Olympic-level athlete.

  49. Just another voice in the echo chamber*

    I’d be so interested in the details of why the OP’s boss wanted her in the temp job and not Jane the superstar. There could be a really specific reason why one of them would be better suited to the role and as Alison pointed out he’s in the best position to evaluate both their work. It would also shed some light as to if there’s any disconnect between how Jane “presents” and what she’s really like as a day-to-day worker. Jane may just be more outwardly polished and the actual work they do is at the same level or some such, hence why she seems the superior choice to the other two on the hiring committee.

  50. Julia*

    So don’t take this the wrong way, but are you sure it isn’t a case of ‘sour grapes’ in not wanting the promotion? There are times when I’ve experienced that in my career. I’m so persuasive with myself that I have trouble telling the difference.

    I’m 51, and have seen a lot of people who are more talented in roles than I am. There will always be people who are better. The key is to make yourself feel better and more confident, and it will come across. For example, a couple of years ago I invested in my professional wardrobe – got a personal shopper at Nordstrom’s. I’m still me, but feel like I come across more professionally. Well, I definitely do, but is it the clothes or is it the way I feel in the clothes? Doesn’t really matter.

    I also took several lessons with a voice coach last fall- same thing – I feel like I’m coming across better. I think it’s a case of learning a few pointers and gaining that confidence.

    My point is that there are several actions that you can take besides therapy to boost your confidence – you just need to brainstorm!

    One thing to keep in mind is your future interactions with Jane. When she learns that you aren’t applying, she may ask you about it. My answer would be – now that I have paid more attention to the job since you’ve been doing it, I don’t think it’s a good fit for me at this stage. It might be tough to convey without any negativity (towards either Jane or yourself), but I would definitely practice your sentences to get the right mix of support and cheerfulness.

    Keep in mind – you will now be friendly with someone who is climbing the latter and that can definitely help you in your career going forward!

    Keep your chin up and best of luck!

  51. Suzy Q*

    Perhaps given what you want to focus on in your job – all very good and valuable aspects – you could approach your boss about creating a new position with these goals in mind.

  52. Candi*

    LW, did you ever read something about (some) governmental posts or see the movie Major Payne, or something along those lines? Those are the only things I can think of where being passed over for promotion twice means having to leave. In most cases, it just means either the position was not a good fit for you or you were not a good fit for the position (once qualifications are out of the way).

    (Major Payne: Pros: Abusers are wrong, full stop, and the actor playing the deaf teenager gets a really cool routine toward the end. Cons: Would probably break Alison’s character count.)

  53. TootsNYC*

    I know why the OP has the feeling that if she doesn’t get the promotion the second time, she should quit.
    (I do NOT agree, but I know where it comes from)

    My brother is in the Army; he’s a chief warrant officer. He sent out a “news update” saying they’d purchased a house because he didn’t think he was going to be promoted to CWO5 when the next round of promotions came through. And the generally, bcs the Army is competitive, if you don’t get promoted, you’re expected to muster out. So he expected to be leaving the Army relatively soon, and they had decided where to settle.
    I think the reasoning was, there’s such a strong culture of constant upward movement that if you DON’T get promoted, it’s because you’re “good enough,” but not “really good.” In that situation, where they can change your classification and aren’t worried about whether there is an opening for you, it’s considered a vote of “no confidence.”
    One HUGE, HUGE difference: The Army is about serving your country. So the good of your country is the primary objective. This is NOT true of your job.

    I’ve also been in a situation in which I was assigned more duties, asked for more money and a bigger title, and was turned down. Several people thought I should have then quit. Either on the spot, or by looking aggressively for a new job. I think they saw the turning down of my request as a vote of no-confidence. But it wasn’t. But I liked the job, and I understood their reasoning, and I didn’t. But many people thought I should have moved on.

    So, OP, I just wanted to say, you’re not nuts for having this thought in the back of your head. But it DOES NOT apply.

    I love the advice to talk to your boss about making your “I’m the department go-to who provides continuity, stability, training, etc.,” role be more of a step up, and more codified and respected.

    You can go after a promotion later, always.

  54. Shirley Keeldar*

    Hey, OP, I just hope you notice that you have a lot of internet strangers here who think you are actually pretty cool. I’m impressed with your conscientious self-assessment, your willingness to seek feedback (from your interviewers, your boss, and your therapist), your lack of resentment toward Jane, your interest in excelling where you are and the careful way you have mapped out a path to do that. I’d love to have a colleague like you.

