do I really have to have career ambition?

A reader writes:

I’m the type of person who works for one and only one reason: to earn a living. I do a good job, but this is 100 percent because I’m terrified of starving in the streets and 0 percent because I genuinely care about work or want to build up a “career.”

There aren’t any jobs in the universe I’d ever actually want to do. I’ve never read any job description and not thought, “well, that sounds awful.” The highest bar I’m interested in setting re: work is finding something that isn’t too awful to bear every day, and performing well so I don’t get fired.

I accept that having a job also means being required to nod and smile along with all the company BS. I do. But I struggle mightily with my company’s obsession with everyone’s “career development.” It’s fine that this stuff is there for people who are interested—what I don’t understand is why those of us who aren’t interested, and are never going to be interested, are forced to participate too. No matter how many times, year after year, I smile and repeat “I’m fine with where I am now, I don’t have any goals beyond performing well in this role,” I can’t seem to escape it.

Is it too much to expect that I can simply have a job that allows me to earn a living and that’s it? Or will I really have to keep dealing with this CAREER nonsense until retirement? If so, how do I navigate this? Do I need to come up with some convincing fake “goals” and “passions” to appease the powers that be? If so, I’m completely blank on ideas for what to say and would appreciate suggestions.

You can read my answer to this letter at Vice today. Head over there to read it.

{ 258 comments… read them below }

  1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    Retirement.

    Your career ambition is to set up your post-career life and get there. So you never have to think about work again.

    1. KHB*

      If that’s your goal, though, wouldn’t advancing into a higher-paid position help get you there sooner?

      1. Chilipepper*

        That’s what I was thinking. Go ahead and advance to make more money. But of course, that might mean more responsibilities than the OP wants.

            1. KHB*

              Maybe sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s just the opposite – jobs get cushier and better-paid as you go up the ladder.

              1. Daffy Duck*

                I have found this to be true also. Minimum wage jobs = no flexibility and you get treated poorly. The higher up the ladder you go the more flexibility you have as long as the job gets done.

                1. TechWorker*

                  This probably depends on company/I think there can sometimes come a point where it starts to go the other way. If you’re the decision maker and something *needs* a critical decision now, then you might be getting called on your holiday to make it. Or maybe not. But definitely don’t think it’s true that more responsibility always equals more flexibility.

                2. allathian*

                  Minimum wage jobs for sure. But there’s a lot of room between minimum wage jobs and high-stress jobs in management. I suspect the LW wants something that is a bit beyond entry level but doesn’t have any management responsibilities or expectations of working more than 40 hours per week.

                3. Koalafied*

                  I think it’s more of a U-shaped curve. As an entry level white collar worker I was given a fair amount of flexibility and autonomy, but the work was easier and I worked wayyyyyyy less overtime than I do now in a senior role. When you’re entry level your boss or your boss’s boss are ultimately the ones responsible for the success of a project, even if you mess up it’s seen as more their fault for not training you properly, or not seeing that things were going off course early enough to intervene than it is your fault for making a mistake, or not catching your mistake before it went public/live. I’ve also found that the higher up the chain you rise, for whatever reason, you start dealing with people who are increasingly less emotionally intelligent and often just flat-out less kind. My mid-level managers showed a lot more compassion than they were getting from their own superiors in the C-suite.

      2. TWW*

        Right? If you take an entry-level job in your 20s and never make much effort to advance into higher-paying positions, you may end up being very old (or possibly dead) before you have enough saved to retire.

        I sympathize with LW not being passionate about their career, but there’s a balance. If you want to ensure you have the time and money to pursue your real passions, you’ll probably have to put a little fake passion into your job.

        (And of course, you don’t have to wait till you retire. I know lots of working professionals who have plenty of free time and money.)

        1. Joan Rivers*

          I’m curious — what do you do when you’re NOT at work?

          Do you have hobbies? Do you have the “personal goals” that the answer cites? Or do you just sit in front of the TV every night and have no interests? I bet you’re interested in something.

          Do any of those interests include skills you could use in a job? Just curious.

          I’m a writer and here I am writing for free because I enjoy it. But I’ve written for money too.

          1. Anon for this*

            I read books, and participate in a variety of crafting hobbies, and enjoy cooking. Why does everyone need to monetize their hobby?

            1. Grits McGee*

              I think Joan wasn’t pushing OP to monetize their hobbies, but to look for commonalities between activities that they enjoy in their free time and work tasks. For example, could your love of sorting through and organizing your spice collection help you find enjoyable aspects of filing and sorting in the workplace? (Joan, please correct me if I’m wrong!)

          2. Forrest*

            Speaking as someone who does career coaching for a living, I don’t think “what do you like to do outside work / can you turn that into a career?” is good advice for most people. Generally, if people are interested in turning their fun activities into paid work, they know about it! They may not know *how* to do it, but IME it’s rare for someone to be interested in doing that and never to considered it.

            And it works for comparatively few people: doing what you love as a pastime but for money fundamentally changes the way you engage with it, and people finding out that they’re not suited to a career in ~grand passion~ is much more common than the other way around, I think!

            1. BubbleTea*

              I don’t think it is “turn your hobby into a job” so much as “identify what you like about your hobby and see if any jobs have similar aspects”. I am a bit of a personal finance geek, and I love reading about other people’s lives – whether that is fiction or blogs. So I absolutely love my job where I give advice to people about their personal finance! Someone whose hobby is snowboarding might want a job that involves adrenaline and physical labour, or being outside a lot, or travelling to beautiful places, or using high-tech equipment well. Depends what it is that they love about snowboarding.

              1. aebhel*

                Sometimes, sure. But like… my hobby is writing, and while I can identify things about it other than the actual act of writing that could theoretically interest me in a job where I can regularly make money at it (creativity! language! nitpicking grammar!), it turns out that what I really enjoy are the kind of jobs where I can do most of my work without engaging a lot of my attention so I have plenty of space to daydream. I loved being a housekeeper for exactly this reason and would probably still be doing it if the pay wasn’t so lousy.

            2. Richard Hershberger*

              Also, turning your fun activities into paid work is the quickest way to make sure they are no longer fun.

