am I going to regret not pursuing a more high-powered career?

A reader writes:

I graduated from college about two and a half years ago, and have worked at least part time in my field for closer to five years (but have been a full time employee since graduating). I used to have very high career aspirations for myself and always imagined I would be a VP or C-level executive.

I am not sure if it’s the crushing weight of this year, if I am having a reality check on what’s important in life, or something else entirely, but I find myself with little to no career ambition aside from just making a living. I could maybe see myself moving into a managerial role at some point (I currently perform as an informal team lead on several projects and enjoy this aspect of my job), but I truly just don’t have an interest in getting a bigger workload and more responsibility that could potentially take me away from my personal life at the moment. I do want to add that I generally like my job, I have a great team and receive good feedback on my work, and I realize how incredibly lucky I have been in terms of employment this year.

However, in the past months in quarantine, I have found tremendous value added to my life when I’m not working (i.e., nights and weekends) so I can unplug and cook/bake, focus on personal relationships, or work on home improvement projects. Spending the majority of my days in front of my computer feels more and more like I’m wasting my time, and honestly sometimes leaves me feeling resentful. I feel like I might be burnt out, but I am lucky in that my job allows me to completely unplug after work hours (including hard stops in the afternoon), so I’m not constantly surrounded by it. I also am taking some PTO around the holidays for extra time to unwind.

I guess my question here is, should I push myself to pursue the career I once dreamed about? Sometimes I worry that I will regret not achieving my previous career goals (especially since I’m still relatively new to the workforce), but I just don’t seem to have the will to do so anymore.

I don’t think you can conclude anything long-term from this year.

We’re in a highly stressful crisis! Nothing is normal. For lots of us, life as we knew it changed in a matter of days or weeks. We’re separated from family and friends, our safety nets feel far more tenuous, we’ve had to second-guess things we always took for granted (like our ability to get toilet paper), routine encounters have become risky, people are dying needlessly, and in many ways it feels as though we’re living through a slow-motion apocalypse.

Those aren’t optimal conditions for making long-term career decisions.

Or, maybe they are. Maybe with all of that false security stripped away (because it always was false, to some degree), it’s easier to see what matters. Maybe you’re getting a clearer look at what matters most to you, and how you do and don’t want to spend your time.

You don’t need to decide for sure right now. If you feel differently in a year or two or five, you can adjust course then. But don’t push yourself to chase the dreams of old-you, when current-you wants different things. (You have to temper that with knowledge of yourself, of course. If current-you always wishes that yesterday-you had made different choices, you should pay attention to that. But when current-you has been pretty consistent in your values for months on end, that’s pretty reliable info.)

If you had sent me this letter and we were not in a pandemic, I might have suggested that your shift in thinking could simply be a response to having been out of school for a couple of years and learning more about what you do and don’t value at work — something that can be hard to predict with certainty before you’re working full-time — or that it could be worth exploring other companies in your field before concluding anything for sure.

But right now? There’s such an obvious explanation for wanting a lower-pressure job at the moment that I wouldn’t really conclude much about what it means for you long-term. Cut yourself some slack for now, keep finding joy where you’re finding it, and trust yourself to adjust down the road if what you want shifts.

If you’re worried about making decisions now that would cut off that option for you later: You’re probably not going to. You’re not talking about quitting your job in spectacular fashion or letting your work performance lapse in ways that could harm you later. You’re just talking about not pushing yourself to be super driven during a hellish year, and that’s very unlikely to close off the options available to you later. Lots of people have slow starts professionally and are very successful later — and you’re not even talking about a slow start. You’re just talking about giving yourself room to hear and adjust to what you really want. That’s a smart thing, not a reckless one.

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. another Hero*

    op, leaving school did actually cause a pretty significant change in my understanding of what I wanted from my career (toward more time for myself and less focus on work in my life), so it can definitely happen, and if that’s what’s going on, great for you! be as chill as you want. if it turns out that in non-pandemic times you want to devote more of your free energy to work, that’s also fine! opportunities will arise then. basically I agree with Alison that doing what works for you now, rather than forcing yourself into your previous ambitions, makes sense, and also wanted to point out that most of your career is in the future – if changing circumstances change your hopes and plans, you’ll be able to adapt then.

    1. another Hero*

      but also, seriously, kudos for acknowledging the change and allowing yourself to reconsider and adjust :)

    2. Robin*

      Big yes to this. I went to grad school in a field where a large contingent of people pride themselves on having no work life balance. As soon as I got into the workforce I realized that’s not what I wanted out of my career. I’m still in the same general field, but I shifted gears to a position that lets me leave work at work. I think I do eventually want to advance, but I’m comfortable right now and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be comfortable just because it doesn’t reflect other peoples’ ideas of career advancement and success. A high powered career doesn’t have to be a constant, relentless march to the top.

  2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

    I’m going to be one of many voices telling you that you are young. You can’t know what’s ahead, whether you plan or not.
    Here’s my story, the job that became my passion DID NOT EXIST when I was in college. I spent five years after school in jobs I thought I should take because they fit the career I studied for it. I didn’t hate it, but someone send me a line to this new field and they needed someone with my knowledge to take a stab at it. Sounded like fun. IT WAS AWESOME. Who knew?
    So yeah, this year sucks. Your job isn’t super. But there are better years and better jobs. You’ll find both. You just have to keep doing what you are doing, being honest about what you want.
    Good luck.

    1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

      I’ll echo that! It’s so hard to know what your priorities will be in ten or 15 years…if you’d asked me in my early 20s, I would probably have placed less value on making money than I do as a 40-something, and I would have imagined myself in a role with less responsibility so I could focus more on family. Turns out my husband is happier in a lower-stress job where he can pick up more of the domestic responsibilities, including childcare, so while I really like having flexibility to make it to school plays and afterschool sports, I’m the one who’s in the more high-flying role with longer hours and more potential for advancement in the traditional sense. Didn’t see that coming!

      Keeping your options open for now doesn’t have to mean working insane hours or going for every promotion — the investments I made in building real relationships with colleagues (in a 360 sense, not just looking up the ladder), figuring out what I was best at and what I most enjoyed doing, and building my own reputation as reliable, smart, and a strategic thinker paid off more than taking on extra work or going to tons of networking events.

      1. LH in SD*

        Echo that to both.
        Graduated in Health STEM and it was meh, switched to IT and loving it.
        Graduated expecting a flexible career so I could focus on kids, house, extended family, now I’m the main bread winner married to an AWESOME DAD MAN! He gets a kick out of checking in on elderly relatives on both sides.
        Took 10 years after graduation to figure out where I fit.
        That along with COVID, it is just going to take longer for folks to figure out.

    2. Smaller potatoes*

      Seconding that time can reveal career paths that either didn’t previously exist or you simply may not even know about yet. I’ve now spent the past 20 years in a branch of my field that I only learned existed after 4 years out of school. Even led to a unicorn situation where I run a profitable business while working a reasonable number of hours each week.

  3. WellRed*

    Oh man, I so related to being irritated at times with the whole “work on the computer” thing. I agree with Alison’s advice, but yeah, you may find you value a lower powered career overall, or at various times of your life.