  55. Chatterby*

    From your letter, Jane has been in this role for a year by now. Did she blow them out of the water, as one of the directors thought she would? If she has done extremely well in the role and excelled, then yes, I think she’s got a very high chance of being a shoe-in for the permanent position since she has already been doing the job. Though, it’s still possible that Jane will get passed up for her very own Jane through external recruitment.
    If Jane has been doing a decent, good job, but not ecstatically praise worthy work, and you have done an excellent job at your training during the past year, you have a shot, if you’d like to take it.
    During your review meeting with your boss, if he mentions applying, you can say that you thought Jane has been doing a great job, and say “I know you recommended me for the position last year, could you tell me why you thought I’d be a good fit for the role at the time?” Maybe he’ll mention skills and talents that you’ve overlooked and you’ll get a bit of an ego boost. You can also fill up the time by asking what traits he thinks the ideal mid-level tech should have.
    You still don’t have to apply, and if asked why you didn’t, just smile and say “I considered it, and it just isn’t right for me at the moment. Maybe in the future.”

  56. This Daydreamer*

    I used to work in a bookstore. I spent my days surrounded by the works of the greatest authors to ever string words together. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, I could go on all day.

    Guess which authors were almost always completely missing from the bestseller lists and tables of popular books? If it weren’t for Oprah, none would ever have been displayed up front. And there are many millions of people who never got halfway through Anna Karenina.

  57. Nox*

    I saw a few good Harry Potter references above and I needed to chime in with another one that I relate to. I’m a “Horace Slughorn”.

    “Horace likes his comfort. He also likes the company of the famous, the successful, and the powerful. He enjoys the feeling that he influences these people. He has never wanted to occupy the throne himself. He prefers the back-seat; there is more room to spread out.”

    That’s kinda where I’m at. I don’t chase promotions anymore because I know I have a niche skillset that is often looked over in favor of the more traditional call center analysis roles out there. I’m content with myself to know that when people need something different they will seek me out instead. I’m not resigning over being in the background and I’m certainly not offended when people overlook what I do because I’m not the loudest voice in the room. I look towards other tactics to promote my personal brand outside of the constraints of my employer.

  58. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    OP, don’t quit. Not getting promoted twice to a job your don’t want is not a failure. Trying to be the best person you can be in your current role is not a failure. But if you think it is, all I can offer is some good advice from better people than me:

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
    “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.” – Buddha
    “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failing is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey

    And my personal favorite:

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

  59. Styx-n-String*

    I completely agree with the advice not to apply for the promotion if it’s not wanted. I was in a similar position – everyone kept telling me to apply for a position one step up in authority and responsibility every time an opening came up (three times in my first year at my store) but I never felt like it was right. I work very specific days/hours, and the promotion would have meant different days, which would have negatively affected other areas of my life. Then after a year, there was another opening, and this time I applied, got the promotion, and have been excelling at the job for the last year. Waiting for the right time and the right conditions was the right thing to do.

    There’s no shame in recognizing that a certain job isn’t for you, for whatever reason. And there’s no point in applying if you feel obligated to leave a job you like if you don’t get it. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and some day another opening will come which IS right for you.

  60. Ramona Flowers*

    Sometimes we have a story that we tell ourselves. Yours has become: Jane is better than me. I don’t know that this is helpful and I’m so glad you’re working with a therapist who can help you figure this out.

  61. msroboto*

    What if your boss thinks you are a star that will stay and be a rockstar in your own right. Perhaps your boss sees Jane as a superstar but Jane will not last because superstar.
    So maybe your boss has reasons to prefer you over Jane.

    In no way does this mean you’re not a good worker even if Jane is perceived as better.

  62. Jr Lab Tech*

    OP here.

    Alison, thank you so much for your advice. You’ve given me a great deal to think about, but you have made things a lot clearer too. What I desired most was an objective assessment of the situation, and I got it! I’ve thought about this every day since the interview and I think I’ve” thought myself into a corner” about my options. Thank you for your perspective. I hope to send you a post-appraisal update in about a month to let you know I got on.

    I’m so touched by all of the comments, and I’m grateful to each and every person that’s written something, whether it’s advice, an anecdote, a different perspective etc. I was braced for a lot of objective, potentially harsh, truths, and what I have received is a million times better than I could have hoped for. I feel much better about things after reading through people’s replies, and I will try to get back to as many people as possible. Thank you, everyone.