              1. Neil*

                I absolutely agree. I love using genealogy sites to build up my family tree – the fun aspect is finding out more about relatives I am already aware of and learning about those who are new to me. Turning my hobby into a job would definitely take the fun out of it as people I work for would probably have unreasonable expectations (“My grandmother told me that my uncle so-and-so was an aide to Queen Elizabeth II. Prove it”.) If I couldn’t find proof of this, I would probably be fired.

                1. a sound engineer*

                  It’s funny that you say this – my mom is similar and actually now has added that on to her professional organizing career – aside from organizing she will also help digitize photos/records etc and research people’s family trees for them! The closest thing she’s had to your example is “supposedly I am related to the Nordstroms, can you help me find out if I qualify for the family discount”

                2. JSPA*

                  The idea isn’t, “take your hobby and sell it as a job,” though.

                  It’s to notice, define, and put to use, “X makes most people glaze over, but I kinda / almost enjoy it.”

                  Basically, if there are things that you find neutral-to-interesting that other people find mind-killingly soporific, you can often get paid good money (for the “misery” aspect of the job) to do something you actually don’t much mind.

                  For example, if you have some computer skills, that might mean that working for a genealogy website (or a crime lab doing ID based on family relationships) could be more interesting than coding for a website selling widgets.

                  OK with looking through old documents / old script writing–History museum? Census Bureau? Tracing the provenance of art, from one family to another, using old documents?

                  Charmed by functional genetics–Planning the mating charts for members of an endangered species?

                  Fascinated by how people (re)connect with their history–Tracing selected family histories for a holocaust museum?

                  If there’s something where you say, “I bet I’m more comfortable with the daily grind of X than most people, because it shares [aspect I find appealing] with something I do for fun,” you’ve just found a potential “fit.”

                  A bead crafter who actively enjoys sorting and stashing their materials (rather than considering it the worst part of their crafting day) could be a natural fit for a seed bank, or for re-organizing scientific type specimens, or cataloging looted archeological material. “Use what you love to find a job that fits” doesn’t mean, “so sell your bracelets on Etsy.”

                3. Forrest*

                  JSPA— I agree that if I’m working with a client— someone who has made a decision to approach me because they want to find a job they enjoy— that is very close to one of the conversations we might have (especially if it’s someone with relatively work experience.) But making those kind of connections and turning it into an actionable job plan that fits in with all their other priorities and motivations is pretty difficult for most people to do by themselves, which is why it gets turned into “you like making X? Have you considered selling X?”

                  And that’s a situation where someone is actively looking for a career they enjoy, whereas in this case OP just wants to be left alone to earn money and not care!

          3. All het up about it*

            My thought is that instead of saying essentially saying “I’m good” in all these conversations, an easy way to play the game is to be aware of what changes are happening in the field and take a few courses to stay on top of things. Coming from a person who has taken positions after someone was in them for decades, trying to move the work to today’s standards after someone else never changed how they did things is exhausting and difficult. A good boss and org is going to want to avoid having to go from Practice C to Practice P in one big jump when they should have been incrementally moving in that direction for the past seven years or more! Knowing a professional organization you can belong to so that you can occasionally attend a webinar or make sure to “keep up with best practices” is an easy way to play the game. Talking about best practices in these conversations every once in awhile could help assure a manager that even if you want to stay in the same role until you retire, that doesn’t mean you want to be dinosaur they are SO excited to get rid of so they can finally modernize the department.

            1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              Thank you. I’m all for people wanting to stay in a role for much or most of their career, but there’s no excuse for that desire to get in the way of staying current. People who don’t get that seem not to realize that their refusal to keep up with best practices ends up hurting them and everyone around them.

          4. please do not refer to me*

            I’m not OP, but honestly the minute I stopped obsessively scanning my personal interests for their potential as either Career Goals or Ways To Make Money, I became a lot happier. Also a lot more free to have personal interests that cannot possibly translate to money or career status.

        2. Koalafied*

          Hah, there’s always part of me that, when my boss asks where I’d like to see myself in 3-5 years, wants to answer (quite truthfully), “My current job, but for a lot more money.” But I figure that’s not worth saying aloud since it’s probably true of almost everyone and also not an attainable goal for almost anyone.

        1. Former Dev Manager*

          I accidentally ended up with an entire team of this type of person, and it took several years to realize this. It was super frustrating, because everyone was highly skilled at what they did (software development), but had absolutely zero desire to think for themselves about the bigger picture context of their work.

          I agree with others that it’s quite useful to have some of these on your team, but it’s surprisingly hard to hire in a way that avoids accidentally ending up with an entire team like this, and then you’re stuck. Ultimately it screws them over too, when you move on and there’s nobody to promote internally, which is what happened.

      3. Ariadne Oliver*

        Absolutely. I’m also one of these people who hates to work but I also realized that the more money I earn, the easier it gets to deal with the pain and the quicker I can get out of the rat race.

      4. Worktolive*

        Personally, I’d rather live now instead of busting my ass for a hypothetical retirement. If that means I work 36/week until I’m 65 vs. working 50/hours a week to retire a 50, that’s okay.

        1. Texan In Exile*

          I have so many friends who say they will travel when they retire.

          I also have friends whose parents have died at 62. I have friends who are just now being diagnosed with serious health conditions that will prevent travel. I have friends who have faced financial problems because of their children’s needs.

          Live your life now while you are healthy. Your time after 5:00 p.m. every day is worth more than gold. You have the proper attitude in my view.

          1. Koalafied*

            Yep. My housemate’s father passed away a couple of summers ago from a brain tumor – it was maybe 2-3 months that elapsed between the diagnosis and his death. He was a healthy, fit, active man in his mid/late 60s. He had saved diligently for retirement and had many plans for a future that never came.

            There’s a balance to be struck. Killing yourself now in expectation of a much-delayed payoff is no more wise a strategy than frittering your time away now as if the future will never arrive.

            Oddly, I figured something very similar out years earlier when I was living in my first “starter” home – an old, semi-neglected fixer-upper I’d gotten for well below the market rate in a very nice area – and my mom had recently sold my childhood home. She’d spent a small fortune on new floors floors, stripping old wallpaper and repainting, new appliances, new landscaping, etc to get it “ready” to sell, because those were things our affluent local market demanded to get the best price. All that money and she only got to live in that snazzy upgraded house and enjoy the fruits of her labors for a few weeks. The house had appreciated enough in value, was already paid off, and she was moving out to a much lower cost of living area, so she came out ahead, at least. But I told myself at the time, every year that I can afford it, I’m going to do something for my home that I know I’ll need to do if I want my house to be competitive with my neighbors when I sell. I’d rather make the improvements now while I’m here to enjoy them than put it off until I end up having to make them for someone else to enjoy.