  4. Ali G*

    It’s totally normal to assume your career will achieve a high level position. If you didn’t think that was your end-game, why start at all? But, it’s also perfectly normal to realize you may not be interested in that. I would say 2 things:
    One, don’t assume that a senior level position means you have no life outside of work. It’s totally industry/position dependent. You have time to watch and learn how others operate around you. Don’t decide right now in these crazy times.
    Two, if you decide that in a few years you have learned a lot about your industry and have gone as far/high as you want, make sure you are in a place where that’s OK and valued. Some places are “upward or out” only, and you would want to make sure you could continue to have success and advance without moving to senior management positions.

  5. BasicWitch*

    Great answer. I’m not exactly in a care I’d call high-powered – my only goal was to get to a point where I wasn’t struggling financially. Which I did! But like OP, this past year really made me reevaluate a lot of things. So I’m leaving an almost $70k/year job to pursue freelance writing, something I’ve dipped my toes in but never made an honest attempt to build into a viable business. And it’s a scary time to do this! But I have about a year’s savings, and moved to a much cheaper place with greater social supports, so I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. If at the end of the year all I have to show for it is a “mini-retirement”, I’ll consider it well spent.

    Trust yourself OP. We owe ourselves that much.

  6. MK*

    “am I going to regret not pursuing a more high-powered career?”

    God only knows. Or possibly a prophet, if you can get in touch with one.

    OP, there is no way to predict this. Is it possible that you will wake up 25 years from now in a mid-level post and regret the career you didn’t have? YES. Is it possible that you will wake up as an executive and regret the life you didn’t live? Also YES. Is it even a possibility that you will put in the work in your career and not make it for independent reasons? Sure. We can’t know for sure how our decisions will shake out, but I would advise against trying to make decisions your future self won’t regret, it is futile. The best you can do is decide based on what you want and know now, while trying not to shut any doors in case you change.

    1. merp*

      One thing about regret, in my personal experience, is that I have felt it even when I know I wouldn’t actually want to make a different decision if I went back in time, because sometimes what I want is contradictory. In this instance, maybe I would live my life in lower level jobs and some part of me would eventually regret not having more ambition but the rest of me is happy with what I did. Because there is some part of my brain that wants it all, which isn’t actually possible.

      So I agree with MK about not letting fears about regret overwhelm you. It can be a helpful question among many others (present-you matters too, not just future you) but trying to make all choices based on future regret alone is impossible since we just can’t know the future.

      1. anonymous 5*

        I am increasingly convinced that the whole, “live your life so that you’ll have no regrets” advice is bullshit. Regret will happen. Don’t beat yourself up when it does and definitely don’t contort yourself to “avoid” or “prevent” it.
        OP, you have presented yourself and your dilemma with such clarity and thoughtfulness that I am very confident you will make good choices for yourself–both for now and for the longer term, and at every point along the way. I hope this will help give you a boost, and I very much hope for fruitful results throughout your career/life, whatever they look like.

      2. MK*

        Very true. I think some regret is inevitable. Even people who didn’t doubt their decisions at the time they made them may wonder about the what-ifs.

    2. Be Janeway*

      There is a wonderful episode of Star Trek Voyager called “Workforce.” In it, some aliens kidnap the entire crew, wipe their memories, and put them to work in some gigantic ore-processing factory. Janeway becomes a middle-management flunkie who gets a boyfriend she adores. When asked why she’s so unambitious and declines promotions, she answers, “why would I want all that responsibility?” with a wave of her hand.

      Eventually she’s rescued, her memory restored. She wistfully talks about her boyfriends for a couple of seconds. Chakotay asks her whether she would voluntarily go back to that live. She doesn’t miss a beat: “never.”

      As the meme goes, always be yourself. Unless you can be Captain Janeway. Then, be Janeway.

      Lookit, I disagree very strongly with the near-universal advice ’round here, which I think reflects survivorship bias from a lot of unambitious people. (Yeah, I’m blunt.) OP, you’re young. You’re blessed with aptitude and opportunities others can only dream about. You’re in a position to put yourself on a certain trajectory. Seize the day. Build up some marketable skills and make some money. Try for a top MBA.

      You can always, a few years after that, decide to opt out of the rat race, if that’s how you come to view it. You’ll have lost relatively little then. But the opposite is not true. If you opt out now, today, you will never get another chance. (Yeah, there are always exceptions, entrepreneurs who started in their 50s or 60s or what not. But we’re dealing with probabilities here, not outliers.) There is option value in thinking big now. If you opt out of that trajectory now, you’ll almost certainly never re-establish it.

      Life is meant to be embraced. Seize the day. Always be Janeway.

  7. ThatGirl*

    I graduated from college 17 years ago. I had fairly specific career goals in mind in 2003, and I seemed to be on the right track. Things changed. I realized just how hard and unforgiving journalism could be, and that news outlets everywhere were suffering from budget cuts. I realized that while I enjoyed the work, I didn’t have the drive to do it at any cost. And I moved on.

    Yes, this is an extraordinarily hard year. It’s OK for you to just take a mental step back and reevaluate how you feel in a year or two. And it’s also OK to change your mind about what you want out of a job and a career long term. People change, priorities change, happens all the time.

  8. TallTeapot*

    OMG–this letter totally describes my thinking at this point in time. And I’m nearly 20 years into my career.

    1. Rambler*

      Yeah me too… I’m dealing with the fallout of a re-org that’s going to see me laid off in the near future if I don’t get another position in the company. Had a great interview last week, so fingers crossed, but the whole process and the desperation of I NEED A JOB ANY JOB coupled with all the other stress made me really rethink my priorities and career path, and at the moment I’m kinda like… maybe I … don’t? want to be a Chief Llama Trainer? What if I just got a job that was kinda fun with a good group of people and did that for the next 20 years? I think I’d be happy.

      1. Karia*

        Yep. I realised the other day I could take a pay cut of a few grand and likely halve my stress levels. I was also looking at my boss and grand boss and realising… I actually don’t want to be compulsively checking my Apple Watch for emails every five seconds or coming in on a Sunday. I spent years hustling and I just want to leave work at work and read a book occasionally.

  9. Mr. Cajun2core*

    Something to think about…

    Do you want to “live to work” or “work to live”. Many high power positions require a “live to work” attitude and require long hours and the such.

    Another question, “if you won a multi-million dollar lottery” would you quit your job?

    I can’t answer these questions for you. They are only something for you to think about.

  10. Luke*

    My only thought- it’s OK to say no. Many would have you think it’s a crime against nature to avoid higher roles. Ultimately, we go to work to lead more fulfilling lives. If that’s best done by earning promotions, go for it. If however you’re happier with the balance of compensation & responsibility where you’re at? It’s OK to keep that too.

    Ignore pressure to “always move up!” Because that’s how you become successful and miserable.

  11. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

    One of the biggest lessons about maturing as an adult is the realization that everything comes at a cost. Each choice we make shuts doors. The days when you can be anything ended around 3rd grade. BUT we also learn that we don’t *want* to be just anything. We meet ourselves and our own priorities and realize that what we thought we wanted may not be what we wanted at all. College isn’t the working world, even a part time job isn’t the same as full time employment.