  63. KatyDid*

    OP, as I read thru the responses all I could think was “I want an update!” As usual Alison et al, had great suggestions. I’d like to also hear from you in a year or so. I have a feeling where you find yourself and what you see when you look back, will be amazing. I for one would love to hear about your decisions and how you grew. For some reason I found this to be an extremely positive thread, perhaps it’s something I need myself, so thank you for sharing. Best of luck and success!

  64. Elfie*

    OP, I feel you so much! I’m exactly like you, except I seem to end up with a Jane in every job I get (and I’ve gone through a few). I’ve accepted that as much as I’m good at my job, I’m not a rockstar, and trying to be one (with all the external validation that comes with it) took way too much of a toll on my mental health. I’ve suffered with depression my entire adult life (I’m 41), and it was only this Christmas that I decided to pull back on chasing after Exceeds Expectations on my performance reviews. If I get Meets Expectations (I usually do, and it’s only recently that that’s stopped feeling like a failure), that’ll do nicely for me. I’m never going to make Director, belong to the C-suite, or own my own business, and I’m okay with that. I’m in a job I love, with a manager I really like and admire, working 36 hours a week without having to take work home with me, and getting paid 2.5x the national average to boot. So what if I’m not a rockstar in my job? I care for a disabled husband, want to adopt, and I intend to start volunteering within my community. I’m so much more than just an employee – I’d rather be a rockstar wife, mother, and volunteer and a Meets Expectations employee than work myself into a nervous breakdown.

    All this to say, don’t go for the promotion for the wrong reasons. If you want it, go for it, but if other people want it for you, or you only want it for the validation, not the work, then don’t. It won’t make you happy in the short-term, let alone the long-term, and we’re only put on this earth for a short time. Don’t waste it being unhappy. You deserve to be the best person you can be, and this definition of success has to come from within you. Good luck, you sound really clued-up and I’m sure you’ll do fine!

  65. Lara*

    Both Deputy and Third Senior struck me as incredibly rude and unhelpful. I cannot fathom how someone would think that was appropriate feedback for a job applicant.

  66. Carrie*

    “Sometimes in life, some people are better than us at everything.” This is absolutely true, and it’s a self-esteem killer, but it’s just a fact of life. You’re better than certain *other* people at everything, too. It’s a big subjective circle of betterness and jealousy, and we’re all on it somewhere, and it’s not worth dwelling on.

    For example, I have a friend who I perceive to be better than me in every way: Prettier, cooler job, kinder, funnier, more well-liked, more confident (outwardly), makes more money, has had more interesting experiences in life, etc. But somehow, she still wants to be my friend. So I must be pretty great, too. Plus her perfectness makes her kind of inaccessible, which is annoying. And I know that others wouldn’t necessarily perceive her to be as awesome as I do.

    Would you actually want to BE Jane? If a genie offered you a permanent promotion into her body and her life, would you take it? Probably not. She’s just a person. You are YOU, and you are unique and awesome in your own ways.

  67. Seespotbitejane*

    I didn’t comment yesterday because I kinda figured it’d be the first comment, but it doesn’t seem to have come up. But I was surprised Alison didn’t mention in her response.

    OP has gotten this feedback from people who haven’t worked with Jane about how great she is but OP’s boss thinks OP has the edge. I wonder if Jane didn’t just interview better than you. As has been pretty thoroughly addressed by everyone, OP has some self-worth issues to work through so I wonder if this isn’t so much a case of Jane being better at EVERYTHING than the OP but just that she sounded confident and capable in the interview. I think that might also account for the harsh but amorphous feedback OP got.

  68. Judi*

    Good lord, don’t resign. You’re not failing! You love your job! I’ve applied for other jobs at my workplace, failed to get them, and happily continued working at my current job, where they like and appreciate me. The’res nothing wrong with pursuing higher opportunities if they become available and you want them, but there’s no humiliation in not getting the job, and certainly no need to fall on your sword.

  69. chnellociraptor*

    Oh, this letter broke my heart and hit so close to home! I work at a performing arts school, and we run a training program for kids ages 7-18, where they are cast in and perform multiple shows a year. Twice a year, we go through the casting process, and twice a year, we have tearful meeting after tearful meeting with kids and parents who ask the same questions as you: am I any good at this? Will I ever be as good as this other person? Am I a fool to stay in an environment where I am always (or “always”) put into smaller roles and never given a starring turn?