          2. Dashed*

            I could not agree more. I learned that lesson early on, when both of my parents died before retirement. All of those trips they were going to take…never happened. I had to throw out many travel books and magazines with post-it notes detailing their plans for the future that never happened. I decided to learn from that.

            So, we chose to travel in our 40s and 50s. I am so glad we did so when we were that age. I now have arthritis in my feet (does not run in my family and therefore totally unexpected). I could never walk all over Europe the way I did even five years ago. If I had waited til retirement, I’d have never traveled at all.

        2. Sleeping Late Every Day*

          My spouse and I viewed work as something to finance our vacations. They aren’t grand vacations, either – long road trips to parks and small towns, but it’s what WE like. We also live fairly modestly – small house, one car – so we can survive retirement and still travel.

          1. TeaCoziesRUs*

            Smart and excellent way to live. He who does with the most toys…. still dies. And no graveyard has a storage unit.

        3. allathian*

          Yup, me too, absolutely!

          I like my job. I’m not paid big bucks but I also don’t have high stress, except occasionally during a big project, but my employer is good with working shorter days afterwards to recover, in addition to decent vacations. I’m a senior IC and I can’t advance any further without moving into management, and I’m just glad that my management chain understands and accepts that I’m not interested in going that way.

          This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in keeping my skills current, quite the reverse! I got a professional certificate last year and I’m attending webinars and doing online trainings every few months to improve my skills.

      5. ScottM*

        I like to point out that I have been at the same company for 30 years, in the same role as when I was hired. Now, that job description has changed over time. But I’ve never been promoted. I started a 401k early on, and I am ahead of the goal to retire at 65.
        Now, this is a professional job, and I have a college degree. It’s not a minimum wage job. But it is possible to not move up in a corporation and still do well enough to retire at a normal age

    2. JC*

      OP, research the fire movement and barista FI. Do what you can to save up a decent emergency fund and savings pot and then just quit your job and do what you want- travel, retrain, volunteer full time, work a minimum wage job you actually enjoy- without the worries and stress of the bills. A lot of people dislike their job and the corporate machine, and are actively working to have a different lifestyle. There is so much more to life then sitting in a cubicle and being miserable all day.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        My brother took a while to get his feet under him – cubicle life was never going to happen, he’d have been miserable. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t encouraged to consider trade schools instead of university, especially after he left university after just a year.

        It took him a while to find the right thing but his job (of 20 years now) is perfect for him – no real room to advance (so ambition is moot), lots of field work to very little desk work, and plenty of flexibility. It’ll take him a while to get to where he can retire comfortably, but he has a pretty spare lifestyle and no significant expenses and that works for him.

      2. David*

        FI goals, fine.

        FI strategies, absolute horse****, contingent on a unique convergence of historical coincidences which has already ended. The US equities market is not going to behave like it did between 1950 and 2007, ever again.

        You cannot have any reasonable expectation to retire at 35 on a US$1-1.5 million stock portfolio from which you’re going to extract US$40,000-50,000 in present-day value each year for 50+ years without eating the nest egg in its entirety long before that time is up.

  2. STG*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. No real advice but you aren’t alone. I do WISH that I had a passion for working or a particular job but I just don’t. I’ve learned to accept it most days.

    1. EPLawyer*

      That’s what I LOVE about this site. Alison gets that not everyone has “passion” for their job. That sometimes we are working because we like things like a roof over our heads and food on the table. SOOOO much “career advice” is “find your passion” or “work hard, play hard.” Or other crap that ignores we exchange our labor for a paycheck and that’s pretty much it.

      There is more to life than work. It’s okay not to have WORK be the central theme.

      1. Quiet Liberal*

        Amen to this! Most of us work to live. I have a hard time understanding the living to work mindset.

      2. Sasha*

        Even if you love your job, you may not want work to be the only thing in your life!

        I’m a doctor, obviously I love my job and have put a lot of effort into my career. But I also love my kids! And my health! And travelling, and hobbies!

        I work compressed hours over 3.5 days a week, plus a bit of admin from home, and honestly that is plenty of time to spend at work.

    2. Joan Rivers*

      I worked in publishing from the high school lit. mag. on, but later in life learned I loved to flip houses, always for a profit. I’d live in one till I sold it, because that’s what’s so great about real estate — you have to live somewhere, you can’t live in a bank CD but you can live in a house.

      And w/o doing renovation I’d customize the house by buying at the estate sales and garage sales I enjoyed, things that fit that house — say, the perfect mirror and table for that odd niche in the hallway.

      So I turned my “hobbies” or “passions” into part of my house flip. When I worked in NYC real estate wasn’t an option but in a smaller city it was. You never know. And while you live in the house you’ll flip, you can still hold a day job, too.

      1. Oaktree*

        You ever think about the massive rise in the cost of rental housing, and how it’s out of proportion with inflation? Just wondering if you’ve considered how flipping houses impacts people’s ability to find affordable housing, since it tends to increase property values, which means landlords will hike rent. This is how gentrification makes people homeless.

        Just wondering if that made it into your calculus.

        1. pope suburban*

          Oh, we just need to stop getting a prepared coffee once a year, there’s nothing wrong there! It’s the young people who are wrong, not stagnant wages and a completely screwed housing market!

        2. Domino*

          A house flipper is someone who buys an affordable house, makes it less affordable, and leaves with tax-free profit in their pocket. I have no idea how it’s even legal.

        3. David*

          Blaming the state of the housing market in major US cities on gentrifiers/flippers is, well, wrong-headed at minimum.

          The urban cores were inevitably going to rebound from their 1960’s and 1970’s lows, and the only way that was going to happen was through something like what has actually happened; wealthier residents returning to live/work/spend money.

          The problem is two-fold: the cities haven’t used the windfall in tax revenues to effectively increase quality of life for long-time residents in many or most cases, and zoning laws are a nightmare, not because they exist but because they’re arbitrary and subject to the whim of hundreds of stakeholders from neighbors to city councilpeople.