    That being said, I think a lot of people have a desire for retreat and coziness right now. We’re in survival mode! It’s just too early for you to know whether this is a true shift in your priorities or a function of the Trying Times. It could be a little of both, that in a world without a pandemic, your priorities would never have shifted, but here in this world the shift is “true” and profound. That’s the tricky thing about regret. We only actually have one life, and while we can certain change our direction (look at the famous actors who didn’t get parts until their 30s and 40s!), we only know the possibilities that actually occurred. Sometimes it’s less about a choice and more about the opportunities afforded us or about the challenges and limitations that crop up. All kinds of things can happen that you can’t even conceive of! As another poster said, maybe your dream job hasn’t even been invented yet. On the flip side, maybe you will face health or familial challenges that will limit your ability to pursue heights of success. We just can’t know.

    My only other caveat is that money up to a certain point (where you can comfortably supply needs and not live paycheck to paycheck) IS truly valuable and nothing is wrong with making that particular benchmark a priority.

    1. AcademiaNut*

      Regarding your first paragraph – I’m in STEM academia, and it’s really, really normal for people to hit the postdoc level and realize that they either aren’t good enough to get the position they want, or aren’t willing to pay the price of doing so. Sometimes the deciding factor is work life balance, sometimes it’s location (not being willing to move anywhere in the world for the job you want), sometimes it’s family considerations (wanting to live with your spouse, your spouse’s life satisfaction, wanting to be able to have kids on a decent time scale. The people I know who have pursued other options are all pretty happy with their decision.

      Also – I’ve realized, as I get older, that you can explain the costs of the career to starry eyed young scientists until you’re blue in the face and they won’t believe you until they experience it themselves.

      My advice is for the OP to not make major decision right now, but to keep multiple career paths in mind – the high level exec path, the subject matter expert path, the middle management path, whatever else is applicable to their particular career, so if they want to pivot one direction or another, they’ve got an idea of what is involved.

  12. Rambler*

    I think it’s also important to note that very few people actually BECOME VPs or C-suite execs. The majority of folks never go above middle management, and plenty of them are quite satisfied with their careers and accomplishments. Also, there is something to be said for the person who stays in one job/area for a long time and becomes that deep subject matter expert who everyone needs to tell them how to make their stuff work. Especially in a technical job, those SME roles can be as prestigious as a VP, with a completely different growth path.

    1. Cordoba*

      I once worked for a very good engineer whose actual influence within the company greatly exceeded his notional middle-management title. He got great results, was a fantastic teacher and mentor, and was widely regarded as the nicest and most generous person in the building.

      Every couple of years the company would try to promote him to VP+ level leadership, and every couple of years he would decline the promotion.

      He was already making great money, and just wanted to stay as a working engineer rather than get involved with management and budgets and whatnot.

      I give him a lot of credit for knowing what he liked and sticking with it rather than just going to the notionally “higher” position. He was certainly more respected than a carload of directors and VPs would have been.

  13. SwitchingGenres*

    Have you always wanted a high-powered career? Why? Did your parents play a part in your goals? Societal pressure? Monetary pressure? Desire to be seen as “successful?” Also examine how you currently feel—have you always have things you found more valuable than career, like hobbies, family, athletics, volunteer work for an org you truly believe in, etc? Speaking from personal experience—I went to grad school, started my career, and had a good trajectory until I had to move because of my husband’s job. Even before that I’d decided that I didn’t want the responsibilities and politics that came with higher levels of my field. After being jobless for awhile I realized I disliked doing work I saw as pointless, I disliked working in disfunctional companies, and I needed a change. I saw that other aspects of my life were, to me, much more important than a “career.” Some people are like that! I hope over the next few years you have the time and space to figure it out for yourself. You’re not alone!

  14. Mel_05*

    It totally could just be this year. But, collegiate me definitely had a different vision of the career that would make me happy than what I realized would actually make me happy several years into my career. It’s ok to take stock and realize your desires have changed.

    1. Sara without an H*

      This. I spent college and invested a couple of years in grad school prepping for a career that looked increasingly unappealing the more I found out about it.

      It’s perfectly fine to spend Our Current Troubles doing some self-examination and exploration of other possible trajectories.

  15. TimeTravlR*

    I was, as they say, on the path for greatness. LOL I mean it with the utmost humility, but I was definitely on my way to the C Suite. About 7 years ago I was offered an opportunity to do something I really love and I also get paid very well for it. A couple years later I realized that this is where I want to stay. I’m not interested in the level of responsibility that comes with moving any further up, and I am paid well enough and have always lived fairly frugally (but I do enjoy life!!) that I am no longer interested. I enjoy the work life balance I have and don’t see disrupting it.
    I think this is not the year to make any definite changes, but I do think it’s worth being honest enough with yourself to make that decision based on what you want out of life rather than what’s “expected” by society or family or whoever.

  16. Not A Girl Boss*

    OMG OP, are you me??? This is something I have struggled with immensely.
    I’ve always wanted to be an exec. The “organizing other kids’ play” line in Lean In describes me to a T.

    But then… I got the promotion. I had a job with an unusually high level of access to the C Suite fairly early in my career. I had a team I managed. And I HATED it. It turns out, I don’t actually enjoy people problems – they stress me the heck out. Moreover, I found all of the things these important people talked about to be silly and grating. I was also still connected to the ‘worker bees’ so I knew the exec’s initiatives were actively counterproductive at worst, and laughably useless at best. I mean, it could have been my company/industry but I just DID NOT want to be a part of that club.

    So I quit for an individual contributor job at a small company. And its… also imperfect. I have been incredibly lucky that for my whole life my job HAS been my hobby. I genuinely love what I do. Even before I was employed in the field, I did the club version of it in middle and high school. So now that I have a precise 9-5 schedule with a precise to-do list no strategic worries in the world, I’m just, well… bored.
    I don’t really have any out-of-work things to be occupying my brain power. I work out, I cook, I have a husband who I love to hang out with. But my brain, its so unstimulated. When the weekend comes I don’t know what to do with myself.

    And some of that is the pandemic. Some of it I’ve remedied by taking an interest in other things I want to learn about, buying books on those topics or listening to podcasts.
    But a lot of it is that I no longer have a sense of purpose or a goal or a world domination plot. And so, I feel adrift. I know what I don’t want, but I don’t know what I do want so I can’t start working toward it….

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      I should add that my husband went through a similar series of events, and he LOVES his life now. He has a 9-5 job and tons of out-of-work hobbies/interest that keeps him really fulfilled. But his interests are things like cycling (he works at a bike shop very-part-time to fulfill that) and writing (which can easily be done as a hobby). My work interests don’t really work as a hobby.

      1. WellRed*

        I think it’s a mistake to say it’s lucky that your job is your hobby. Your whole comment kind of illustrates the shortcomings of that. I too have had periods where I was bored on the weekends because I wasn’t at work. I still don’t have a ton of “hobbys” but my viewpoint and priorities have shifted enough over the years that now weekends are too short. Whether I scale a mountain (joking) or just read a book.

        1. Not A Girl Boss*

          That’s true. It’s only lucky in that I genuinely love what I do, and it is a well paying thing. When I was at OtherCompany, that was important because I worked 60-70 hours a week.