    I draw this comparison not because I think you’re being childish, but because these are so incredibly normal and human responses to disappointment. Our brains are hardwired for competition and hierarchy, which creates these situations where they don’t exist. Here’s my best advice based on what I’ve learned from these situations, much of which is echoed above:

    1. It’s totally okay to be disappointed. Often I see people rush to find reasons or make sense of what happened in an attempt to alleviate what they feel, when really all they need is a day or two (or week or two) to feel all their feelings. Disappointment is a part of life, and experiencing it does not mean that you failed, or that you are a failure!

    2. You are rarely actually in competition with the people you imagine yourself to be. Even in situations like this where you find yourself going up against the same person over and over, the only person measuring you against each other is you. I would really recommend working on that feeling in therapy – it’s normal, but only hurts you in the long run. When you fixate on beating another person, you’re not giving yourself the space or direction you need to grow in your own way.

    3. Just because someone is more right for a specific role than you, does not mean that person is all-around better than you. It’s so easy to get fixated on the binary of “Jane good, me bad” but 99.9% of the time the situation is so much more nuanced than that. In the theatre world, the difference between you and someone else getting the lead can be trivial things like: height, hair colour, vocal range, dance ability, one specific weird talent (like playing the accordion or doing a French accent), chemistry with other performers, professional reputation, how much you resemble the person who would be playing your mother, etc, etc, etc – so many things that are completely beyond your control. The things that don’t make you the most perfect candidate for this role might make you the perfect person for another role. Or, you had 98% of what they were looking for and someone else had 99%. That’s not a failure, that’s just these specific circumstances not being in your favour. Bottom line: it’s beyond your control, and it’s not your fault!

    4. You will probably never get a truly, deeply satisfying answer for why you didn’t get this specific promotion, especially given that you didn’t really want it in the first place and you’re trying to nurse your low self-esteem. The panel has given you already as honest an answer as they can, and you’re not going to get anything more helpful out of it than that. Resist the temptation to seek out more answers.

    5. Life and learning are more than starring turns and big promotions. As you’ve already said, you have an opportunity to be the best junior tech you can possibly be. That is a great attitude to run with and if you’re struggling and staying fixated on Jane, try to see if you can shift your focus to improving in your own role instead.

    I think you’ve already gotten a lot of great advice, but I outlined all of the above just to remind you that what you’re experiencing – especially your own disappointment – is so common and you can overcome it! Therapy will be a fantastic help, and eventually this will be a little bump on the road to the best version of you.

    Best of luck!

  70. Styx-n-String*

    Very well-said, and so true!

    I was also an actor, even majored in it in college, and it’s TOUGH to feel like you’re always being compared to others. But one thing I learned in theatre that has always stuck with me – remember that every time you walk into that audition/interview, the people who are there to evaluate you are rooting for you. They WANT you to walk in and blow their socks off. They are wishing that you are the perfect person for the job. Once I learned that, auditioning (and subsequently interviewing) became so much easier!

  71. Former Lab Person*

    I know this might be late to chime in but I wanted to do so as someone else who previously worked in a hospital research lab (although in a different capacity).

    The feedback the OP received doesn’t surprise me because I think there is a lot of favoritism and competition that exists in a research environment with most faculty members (or high level staff) not really being able to articulate why they like someone more, only that they do. If the OP really likes their job and wants to learn more, I would definitely focus on that and try not to internalize the comments too much. If eventually you the OP want a promotion, I might consider looking at other locations or a different department because sometimes a fresh start not in someone’s shadow can be helpful.

  72. TrixM*

    I don’t get this trope of a boss being “disappointed” if you don’t want to be promoted.
    Obviously if a boss suggests I apply for a promotion, I’m flattered and I honestly express my appreciation – in fact, this happened to me just last week. However, promotion, for me, would be into a semi-managerial role and I am not cut-out for such work (in fact, I did that exact job 5 years ago – before my current boss’s time – and it nearly broke me). I am much better suited for the purely technical work I currently do.
    If there’s an implication I’m “lacking ambition”, so what? I work very hard and well in my current job. If a boss thought I lacked commitment by being reluctant to take a promotion – I don’t need the money or the stress – I would feel honestly insulted.
    For ambitious people, great, do your thing. I personally have been the embodiment of the Peter Principle once, and never again. I also don’t get pushing people out of work they are obviously good at and are content to do. Surely it’s in a manager’s interest to retain highly-skilled staff in their positions if said staff are good at their work (and good to work WITH in the team)?
    Obviously if someone wants to move up, a good boss will help them find an opportunity if they think the staff member merits it, and a good boss will also actually float the topic for their valued workers at least once (it IS a compliment), but some of us truly want to be left where we are.

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