          Calling out individuals in response to a systemic problem is the housing policy equivalent of the recycling debate; the answer is “no, the whole concept is bull; companies used to be responsible for maintaing their packaging cycle at their own expense and should be again.”

          Likewise, the answer here is “housing policy is broken and makes it virtually impossible to meet demand in high-demand regions, fix it.”

    3. RussianInTexas*

      Yeah, never had any passion for a job, expect to never have. Job for me is something I have to do to make money.
      My hobbies are reading books, watch TV, hang out with friends, no crafts or any kind, nor cooking, nor gardening. So nothing I can monetize either, nor do I want to.

    4. Rez123*

      I actually think that this is majority of people. This site tends to skew towards more career minded people (quite naturally) but I think most people work cause they have to and work in a certain place cause they happened to be hired there when applying to jobs that sounded like something they might get an interview for.

    1. Knope Knope Knope*

      I have always been super motivated to advance in my career because I love the work (and to be clear I do love the work) but the older I get the more money = motivation! I want to enjoy my life out of work! Work lets me do that.

      1. Anon for this*

        This. I work at a non profit, in a field where you can either do non profit, feel good about yourself, and make decent but not great pay, or work for a corporation, take pride in your work but be less about FOR THE COMMUNITY, and make double the pay. I like my job, I like the place where I live, I could probably ambitiously climb the ladder here and satisfy all of my desire for more of a challenge needs… especially since my team is constantly getting new projects thrown at us so the opportunity for growth is huge.

        However, I’m not going to stay here forever. The massive difference in salary between what I could make at a corporation and what I’m making at a non profit cannot be ignored, and while it’s currently worth it, since being here will qualify me to get certifications that are needed to move up faster and more cheaply than if I leave, there will come a point where I cannot get any more career development if I stay. And once that happens… I don’t particularly consider myself greedy, but it would be nice to be able to be able to buy a house. Or buy an actually new car. These factors alone will motivate me to seek out a new job where I can make more money, all else being equal.

    2. Asenath*

      There’s often a balance, though. Career advancement can come with duties or hours a worker might intensely dislike, particularly if the worker is already earning enough to support themselves and save for retirement, and if there are some regular pay increases to keep the money in line with the market. I left a job that paid a lot better than what I ended up doing, but still managed to earn a good enough living to keep myself and to be contented. I would never return to that earlier job for any amount of money or any amount of outside respect for holding a somewhat higher status job – any benefit from supporting myself at a higher level just wasn’t worth it if I had to do a job I hated.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, working hours are a biggie for me. I like reading, watching TV/streaming, gentle exercise, and playing games on my phone to relax. Nothing I could monetize even if I wanted to, and I don’t. With a family there’s also a lot of obligations that I do out of a sense of duty rather than pleasure, although I wouldn’t be able to escape doing chores even if I lived alone.

        I’ve never seen the point of earning a lot of money if you have to work all the time and never get the opportunity to enjoy what you have.

      2. boop the first*

        I’m a min-wage type worker and my only choice for “advancement” is management, and in these industries, I’ve seen that management is all about being on-call 24/7 as the company scapegoat with nothing to do, and you couldn’t pay me enough to be that level of bored.

        *Extra* money won’t save me if I can’t make it to retirement age in the first place. Our tactic was to have a modest home that’s paid off so we don’t have to worry about skyrocketing rents when we’re getting pennies from the govt pension. My hobby pays for itself, so as long as we can eat, you can park me in front of a garden and I’ll be good.

    3. aebhel*

      Yeah, but at a certain point the money isn’t worth being miserable for 8 hours a day.

      I had an opportunity to take over as the director of my library when my last director retired–I was the interim director, and the board really liked me–but I *hated* every aspect of the job so much that it wasn’t worth the $20k raise to me. I do okay at my current salary and I don’t dread going to work every day, and that’s kind of the balance I’d rather have.

  3. Just Another HR Pro*

    I have always had the stance that we need people like you in organizations. Not everyone has career ambitions and that is fine – I personally have no desire to move any further up in my career (Im a manager) because the further you move up in your career, the more hassle comes with the money. But in my job I put my all into my job, and do work to stay current. And that is what I have found with regards to people in similar situations. And in my field, I often see it with payroll clerks, HR generalists and other more administrative roles. Al lot of those employees have families, or like to have a life, OR they don’t need the job for financial reasons, but simply a need to engage their minds. In fact – some of my best employees are exactly those people.

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      There are tons of organizations that want people to become really great at what they do and don’t need to move up, you just have to find the right one. Admin positions in law firms are one of them. There are certain levels of advancement, but a certain point you top out with out a law degree. Great experienced legal secretaries are highly valued and often people stay in a position for years especially if they find an attorney(s) they work well with. You might get a title bump of senior legal secretary, or move up to legal secretary manager but you don’t have to. Paralegal positions can also be similar. Bigger firms might have case assistants, junior paralegal, paralegal, and senior paralegal, but it does eventually top out without going to law school.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I am a paralegal who can pass as a lawyer. This is a delicate way of saying I am a paralegal who is also a middle-aged white male. I sometimes get asked, by both lawyers and non-lawyers, why I never went to law school. My stock answer is that I considered it about twenty years ago and decided that the numbers didn’t make sense, given the cost of school and my age. This is true, but incomplete. I also wouldn’t want the grief. I don’t have to worry that my license and malpractice insurance are ever on the line, and since I can’t give legal advice, a lot of unpleasant conversations with clients or would-be clients get kicked up to my boss. Life is good.

        1. Lilli*

          What exactly is the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal or between a paralegal and a lawyer?

          I’m training to become a lawyer in Germany and I just realized that I never learned what a paralegal does exactly.

          1. madge*

            I’ve been out of the field for 15+ years but when I was a paralegal, the job was very research-focused which I LOVED. I also summarized depositions and medical records, and attended court with attorneys. At that time and in that area, I could also attend court on my own for certain matters. The “legal secretaries” (legal assistants were similar but closer to paralegals) in our firms maintained files, drafted correspondence, handled calendars, etc.
            It was a huge, unwelcome shock to move to a new city and discover that paralegal duties were mostly handled by law clerks (which was an entirely separate role in my old city), and other law firm positions were heavily administrative.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              What court matters could you do yourself? My experience is anything that involves just the clerk’s office is a go, but anything in a courtroom requires a real lawyer.