          Now, I basically find myself with an extra 20-30 hours a week. That’s a lot of free time! Even if I dedicate an extra 5 hours to relaxing and 10 to exercising…. I’ve still got basically an entire day left over where I don’t feel mentally stimulated. And I’ve tried quite hard to find new hobbies, but none of the “obvious” “easy” ones have fulfilled me in the same way. My mom told me the trick is to have a baby, lol.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Yeah, the baby would definitely suck up the spare time, but the brain stimulation er, not so much.

            Try a bunch of different things and see what happens. You may discover the art of Ninja Llama Dancing and decide you really like it.

  17. Mockingjay*

    OP, the important thing is that there is no right or wrong answer, now or in the future. The answer to your question will change many times over the years, depending on your circumstances, needs, and wants.

    I’m nearly at the end of my career and made a deliberate decision (assisted by the wisdom in this site) to step back from a management track. My company hired me knowing that I would retire in 5 or 6 years, but while there I would work hard in a regular role and train younger colleagues in a couple specialty areas. (I’ve got about a year left before retirement – woo hoo!)

    Twenty+ years ago I was a rising manager at 30 running my own department. It was harder than I anticipated (back then very little managerial training was offered and sites like AAM didn’t exist). I realized I didn’t really like managing people but I was great at tracking work, so I sought task coordinator roles which complemented my daily work.

    In between all that was a Stay At Home Mom period in which we moved overseas. Never anticipated that move, but it was a wonderful adventure and worth the hit to my career track.

    So dear OP, do what’s right for you in this moment: pause and breathe. Remember people can be in the workforce for 40 years. You will have time to do different things if you want.

    1. Don’t be my dad*

      I went through a similar epiphany in my 50s-and I am now retired

      Not helpful for OP at all I realize-
      just another data point to say life is long (hopefully) and you have time to figure it out

      Please live your outside of work life!
      Don’t be my dad, who got forced into retirement and is now dead, two months later

      Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin is on his funeral playlist-you don’t want your children picking that out to represent your life

    2. Code Monkey the SQL*

      Yup. This.

      There’s no rule that says Careers Must Progress Upwards. Yes, lots of folks see it that way – start at the mailroom and climb to the corner office.

      But it’s not a rule. You can start at the front desk, move to sales, step up to managing a sales team, back down to sales, slide over to engineering liaison, cha-cha real smooth…

      Anyway, my point is, even in times that are less unsettled, it’s not wrong to be less ambitious than the traditional narrative dictates. If you find yourself valuing the space in your schedule more than you expected, that’s perfectly fine.

    3. meg*

      Totally agree with this! I’m 41, and my career path in my almost-20 years since college has not been even close to a straight line. I’ve taken steps back, made steps up, made lateral moves, changed fields altogether, moved back and forth in a new one… I’ve always made decisions based on my values and priorities at that time in my life, and these priorities continue to change and be refined as I get older.

      OP, I hope it will make you feel good to hear that I have not found any of these choices to lock me into one single career trajectory (though I have also been very willing to pursue further education and start out at a lower level to gain new experience). You have time to make all kinds of choices! Best of luck to you.

  18. Dust Bunny*

    Also . . . you don’t have to decide now. Lots and lots of people start out in one thing and then end up somewhere else.

    It’s OK to decide that the trade-offs are not what you want. My dad passed up lots of promotions because he realized that the guys in those positions were all divorced and their kids hated them–their careers became their lives. So he went as far as he wanted to go and stayed there as a rockstar at that level.

    (It’s also OK to decide eventually that you do want the high-powered career. It might look like a better option when the world is less tense or you’re in a situation that lights your fire more than your current one does.)

  19. I Love Llamas*

    This is a great letter that really shows some maturity and introspection. I am 56. When I graduated from college, I tried three different fields/professions until I hit upon one that I loved. I spent the next 25+ years climbing the ladder in a very competitive, commission-only profession. I did well, but never hit the level I thought I should. Then life changed, I changed and I slowed down. Now I work a normal, salaried job and I enjoy it immensely. I love the stress-free nature (relative to what I was accustomed to). My whole point is you have to do you and it changes according to different phases of your life. What works today may not work tomorrow and that’s perfectly fine. You will be working for a very long time. You don’t need to have all the answers today. I told my son as he wrapped up college, that he should only look/plan 2-3 years at the most. Things change so rapidly when you are young that mapping out a life/career path forever is difficult. Yes, there are some people who can do that (like my daughter), but most cannot. I think Alison is right. Times are not normal. Figuring out your long-term career today might not be feasible. Be kind and patient with yourself, stay true to yourself and just know that you are asking all the right questions. Good luck!

    1. College Career Counselor*

      YES! I have a version of this conversation with students regularly. So often they are focused on making the right decision, the right career choice, and often very anxious about “doing it wrong” somehow.

      I tell them that we are not necessarily going to figure out the next 4 years after graduation, let alone the next 4 decades. Maybe what we do is work on gaining clarity for the next 4 months or even 4 weeks, if they’re stuck. There’s usually an opportunity to ask them what they are looking for in the LIFE they construct for themselves after college, and I caution them about not trying to get all their satisfaction/joy/sense of worth, etc. from the job alone. There needs to be room for other factors (family/friend/other relationships, pets, volunteering/service, athletic interests, creative endeavors, hobbies) to help them craft balance in their lives.

      I talk about how the priorities and values they have now might evolve as they get older, have a family, decide to move somewhere, etc. As others have said to the OP, it’s okay to change your mind. Be open to the possibilities that are out there and ask yourself from time to time, “Is this working for me right now? Do I think this will work for me in a couple of years?” If the answer is yes, carry on. If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” then do some exploration/interrogation about what is or is not working (organizational culture, pay, nature of the work, location, advancement, training, etc.) and see if there’s another avenue to introducing a different/better balance into your life.

  20. Spicy Tuna*

    OP – while in college, I envisioned one career path for myself. I took a “job” (versus a career) when I graduated because my envisioned career path wasn’t happening immediately. Initially, I looked at my job as just a job; something to occupy my time while I pursued my career aspirations.

    20 years later, my work life took a dramatically different track! I ended up getting an MBA (NOT in my original plans!) and doing work I don’t think I even knew existed when I was in college.

    It’s perfectly fine to change career paths. It’s perfectly fine to have a job and not a career. It’s perfectly fine to invest in a career later in life. Life is long. You don’t have to figure everything out up front.

  21. DG*

    I think COVID has actually been really influential in shaping people’s values and career goals.

    I work in a demanding industry known for long hours, but where there’s typically a lot of perks – think tech or consulting. I know a handful of people who have been inspired to take *very* different career paths (massage therapy, non-profit management) in the last few months. When you strip away everything that makes a high powered career seem glamorous, like free meals, all-expense paid vacations, etc., you’re forced to confront whether you actually enjoy the work itself. Add in the fact that most of us are curbing our discretionary spending and eating at home more, and suddenly that high salary doesn’t seem as desirable either.

    1. Karia*

      This. There’s also the fact that a career that is bearable when you have a lot of distractions is suddenly highlighted in sharp relief when those distractions disappear. My job is a stereotypically ‘fun’ job that i find stressful and exhausting. Without the perks and the ability to distract myself, it’s unbearable.

  22. Diahann Carroll*

    in many ways it feels as though we’re living through a slow-motion apocalypse.

    It truly is the end of days.