              1. EchoGirl*

                I did some paralegal-type work for a nonprofit that did (among other things) public benefits cases and I was able to do administrative hearings. For actual courtroom cases, a lawyer would have to be involved, but the admin hearings are basically a form of third-party arbitration so you can have a non-lawyer represent you.

                1. Jaydee*

                  Seconding administrative hearings. The legal aid program I worked at had a couple of paralegals with robust administrative practices – Social Security, Medicaid appeals, unemployment. If it needed to go to judicial review, an attorney would take over. But they always had an attorney assigned as co-counsel anyway. Which was a great gig, because they were so experienced that they required minimal supervision beyond occasional questions or regular status updates/check-ins about the case.

          2. Richard Hershberger*

            Paralegal is an under-defined job title. It varies wildly. The bottom line is that I can’t represent a client in a courtroom, I can’t sign my own name to legal pleadings, and I can’t give legal advice. There is a bit of slop here. I have twice in my career found myself talking to a judge. Both times were by accident. I was at the courthouse on an errand which neither I nor my boss anticipated would include this discussion. In both cases I opened my part by explaining that I was the paralegal, this being the path to avoid trouble. And while I can’t sign my own name to pleadings, I sign my boss’s all the time, though not without express permission. (I might in a pinch, with an emergency pleading that needed to be filed this instant and he was unavailable. This has never happened, but I have come close.) As for legal advice, there is a lot of gray area.

            That is what a paralegal can’t do. What can one do? In theory, everything else. In practice this is a negotiation between the paralegal and the lawyer. The whole point of a paralegal is to take work off the lawyer’s desk. A good boss will figure out what the paralegal can do, and let them fly with it, leaving less work for the lawyer. Many lawyers are control freaks, so it often doesn’t work that way. And in a large firm roles often are pretty tightly defined and there is a lot of “stay in your lane.”

            I work for a solo practitioner, who mostly does personal injury and workers’ compensation. The permits a lot of flexibility. I have good reading and writing skills and can construct a chain of logic, so I draft the routine and the semi-routine pleadings. A motion that is largely fact-based I will handle myself and he will review it. The more law-based it is, the more he does it, though I help with the research. I also spend a lot of time reviewing medical records and making sense of them, and I draft the demand letter when the time comes, summarizing the facts of the incident, the injuries, and the course of treatment.

            But what does another sort of paralegal do? Heck if I know, in any specific sense. If I am talking even with another personal injury paralegal in a small firm, I don’t really know how they spend their days. I think the most general answer is that a paralegal falls between the lawyer and the legal secretary levels, and does some functions of both, the ratio depending on the individual situation.

            Legal assistant you ask? Um… Good question. It is an even vaguer title than paralegal. A solo practitioner with just one employee might well call that person a legal assistant to cover a multitude of sins. Other times it seems to be another word for paralegal. My sense is that the title will typically include more clerical tasks than a paralegal might do, but I am not at all confident of this.

            1. Queen Anon*

              I worked at a small firm (sole practitioner with several paralegals and assistants) where the lead paralegal did everything for the boss. Literally everything – I don’t know the last time the attorney wrote a pleading or even a letter; he schmoozed rich clients and signed things. Paralegal did it all and had a 6 figure salary in exchange but he was miserable because the attorney was a horrible person. Yelled, screamed, threw things – I haven’t missed him a bit in the last 20 years! Paralegal called it his golden handcuffs. He did eventually leave – he and attorney had a yelling screaming throwing match one day and paralegal walked out. Not one person there could blame him. Other people in the legal community referred to it as their divorce. (I hope he landed somewhere much better, if not as well-paying)

              1. Richard Hershberger*

                This opinion is not universal, and it depends on the specialty, but I find a high support staff to lawyer ratio a red flag. In personal injury it means that this is a settlement shop, tending to favor a modest settlement quickly over a big settlement later, and much more than going to litigation. This is not necessarily in the best interests of the client.

                1. Cough cough hack hack*

                  It totally depends on the specialty. For routine immigration cases, the ratio might be one lawyer to several paralegals, because the paralegals do all the drafting and much of the routine client communication, and the lawyer just reviews, signs, and makes judgment calls in non-routine situations.

                  I’ve had numerous people assume I was a lawyer – I have accompanied clients to government agencies to ensure that they weren’t jerked around. (Not representing them, of course – just providing explanations and pointing out information on documents where needed. And sometimes foreign-language interpreting.) It usually worked out at least as well as it would have if a lawyer had accompanied them, and much more cheaply for the client.

          3. tamarack and fireweed*

            I believe the occupational profile of paralegal is close to what in Germany is Rechtsanwaltsfachangestellte/r.

      2. Gimble*

        Communications can be another. Fresh perspectives and familiarity with the latest industry trends are nice, sure, but *my kingdom* for someone who wants to stay in a role more than three years! That’s long enough to develop deep relationships with reporters and partners, become expert on all our platforms, learn details of our programs, and help train new hires. I’d be beyond thrilled to have someone solid who’d settle in and just get better and better at what they do.

      3. MK*

        Here’s the thing though: the OP is not great at what she does, by her own admission, and has no interest in becoming so. This is not someone content with their low-level work and trying to excel at it, which is what the organizations you mention look for.

        “We really want and need someone who will do the job fine enough not to get fired” said no one ever.

        1. Gimble*

          Eh. In a lot of jobs, doing a thing for years will almost automatically make you more skilled, accurate, and faster at it, and require less supervision doing it, all of which make life easier for a manager. Being personally passionate about it will often get you to that point more quickly–and can make you more enjoyable to work with–but it’s not always required.

        2. UKDancer*

          I don’t know. I can think of a few field where doing the job well enough is sufficient. For example my mother used to run several tourism information bureaux.

          A number of her staff did the job well enough but weren’t outstanding. They didn’t need to be. As long as they kept the leaflet racks full, informed the tourists what there was to see and do and dealt with hotel bookings that was sufficient. They didn’t need to be shockingly brilliant. Most of them were farmers’ wives who did this for a little extra money in the summer. People who were outstanding moved on to better things quickly.

          I’ve worked in places where having a reasonably adequate admin was a good thing. The chap in a previous company who had been doing the same admin job for 30 years but filed all our papers and ensured we all had hotel rooms when we needed wasn’t brilliant or inspiring. He was happy to do the job and we were glad to have him. Anyone more brilliant would probably have gone on to better things. Obviously the quid pro quo was that if he wanted to progress he’d need to put more effort in and he’d only earn a fairly low wage but he seemed content.

          1. MissBaudelaire*

            I was just thinking this. In my current company, the talented, brilliant people don’t stay. They move on to bigger and better things. And they should! But the adequate people are the ones that stay, and honestly, they’re the ones that keep things moving.

            I have told the company if they want to keep the unicorns, they have to give them reasons to stay. And not offering pay increases or opportunities to move up doesn’t snag those people.

    2. Dan*

      Yeah. My org places an outsize corporate value on “leadership.” It drives me a little nuts, because every time my managers put together presentations for the higher ups, the phrasing is “this work is lead by X…” Well, half of the time X is an individual contributor, and is the only person *doing* the work. Or X may be “leading” the work, but has no clue about the subject matter, and is supervising a team that knows how to get things done, and doesn’t add technical value. So X’s real job is to make sure the metaphorical bus doesn’t crash, but little credit is given to the people who actually make the project a success. (I’m not slamming X here, it’s that the team doesn’t get credit it deserves at the corporate level.)

      The real problem I have with this emphasis is that it assumes technical competency is a given when it’s not. There is no shame in good technical execution, and we *want* people who can execute well. When we do our performance plans for the year, we’re told that our personal goals need to tie back to corporate strategy. So much of corporate strategy is about leadership and business development, and I’ve told my bosses that realistically, there’s nothing practical in those corporate goals that younger technical staff can grab on to.

    3. lnelson1218*

      I would rather have an employee who is great at their current position and even with no desire to move up than someone who is super ambitious but doesn’t get along with the rest of the staff eg stabs people in the back for career advancement.
      I am actually happy with 80% of my job. I would love to move up a little mainly because I could leave some of the very entry level stuff on my plate, off my plate. But if I don’t go anywhere I can’t really complain. I like what I do and the people with whom I do it. Plus I do earn enough to pay my bills, put away for retirement/savings and I do have a life outside of the office.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      I have a number of people on my team who have no aspirations for management, and they are awesome. I love having them, and they fill a very important role. The downside is that they do hit a point where increases are going to plateau to COL (with bonuses for exceptional performance), but if they’re happy and are doing a good job, I’m happy to keep their expertise and institutional knowledge in the building.

      The “career development” conversations are typically because, as managers, we are bombarded with the message that people are going to leave if we don’t keep them stimulated, moving forward, progressing in their career. If someone says to me, “You know what, I am very happy doing widget work and want to keep doing it.”, that’s fantastic, unless I need a developing leader in that role.

      The one thing I will say re professional growth and development – there are some industries where you have to do this to stay current. Not management training, but skills and technology training. I had to let go a long-time employee whose skills had stagnated and who, despite over a year of work and a lot of training dollar spent on it, just ultimately did not want to make the turn to the newer technology/skills required for the job and were qualified to take on fewer and fewer projects in-house as the work transitioned.

  4. Aphrodite*

    I’m an admin assistant who has been working, more or less, as one for almost all of my work life. I’ve seen bosses, including my favorite one now, who in my opinion are paid at least twice what I am but work four times harder and longer. That I do not aspire to.

    I like doing an excellent job because it is in my nature to do my best. But I also have no interest in the awfulness I know exists at the higher levels. I too will stay where I am and work my forty hours. As for career development, I ignore it even if my body has to be in some classes for it. I make a point of looking and acting involved (but not overly enthusiastic). My passions, my interests, my real life is in my personal life–which stay very separate and compartmentalized and about which I rarely, and only briefly if I am required to, talk.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, I feel sorry for my middle manager bosses who have been lovely and dedicated and are usually hamstrung most of the time, so they move on a lot. One of them said she made “big pennies” for all the work she did, so the financial whatever wasn’t even worth it. Several have told me it is perfectly fine to not have ambition.

    2. CRM*

      Those are really good points that you made! With higher salary comes a higher headache, and I think that more people should be realistic about whether that track is right for them or not (I know it isn’t for me, I am a naturally anxious person and can barely handle the stress of my lower-level job!).

      Also, about sitting in a class to keep up appearances: this is actually a really good, low-effort way to engage with career development. Every year, I attend one conference and one job-related course. I focus on one or two things that I can take home to discuss with my boss (even if that thing is “that course wasn’t worth the time, lets not do it again in the future”), and then enjoy the rest of my day/week outside of work. Sometimes I even learn stuff that helps me in my job (and therefore makes my life easier), or meet potential vendors or job candidates. Everyone is happy, and I don’t need to pretend that I’m interested in management.

    3. I'm just here for the cats*

      I agree. I work as an admin assistant in higher ed and this last year I would not want my directors’ job, or any of the other members of my teams’ job.

      1. JelloStapler*

        As someone in higher ed, I 100% agree. There have been times I would have preferred a different job.

    4. pope suburban*

      Same. I know exactly the job I want, and it is a step above the one I have right now- so, still close to the bottom! But it’s engaging work, it’s much less surface acting, the schedule is virtually the same as mine, and it offers benefits. I could absolutely do that job until it’s time to retire (Which I’d be able to do with that job; not so much with this one). I’ve covered it for extensive periods and I’m good at it and I like it more than I like most jobs. I don’t want to be in charge of everything, I just want a good amount of engagement and a little more autonomy than I have right now. What I like about that job is that it would allow me a healthy work-life balance, which is something I value highly after a lot of toxic or demanding roles.

    5. Rez123*

      We had management position open in my department and my family encouraged me to apply due to career development. No thanks. The base salary was about $300/month than my current salary. I would have had to manage a 10 person team. Work closely with 2 other same level managers in the same department. The director is the only one allowed to make any real decisions. So basically you have ton on responsibility without any power and always need to agree everything with 2 other people. While simultaniously listen to app the crap from above (director) and below (the team). DOes not sound like fun for the extra money.

    6. J.E.*

      I agree. The only part of a higher up job I’d want is the money and none of the extra responsibilities. I do not aspire to management at all or working more than 40 hours a week, and I wish even that were less.