  23. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    OP, since you are just starting out, and in such a weird time, Alison’s advice is perfect. Just slow your roll. Give yourself a few years in the working world to learn more about what the options are and what you want. And there is nothing wrong with advancing to the point where you are happy with the work life balance. Most folks never make C-suite and have perfectly satisfying careers.

  24. Roeslein*

    OP, I left a prestigious consulting job for an in-house role because I thought I wanted a better work-life balance. I was wrong, and have since regretted not switching to another firm instead. My husband encouraged me because he was worried about my mental health. In hindsight though, I was actually burnt out by the toxic interpersonal dynamics of my job (being constantly held back, put down and etc.) so that my confidence was shot – but I was fine with the hours, the travel and the workload itself, and I loved the work, just not the coworkers / managers. I’ve been working my way up in an adjacent, client-facing, but not as prestigious field pretty successfully (I absolutely hated being in-house). I’m having fun but I do miss the intellectual challenge, the learning curve and the sheer caliber of the people at a top strategy consulting firm (they were assholes, sure, but they were really smart assholes!) – I hope the job I’m starting soon will have more of that. It was tough being the small fish in a big pond, but in some ways it’s been even tougher being the big fish in a small pond. I may or may not get back into strategy consulting at some point – in the meantime I enjoy having more time for my toddler and working with nice people. It sounds like your situation is different from mine though.

  25. Mary Richards*

    My sister and I have had epiphanies like this in the years since we finished college (5.5 years for me and 3.5 for her). I’ve doubled down on really pursuing my career and pushing forward in my industry; I began to see that outside activities didn’t fulfill me as much and that I wanted to make the big sacrifices for my career. My sister is more like you, OP, in that she’s realized that she doesn’t want the high-powered career track she assumed she did. She loves having the ability to shut down her work computer at the end of the day and do what she wants.

    The pandemic has made decision-making tougher, but for many of us, I think it’s also provided clarity. I can’t say whether you’re seeing what you really want for the first time or if you’re just struggling with the realities of being a human in 2020, but I hope you realize that it’s ok to not want to go down the “career is everything” track.

  26. doreen*

    In addition to what others have already said, think about why you want that high-powered VP or C level career. I work for a government agency, and someone I know took a promotion that came with a relatively small raise. The promotion also took him out of the civil service ranks ( which meant he had less job security) , meant that he was on call 24/7, and he would directly or indirectly supervise about 100 people when in his previous assignment he supervised 3 people and was not on call. There is no way I would have taken that job under those conditions – but apparently my co-worker was more interested in status than money and I care more about money than status. If what you want is status, you might only be able to get that by aiming for a VP or C-level position – but if the reason you are pursuing that sort of job is for higher pay, there may be other ways to get it.

    1. Snickerdoodle*

      Yep. That’s also true on a smaller scale. I worked overnight stock in a big box store, was good at the job, and was made a team trainer as a result–without any increase in pay. I had a second retail job at the same time and was offered a keyholder position, but when I found out it came with a minimal increase in pay but a hugely increased amount of responsibility, I turned it down. At my current job, I was asked if I wanted to take on some more serious work, but I said no because they wouldn’t also be paying me more. I don’t care remotely about status if I’m not being compensated for it or if the stress level is through the roof.

    2. Liz*

      Yes, I came here to say this!

      OP, what do you picture your life looking like if you had that VP or executive job? What would you be doing differently? What would you have that you do not have now? What do you stand to gain – and indeed lose – and do you feel it would be worth it?

      It’s great that you’re reflecting on your ambitions as situations can and do change, especially now. It’s also important that you recognise that what you want may also change, and decisions that you make now don’t have to dictate where you wind up in 20 years time. You might not pursue a promotion now only to decide “you know what, I’m gonna go for it” once you are older, and actually you’re a stronger candidate for all those extra years on the ground.

      It’s always good to ask the questions, but don’t sweat it over getting definitive answers. Time will tell.

    3. ReadingTheStoics*

      Building on this – is higher pay the goal, or a higher net worth? Because the way construction costs are skyrocketing, that DIY home-improvement hobby can have a value of $100/hr, depending on the task. (Meaning that you will pay a pro about that much for jobs you can learn to do yourself – unless your takehome is more than this, it’s also a financially worthwhile use of your time, if you find DIY a rewarding activity.)

  27. Let's Bagel*

    There is so much to be said for a career that is fulfilling, pays well and allows you time to actually live your real life outside of work, especially if you’re discovering that this is what truly makes you happy. Unless you truly derive your joy from an intense, high powered job, the goal should be to find satisfaction and stay there–wherever that is on the ladder–not just climb as high as you can for the sake of climbing. Kudos to you for recognizing this now.

  28. Come On Eileen*

    I am an alcoholic in recovery, and one thing that’s drilled into a lot of people in their first year of sobriety is “don’t make any big decisions about your life – moving, ending a relationship, etc.” The reason is that life is HARD that first year of not drinking, and it’s easiest to focus on just one thing–getting and being sober. I think the same logic applies to 2020 – this year is HARD, so it’s okay to give yourself a pass on making big life decisions and to simply focus on getting by and doing good enough. There will be plenty of time as we emerge from the pandemic to assess and go after career choices – or to decide that “good enough” continues to be good enough.

  29. Quill*

    OP: I went to school for a career that it turns out I can’t get into, because it requires either a significant amount of nepotism or physical abilities I don’t have anymore. Be proud of yourself for getting a stable position this soon after graduation, I’ve been out here six years and still don’t have one!

    That said the reality is that we are all in a holding pattern this year, and I wouldn’t assume we’ll get out of it during 2021, at least not in the first half. It may be time to focus on survival and dependability, and make your decisions with your post-pandemic brain and values.

  30. Snickerdoodle*

    I’ve never been very career-oriented and find it odd that work is supposed to define your happiness. It’s perfectly okay to just view your job as a way to pay the bills and find your emotional fulfillment elsewhere. It’s great if your work is fulfilling, but I honestly find it rather sad that we’re pressured to value ourselves based on our careers. I’m not excited about my job, but it’s fine and pays the bills and allows me to focus on things that don’t pay but are very fulfilling (e.g. volunteer work, hobbies, etc.). This year in particular has made me appreciate that my job is low pressure.

  31. Pretzelgirl*

    Its ok if your career goals change. Personally I think they should be changing with the world, your personal life and professional life. It’s also ok, to not want to be at the top. Its not something I want for myself. I have a partner and a young family. I like being home at 5pm, to make dinner, hang out with my kids, take them to soccer, and dance. Giving them baths and tucking them into bed. Curling up with my partner and watching tv. Partly bc I saw life from the other side from my father in law.
    My father in law has worked in restaurants his whole life. Now he works in casino management. He works 70-80 hour weeks. He did this when he had kids. He barely saw his family (still does). Missed birthdays, holidays, games and concerts. He even missed the funeral of incredibly close family friend. I’ll give it to the man, he has an incredible work ethic and has provided for his family. But a career and money don’t equal missing my family grow up.

  32. Quickbeam*

    You do you. Parenthood was an important goal for you so it’s natural that this would alter your life commitments. I’ve always been the childfree woman who had to pick up the slack for the mothers so I see it from the other side. It’s still sexist since the work never seems to shift to the men.