  5. Jessica*

    GenX here. While I totally understand the LW’s point and am not unsympathetic, from where I sit this also feels like a privileged problem to have.

    I’m awestruck when people talk about their high school having actual guidance counseling. One of my parents was a SAHM and the other was self-employed/in sales and the only guidance I ever got from them was “Education is good, get lots of it!” I have spent most of my adult life accidentally stumbling into a series of jobs without having even a concept of My Career because I didn’t really come from a class position where people have Careers. I now work in higher ed but I’m at the line where staff meets faculty, i.e. I report to a faculty person, i.e. the overwhelming majority of my supervisors have had no concept about managing people or what my job reality might be or that I could have a career path or any other HR-adjacent thing.

    I can’t imagine having a job where managers were regularly trying to help me with career development.

    1. Pop*

      I mean…I think we could say that the majority of the problems on this website are “privileged problems to have,” because they’re all surrounding work and employment. Many questions say something like “I really like my job except (x problem)” or that they’re hoping to not have to leave because the job is a good fit for them. Most of us have some privilege around our jobs in some way. I’m sure you have aspects of your job that others on this website would love to have as a problem: my husband would love to be able to have some paid vacation time or a M-F consistent schedule week to week!

      1. Archaeopteryx*

        I agree, there are some letters where OPs need a broader perspective, but if we lower the bar this far for what warrants “check your privilege” type comments, almost every letter on this site will devolve the comments section into “at least you *have* [everything besides the problem they’re writing in about]”.

        1. llamaswithouthats*

          Agree. Discussions about systemic privilege are important, but I’m sick of this trend of throwing around privilege red herrings when there is no point to it.

      2. Jessica*

        Y’all are all correct, and sorry, I guess I was guilty here of a bit of “oh no, you broke your leg? Sorry to hear, that must be really painful! Reminds me of the time I sprained my ankle…” I didn’t mean to diminish the LW’s problem, I was just kind of marveling at it.

        I also wonder, and maybe this is a question for Alison: do the writers whose letters she answers in other venues know that their letter is also linked to from this blog? Do they all even know AAM exists? Or do some of them probably just know Alison as the work advice columnist at [whichever of the other publications she writes for their letter appeared in]? I’m just wondering what the odds are that these LWs ever see the AAM comments section on their letters.

        1. tamarack and fireweed*

          TBH, without 100% agreeing with you, my reaction to the LW personally was along the lines “well, if your problem is that once a year you have to sit through a meeting with your boss where you internally roll your eyes” then … it’s not really an emergency. On the other hand, though, I think the problem this touches on is interesting enough for the discussion to go in instructive directions.

          (And FWIW I have a friend who quite clearly said that professional ambition wasn’t for them. They qualified as an accountant and worked part-time for a bigger firm, which meant busy end-of-months and then basically 2 weeks off. They were lucky to be able to buy, early, a duplex apartment building in a city in which real estate values appreciated enormously since. They lived in one unit, kept one as a guest unit, and rented out the other ones for low-end rent to people they selected partially based on need – they always had a waiting list. Then later they took in their aging mother and very elderly aunt and is caring for them full-time, with their retirement income contributing to their expenses. They never traveled much, don’t have expensive habits, and are going to be just financially secure without luxury. They WERE annoyed occasionally when friends etc. assumed that everyone had to have professional ambitions.)

    2. Aggretsuko*

      I feel like “career development” is a token thing that people feel like they have to say, but most of them don’t actually really put work into it. Both managers and peons, really. I just put BS about taking work classes or learning more work processes every year, and does anyone really care? No, because I’m a clerical worker and that’s a dead end anyway.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I think this is true, but you occasionally run into someone who regards it as a crusade. It also can be weaponized. Back when I was working for Walmart a manager asked me about my career ambition. The honest answer would have been to find a better job working for someone else, but I couldn’t say that, so I gave an honest answer about a position several levels higher. Then whenever he wanted to scold me, he would bring that up, as in “how to you expect to reach this goal if…?” feh.

    3. Sandman*

      Yeah, I hear that this is a real problem for the OP and I don’t begrudge them that at all, but literally no one has ever cared to support any kind of career development for me at all.

      1. Anon for this*

        It’s definitely a double edged sword, I have a manager who is obsessed with CERTIFICATIONS (the more the merrier) and many of the certifications he keeps shoving at me (via linking me online study material for the exams) have no bearing either on this job or the ones I expect to hold as part of my long term career plan. Career development advice is only useful when both you, and the advice giver, have a solid understanding and appreciation for your long term plans.

      2. RussianInTexas*

        At my last job it was kind of the worst of both worlds.
        You had to have goals for your 6 months reviews, you were not allowed not to have them: career development goals, job performance goals, etc.
        But the kicker was, they job was (and I actually liked it!) pretty repetitive, depending on the customers one, meaning you could not actually perform better or increase your metrics unless you get more customers orders (not being in sales meant I had no control over it), the promotion from that particular group was not possible due to no one having the required MBAs, or just not being in the position that could lead to the management.
        So everyone dutifully created goals and then dutifully ignored them, and my poor manager gave everyone good scores, because he was stuck in the same position basically.

        1. Aggretsuko*

          “So everyone dutifully created goals and then dutifully ignored them”

          Hahahaha, sounds like every review ever.

    4. Rayray*

      Maybe OP is like you and never really got that push or support in career development and that’s part of why they don’t have a focused goal or interest.

      Cause honestly, I’m just as jaded and apathetic about my career as OP is and I also never got a lot of help in my career.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      My experience is not that far off – my high school guidance counselor didn’t know my name until she got my SAT scores, and, outside of sending my application packet info to colleges, she did pretty much nothing for me. My parents were self-employed, and my father was one of those people who never wanted to have a boss because he lacked interpersonal and professional skills to succeed in a corporate environment and often made snide comments about white collar workers.

      I have a career entirely out of luck. (Not that I have not worked very hard, but, without some luck and opportunity, I would definitely not be where I am.) My parents went through a nasty divorce while I was in college, and an aunt I barely knew invited me to do life with her and helped me get an internship to get me out of their house during college. At that internship, I got assigned to a supervisor who became a mentor and helped me so much for quite some time. That mentor also helped me get my first and second jobs. I’ve worked with people who were willing to give me much-needed (but kindly delivered) feedback. My boss at my third job picked up this mentoring role, and I took over their job when they moved on. My current boss is amazing on this front as well – very different than me, but provides a different prospective and lots of growth advice and opportunity.