    I career changed in my 30s to a more blue collar field (nursing). It was a weird u-turn from my academic career but had a lot more portability which I valued. Make the choices that provide you what you need most.

  33. Qwerty*

    You have plenty of time to make the decision about whether to get on the management track. In 2.5yrs you have gone from junior to lead, which is relatively quick. There’s a lot that you can learn in your current role that will help you both if you decide to stay in it or if you choose to go into management in a couple years. There are trade-offs to being on the fast track.

    I have plenty of senior people on my team who are very happy where they are. No one judges them for not trying to get promoted, because management is very different from being an individual contributor. If you are happy with your current job, then just focus on doing it well for a while and re-evaluate occasionally to see if you feel the need for a change.

  34. The Happy Graduate*

    Something that I’ve come to realize over the years of my life (which at early 20s isn’t long but hey, we all have our stories), is that majority of people don’t end up in their dream job, and they get their fulfillment from their lives outside of work. Their jobs are how they make their livings and fill up their days, but it’s what they do with their personal time that brings them genuine joy and satisfaction with their lives – and that is completely okay! To me, it’s far better to just do your best at your job (within reason, don’t burn yourself out or take on more than you can handle) so you can keep options open and see where your life takes you. If you told me 5 years ago I’d be working in the industry I am now, I would’ve laughed so hard, but a series of seemingly unrelated changes happened and now I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at. If you’re finding yourself to be truly content and happy with the way your life is right now, that’s great and it’s what truly matters! Not everyone can be a C-level exec or VP, but that doesn’t make them any less happy in their lives. Our dreams and goals change as we grow, gain life experience, and find ourselves in new situations, you’re not alone in feeling like yours may be now!

    1. Karia*

      Yes! I read a great article a while back about how the myth of the dream job is used to manipulate people into accepting salaries and conditions that would have been laughable forty years ago – culminating in people *paying* to do unpaid internships.

  35. Anony*

    “Maybe you’re getting a clearer look at what matters most to you, and how you do and don’t want to spend your time.”

    This is me. I recently left a high-paying job because it didn’t offer any opportunities for advancement. I regretted it almost immediately and am trying to get it back. Like OP, I thought I had wanted to climb the career ladder; now I know I’d rather have financial/emotional/mental stability instead.

  36. Former Retail Lifer*

    I make decent (not great) money at a job I like. I have predictable times during certain seasons where I work extra hours, but, for the most part, I have a great work/life balance. I make enough to pay my bills and still do some fun things, and I actually have the time to enjoy those fun things, I’m at a pretty good balance of pay vs. stress right now. While more money is always welcome, I don’t want more stress.

  37. Student*

    I think it’s important to note that lots of people have reported their workload went up significantly due to COVID. The workload you are seeing now may be wildly out-of-whack compared to normal workload in your career. It’s worth asking you peers and your boss or mentors what things look like in normal times, and how workload changes over a longer career period.

    In my organization’s case, COVID has made lots of projects just take more work to do. It’s made meetings notably less productive because it’s easier for the team to “multi-task” (ignore the meeting to write emails) while working remotely. It has extended our “normal” work hours by several hours each week.

    The last one, longer work hours, happened because the move from in-person work to remote work, plus the lack of other fun things to do when not at work, has utterly destroyed our organization’s norms around business hours. Before COVID, most of our team & bosses worked strict 8-hour days in the office, commuted home, and then you wouldn’t hear from them until they commuted back to the office the next work day. Now, all up and down our org, people are working when they normally would’ve been commuting, then working more. It’s been a feedback cycle/domino effect, as higher bosses push lower bosses to work more, and then lower bosses end up asking their team for more after-hours.

  38. Paris Geller*

    OP, based on what you’re saying, I feel like you might be like me in that I’m very achievement-oriented. I also always saw myself pursuing a high-power career because in school and college I was always pushing further and working harder to excel and be The Best, whatever that meant at that moment in time. I am seven years out of college and three years out of grad school, and I realize that in life there’s a lot more paths to achievement than in school. I’m still ambitious and want to grow my career, but there’s multiple paths to that. You can be career oriented and dedicate your work time to learning more in your field and still take a route that doesn’t lead to the C suite.

    1. Sydney Ellen Wade*

      I didn’t realize my desire for a high-power career could be linked to my over-achieving academic mindset until your comment. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

  39. CarCarJabar*

    I, too, once had big C-suite dreams…. I graduated with a professional degree, and some of my classmates are now far along in their partner-track careers. I decided that wasn’t the path for me. I love my work, but I don’t want the stress and responsibility of being a partner, C-suite exec, etc. I can put my work away and enjoy my family time, I get an adequate amount of sleep, and my employer can live without me long enough for me to take great vacations. Personally, I have no regrets.

  40. Buni*

    I used to work as a Llama Groomer and loved it, but at every single performance review they would push ‘career progression’, or ‘what training are you doing to advance?’, or ‘what level of responsibility would you like next?’. They wanted to make me Lead i/c of Curry Combs, or take on Team Manager of Stable Lads.

    The thing is, the more managerial roles you take, or the further up the ladder you go, the less time to spend…actually grooming llamas. Which was what I joined to do in the first place, because I loved it.

    It became genuinely hard to think of ‘acceptable’ reasons why I was turning down extra responsibilities or managerial roles – for some reason ‘I love what I’m doing and want to keep doing it’ is baffling to some people…

  41. Kona*

    One thing to consider – sometimes “lower powered” career does not mean greater work-life balance. Sometimes it means less flexibility over your hours, or work. Sometimes a “less prestigious” organization will have fewer resources, so you are doing more of the tasks yourself, instead of delegating them to others as you would in a higher-resourced organization. Sometimes working “part-time” means still needing to get the job done, so similar hours with less pay and benefits. It is worth considering all of these facets.

    1. kt*

      Yes, please do consider that. Is it easier to have flex time if you’re covering the phones, or if you can have your assistant reschedule all your meetings?

      There is a lot of room between covering the phones and the C-suite, and many places to find work-life balance — they’re not 100% correlated with pay (either way).

      1. Cedrus Libani*

        This is true. The harder it would be to replace you, the more room you have to negotiate. For example, I know someone who’s working 70% time – he had to find an employer who would agree to that, and he took a pay cut, but he’s a very good developer so he was able to make it work.

  42. Darcy*

    OP – If you haven’t ever seen this cartoon about defining success, I’d highly recommend it:

    I frequently get pushed to take higher-level roles, and decline because I have a child with high needs and I don’t want to be so burned out at work that I can’t support my child, or enjoy spending time with my family and on my hobbies. We’re all told that climbing the ladder is the best option, but I think it’s really important to make that decision for ourselves.

    You have plenty of time to change your mind if you decide you want to pursue a higher-level position down the road. Take care of yourself during this extremely trying time!

  43. Georgina Fredrika*

    I definitely feel like it’s too easy to answer this, and it’s a question that requires a lot of self-reflection. A lot of people who excelled in school figured the same applies to life – get a 4.0 and be top of the class, then get a promotion and be top of the company. But it doesn’t always work that way! You won’t necessarily want to go turbo speeding through your whole life.

    Some people really do enjoy being in those positions & their lives are essentially their work – and that’s fine. But it definitely isn’t everyone.

    It’s also worth reflecting on why your goal is to be a VP or C-level executive – considering these roles can be vastly different depending on the company/size of org/industry, it seems like a rather arbitrary goal for an adult to hold over themselves? Will being “at the top” actually make a meaningful difference to your life/how you see yourself/etc? It definitely might, but don’t follow a life path just because it’s something you decided sounded right for yourself at age 21.

    1. CM*

      Interesting typo, I thought you were saying “easy” because this advice is easy to give but hard to take. I still struggle with this, 20 years into my career — my ambition and level of caring about my work fluctuate. I think the key is finding meaning in what you’re doing, unless you don’t mind having a day-job purely to pay the bills. And that takes some introspection, to figure out what makes a job or a career meaningful to you. I’ll never forget the person I met who ran a salon and how her eyes shone when she told me all the hygiene measures she took, and how the women who used her services could feel comforted and safe with her in a way they couldn’t anywhere else.

  44. Annie Porter*

    I can only speak to my experience, but I was on the VP/C-suite trajectory for a horrible boss, ended up leaving, taking a big pay cut, and a job with far fewer responsibilities and even less status. I was terrified that I’d have huge regrets and negative financial implications.

    For me, it was the best thing I ever did for my mental health, and I adjusted to my new income fairly easily. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the occasional Power Pang, but then I look at my work-life balance and that pang fades pretty quickly. :)

    1. CamJansen*

      Totally agree. I shut my computer off before dinner and feel just fine about it. I dont even have email come to my phone anymore. Its glorious.

  45. Darcy*

    OP – If you haven’t seen this comic about defining success, I’d highly recommend looking it up: Zen Pencils 128 Bill Watterson.
    We all have to decide for ourselves what the right career path is. I have turned down several higher level positions so I could support my high-needs child, spend time with my family, and enjoy my hobbies.
    You have plenty of time to change your mind and pursue a different option later. Take care of yourself during this difficult time.

  46. Temporary Anon*

    For a lot of C-level and executive jobs, there’s an issue of expectation vs. reality. And a tremendous amount of societal/cultural influence telling us that the pinnacle of success is the highest paying job available in your field. For some people it is, and for others it’s a monkey’s paw. Anecdotally, I have a parent who only ever aspired to be a CEO (he also was the “why A-? Why not A+” parent, and I was always firmly a B student). Consider why you want(ed) an executive level job. Had you always wanted it because it suited your personality, or because it seemed like that’s the type of thing you were supposed to do? The path it takes to get there, the likelihood of continued success and mental well-being… it’s not for everyone, despite how it’s discussed and depicted.

    FWIW, this B-student is in senior management right now, and I am the opposite of lovin’ it. My team and my workplace do not know. To them, I am thriving and happy. My team is healthy and supported, I am doing All The Things & More with a smile and a “can do attitude” but I’m burned out and unhappy. My Cum Laude spouse on the other hand, is C-suite and it suits his personality type. This isn’t his preferred job (he wants to be a stay at home parent, minus the cooking part), but it’s the right fit. Again, just down to the type of person you are.

    Last, I think someone mentioned above that executive opportunities are relatively rare. I would say that’s true. If you determine that post-COVID your heart truly wants to look into leadership, perhaps consider other opportunities or positions that may not confer the right title but serve to fulfill that need.

  47. Marie*

    Honestly? I think a lot of kids our age (I started working 3 years ago), especially middle/upper middle class kids, grew up being peppered with the idea that we’re destined for greatness. We can be president! We’re CEO material! We can do anything! There’s an expectation for high achievement that parents, teachers, and peers feed into.

    Then you actually *get* to the workforce and you realize that not only are the odds of you landing that coveted job rather slim, but the satisfaction and status (and often pay) you get from that coveted job aren’t worth all the stress, lost sleep, and long hours that come with it. I think some people are truly cut out for that work, but a lot of people just want it because that’s what we’ve been told we should want.

  48. Firecat*

    Most people I know in their mid 30s who prioritized work: the in early stay late I’ll eventually get promoted if if I keep saying yes crowd are:
    1. Not that far along in their careers (I’ve actually surpassed some despite having strict work life balance)
    2. Regret their lack of a personal life. They have few friends, are unmarried, and it is mainly attributed to not making time for that in their mid to late 20s.
    3. Are burnt out and/or have health issues.

    It sounds like you are thinking your choices are: work yourself to death and become CEO or have a life and no career. There is a wide spectrum in between.

  49. Cedrus Libani*

    It’s OK to want a happy, balanced life. You don’t have to want to be a superstar.

    I was on the fast track in my teens and twenties. I was good at what I did – real good. And I genuinely loved the work. But the work was the only thing in my life, and it was destabilizing. I couldn’t handle failure; my work was the only reason I was worth anything, to anyone. Every setback cut me to the bone.

    I recognized the pattern, and consciously made room in my life for other things. I got hobbies. I got a family. I got a job that uses my skills, but does not require a “live to work” mindset. My job is not considered elite; nobody’s going to remember my name. But I’m happy.

  50. Lizy*

    I was very similar. Figured I’d be this Super Awesome Head of Somewhere and was all about work work work and I loved my job and blah blah blah… anyhow – I realized through many various Things Happening and probably just getting a smidge older in general that I … really don’t want that. I have time for kids and hobbies and LIFE and it’s much more of a pleasant existence. It’s ok to take some time and revisit what you want. It can change, and that’s ok, and especially this year, I wouldn’t bet on anything lol

  51. kt*

    I’m sort of out of the norm of these comments, I think, in that I’m realizing (close t0 40) that I do want to try climbing the ladder. I don’t have a title I want — I want certain opportunities. Because I’m older, I *think* I have a clearer idea of what’s important to me, but that is still evolving too. But I’m realizing that I care about expanding my impact in some very specific ways and the clearest path to that is promotion.

    I had a lower-paid job. It was hard work. Now I have a higher-paid job. Workload is not that different — what is different is the industry.

    Good luck.

  52. Artemesia*

    A note from the far side of these decisions. I am in my late 70s and have been retired for about 10 years. My husband and I both decided to have mid range careers so we could both have them and raise a family. He was partner in a small law firm where one partner did a lot with boy scouts, one was an avid athlete, and he sang in opera choruses and symphony choruses which takes a lot of evening time with practice. They all wanted to have a life as well as a living; they did well but we didn’t get fabulously rich which we might have if that had been job one. I was an academic who lost my tenure track job in a merger (along with 41 others most of them already tenured — whole departments were dismissed to avoid law suits). I was the only one who managed to weasel back in to the new system and finish a career there but it was not as lustrous as it might have been and I had to turn down offers in other cities because I had moved my husband out of his job once and just didn’t have it in me to do it again (incredibly difficult things to do in law). We have had a happy life with plenty — we have traveled all over the world, both before and after retirement, we live in a nice condo now overlooking Lake Michigan. Life is good and we are not looking back regretting missed time with our kids nor are we bored because we couldn’t think of anything to do when we retired. Choosing work life balance can in fact lead to a happy and reasonably prosperous life.

  53. CamJansen*

    I just love this question.

    I had a crisis of career about 3 years after I finished undergrad. I had a strong dislike for all career paths that naturally spun out of my degree. It was hard because it forced me to define myself differently! And recently after having been in a field I a)didnt even know existed when I was in school and b) really loved but burned out on, I’ve made a lane change that will allow more steady growth but is a bit less glamorous than the previous role I had.

    For me, this Annie Dillard quote “how we spend our days is of course how we spend our loves” has really resonated with me lately. I’m not sure the prestigious career aspirations are really in the cards for me, but being intentional and strategic about moving my career forward at a tolerable pace while *still enjoying the life happening around me* has been a welcome reframing of my goals and career anxieties.

    Its seasonal, too. This season is a crappy crisis season. The next one might bring you the energy you need and want to accelerate, and then you might find you naturally slow down here and there and the cycle continues.

    Careers don’t have to be linear!

  54. Going anonymous for this one*

    I’m a C-level executive and sometimes, especially since the start of the pandemic, I ask myself if my professional accolades are worth the sacrifices I’ve made in my personal life. I made a choice to put work before everything else, including my relationships and health…and what do I have to show for it? No one likes to come in second, which is something I’ve been reminded by partners, family members, etc, many times over. I pay other people to run my life and not even my vacation time is really my own.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have a good life, but at what point is any of it enough? I have been the youngest employee and executive at every job I’ve ever had, but I am still chasing the next big thing. And because I have accomplished so much at a relatively early age, there’s the constant nagging anxiety about what comes next, and how to make sure I don’t peak too early. I’ve received a ton of professional recognition and am considered to be one of the top people in my field. But one day someone younger, hungrier and sharper than I am will come along and then what will I be left with?

    I recognize my privilege here: I am financially secure and have had some, frankly, amazing opportunities and experiences. But lockdown has really changed my perspective on things.

  55. Former Employee*

    It’s really hard to know what you’ll end up wanting to do long term when you’re still fairly young.

    I knew I didn’t want kids, so I was willing to put in more time at work. However, I didn’t want to manage people or be responsible for creating budgets, either.

    Ultimately, I landed in a challenging, stressful job with long hours at certain times of the year, since clients, especially larger ones, would have their fiscal year set at different times, but generally it would be on the quarter (12/31 or 1/1; 3/31 or 4/1; etc.).

    Eventually, I had to take early retirement because it got to be too much for me. The good was news that because I made a decent salary and had good benefits, I was able to take that early retirement despite the fact that I was still in my 50’s, so too young to collect social security.

    Considering that I have had some serious health matters to deal with for the past several years, I was especially glad that I was able to retire early and basically do nothing for about 10 years (with the exception of about 1 1/2 years of part time temp work along the way).

    I was lucky that I ended up with this kind of balance because I couldn’t have known how things would turn out when I started. For me, it was worth it to spend a lot of years working too many hours so that I could retire early. For others, it might be better to work a less demanding job, at lower pay, and work more years, especially if kids are in the picture.

    Best of luck to you, OP. You seem like a thoughtful person, so I have confidence that you will find your way as you get a bit older and gain more experience.

  56. BonzaSonza*

    When I left high school I thought I was ambitious and had a career plan mapped out. I worked my butt off and got into my preferred course (with minimum score 98/100, pre-entry aptitude tests and formal interviews required for consideration) at my preferred university.

    Then life happened. I had to drop out of my degree due to external circumstances and got an entry level role in a bank. I felt like a failure, but decided to just be the best bank teller I could be for the time being and try to be happy whatever my situation.

    And I realised that I genuinely was happy! I met a man within weeks whom I later married – we are nearing our 15th anniversary and we would never have met if I’d remained on campus.

    I’m now the 2IC of a team in a global company, with a niche technical role that combines all my various disparate work experience. I’m well paid, intellectually stimulated at work and still very happy.

    You don’t always have to be ambitious, driven and strategic to have a successful career, and happiness and contentment can definitely be found outside your work.

  57. Karia*

    I spent my twenties working extremely hard, and was a manager aged 25. Not entirely out of choice; my partner was sick and I had to support us. I also hated it, and in my mid thirties am now thoroughly burnt out. The result has been an inability to relax and a lifestyle that cost me most of my friends.

    (My partner is better now, has a good job, and has increased his salary in half the time I did).

    I’m so burned that every single mistake, even say, software breaking or external vendor issues, sends me into a spiral for days. I tried to quit the other week.

    My boss encouraged me to delay the decision; I think he thinks it’s related to Covid. It’s more that Covid has been the proverbial straw. Ask yourself whether this is a temporary adjustment or the final confirmation of something you already knew.

  58. Been there*

    I actually took a secondment role managing a team for long term leave, with a view that I could go for a permanent role in the future due to expansion. I was doing a lot of manager level tasks so I felt I had the know how, but had fears it could disrupt work life balance as I was already doing overtime. Unfortunately my fears were confirmed beyond my expectations, but covid has had an impact on the volume of work and the inability to gain new staff for my area. I am bny normally and optimist,
    and would say it will get better when… but when hasn’t come and things have only gotten worse. The only thing getting me through is the fact next year I will be back to my normal role. I am glad I tried it though as otherwise I may have always thought what if or gone for the role and ended up leaving.

  59. JelloStapler*

    Thank you for this. I chose not to go for a promotion this year because there was way too much else going on in my life (FIL ill which impacted the family business for my husband, I was the only one that could handle if our kids went remote for school, high anxiety). I stand by my decision and I have had good conversations with my supervisors at work about it, but this really helped to read.

  60. Scott D*

    I’m in my 50s and consciously decided in my 20s not to pursue a high-paying, powerful position and I do not regret it. Don’t get me wrong–I work hard at a job I love but that’s the key “a job I love” vs. “I want to be powerful and make a ton of money.” The latter choice isn’t necessarily wrong–but it was wrong for me.

    I went into higher education and I have to tell you there’s nothing more rewarding to me than seeing someone I mentored succeed at whatever they decided to do. That satisfaction is not worth any amount of money or power.

    BUT I also knew early on that I have a lot of interests outside of work–sports, playing music in a band, learning foreign languages, writing etc. and chose a job that would give me time to pursue those things. And a high-powered, high-stress job wouldn’t be one of them.

    In short, I chose a balanced career that makes a difference in people’s lives but also gives me lots of down time to engage in my own pursuits and I don’t regret it for a minute. Follow your heart. Alison is right that things are crazy right now. You’re still young. If, in two years, you decide “hey, I really am ready to go for that high powered position” you’ve still got time. And if you don’t, realize that’s fine too.

  61. Emilitron*

    When you’re a person with confidence in your own capabilites, and you’ve historically set and met very high goals for yourself, there’s a really positive feedback loop around “success”. Knowing that you’re doing well is a great reward and a great incentive to keep doing it. One of the hardest things, though, is finding out what “success” means to you.

    Changing your goals is not the same as failing to achieve your goals. When I was 9 I wanted to be a ballerina and/or an astronaut. When I was 18 I wanted to be a professor and get my work published in NYT Science section. I don’t regret moving on from any of those aspirations. These days I am mid-career, past my “peak” and clearly not going to become famous or rich, but very satisfied as my household breadwinner. And I was thrilled to find out that strangers in my organization know my name and are delighted to get the chance to work with me because they’ve heard I’m good at my job – that’s success! It’s not about failing to become successful, it’s about expanding (and maturing) your definition of success.

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