    6. boop the first*

      Some people see advancement pressures as well-meaning hands up, and often it’s actually just companies wanting to take more from you for less money. Nothing privileged about that.

  6. TWW*

    I believe LW’s conviction that all work is, at best, barely tolerable is self-fulfilling.

    I guess I must have drunk the corporate cool-aid

    1. Chilipepper*

      I am lately binge watching a youtube channel of a young couple who fixed up a beat up old sailboat with almost no money and started sailing around the world. They built up a youtube and patreon following that, apparently, covers all their costs. They are going on 6 years now.

      I think they would also think regular work is barely tolerable. And yes, this attitude is self-fulfilling. But the OP wants to just do the 40 hours and have enough to live on. That’s ok.

    2. RabbitRabbit*

      I think it may be due to the “Do what you love” nonsense that motivational speakers peddle. It is damned few people who will be either able to do what they truly love as work AND make money at it, or who actually LOVE their work.

      Shooting for something closer to “be good at what you do for work” is much more realistic for people. I have a knack for dealing with research regulations. I don’t live, eat, and breathe them and hold them dear to my heart, but I can certainly get into nerd-level conversations about certain issues.

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        Hit send too quickly: I don’t feel a sense of dread about starting the work week. I feel that I’m doing productive things with my work and care about doing it well, and yet if I won the lottery I probably would retire.

        1. UKDancer*

          This is me. I enjoy 80-90% of what I do and like most of the people I work with and it pays me enough to do the things I want to do in my spare time. I can’t say I’m passionately devoted to the company but I think it’s a pretty good job on the whole.

          That said if I won the lottery and never had to work again I would certainly cut my hours to part time and possibly retire and study dance choreography and spend my winters somewhere warmer.

        2. jojo*

          I totally agree. I enjoy my peon job, have no desire to move up in responsibilities. Seems I am good at that nitpick things my compatriots hate doing so I have a job I am good at and enjoy. And I am waiting for my Power ball to hit.

      2. KHB*

        Yeah, there is a huge amount of middle ground between “all work is at best barely tolerable” and “everybody should be following their passions and doing what they love.”

        I think there’s a lot to be said for finding a job where you at least like what you do at least most of the time. This is how you’re going to be spending the bulk of your waking hours, after all.

        1. Mialana*

          That mindset sounds so sad! I mean you do you and if you are okay with that mindset, that’s fine by me – but to be honest I can’t understand how people can dislike or almost hate every single job that there is… In my opinion there’s something to like about every job and if you are able to focus on that you’ll be much happier for roughly 40 hours each week.

    3. Filosofickle*

      I feel sad to hear someone thinks every single job description is “awful” and there is no job in the universe they want. (My BIL feels like this, too.) If the reaction to the job description was to think it’s meh, or boring, or not terrible I’d get it. Lots of people work to live and punch a clock. They aren’t passionate about it. But everything is awful?! I’m not work obsessed — I don’t want to move up, I keep my hours low intentionally, and I would rather not work than work in general — but I also find a lot of meaning in what I do. Even when I haven’t liked the work or company, sometimes I’ve found purpose in my team. There are a lot of different ways to feel good at work, even if it’s “it was boring but at least I earned a new sweater while filing today”, which is something I have indeed thought.

      I want to believe there is some job in the universe that isn’t terrible, for everyone, if they have the choices and access. I suppose there may be people for whom there is literally no good work or role or team. It’s hard for me to accept, though.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Yeah, that was my initial reaction reading this as well – how incredibly depressing is it that *every* job description sounds terrible! I can’t say that I *only* work to live – lots of people do, and it’s totally a fair way to go about it – but I definitely do not live to work.

        I’m hoping a bit that the LW was being a bit dramatic with wording choice, and instead is feeling perhaps pressured by the “find your passion at work” crowd, and not that in a literal sense whenever they read a job description their response is “that’s awful”. I think many, many people struggle with the overwhelming “I must be passionate about my work” that gets pushed a lot.

      2. The Original K.*

        Are we talking about corporate work? Because I for sure know people who would say that every office job description is awful – which is why they don’t work in offices. They do hair or they sell bikes or they tend bar (or did, before) or they fix cars.

        1. RabbitRabbit*

          I guess that’s a question for the LW. Do they mean all corporate work sounds like trash and yet they feel compelled to remain in it, or that they imagine all labor for pay is soul-destroying?

        2. Filosofickle*

          Exactly! I hired a contractor once who had a degree in graphic design but hated being in an office all day so now he fixes houses. Made sense to me.

          1. UKDancer*

            Yes my hairdresser tried working in an office as a pa and hated it. She absolutely loves her job now because it suits her skills and personality.

      3. Dan*

        OP comes across to me as wishing they were independently wealthy so they don’t have to work. TBH, I’m good at my job and I like my job, but I can understand why OP doesn’t like each of the things they’re talking about.

        Take job descriptions, they pretty much all suck. Usually two paragraphs of pointless corporate BS boilerplate. Bonus points when the req comes from a house-hold name company. Everybody knows what you do.) Followed by a couple of paragraphs of really dry job function description, followed by minimum and preferred qualifications.

        I’ve been in the professional world for the last 12 years, had two jobs in that time period, and do very well at my work. Yet, for the jobs I’ve had, I did not find them by applying blindly through job ads. I found them through networking. At my current job, I was called in for an interview via the network, and the night before told to apply for a job. I read the job req and thought, “geeze, I’m glad they called me, because I never would have applied for that.” When I interviewed with the HM, he described the work. And I was like, “dude… that’s *super* cool and I’d love to do that with you.” What I did not say on the spot was “find somebody else to write your job reqs because they suck.”

      4. Pescadero*

        I get it…

        I actually LIKE my job as far as jobs go…

        Problem is – I hate working. I hate the necessity and requirement to have a job.
        So while a particular job may not be horrible – the OBLIGATION of having any job IS.

        … and I haven’t been unemployed a single day in my 25 year career.

      5. Aggretsuko*

        I feel the same way, actually, it’s one of the reasons why I’ve taken the last few years off from job hunting (plus well, pandemic). Literally nothing sounds even Not That Awful when I look at jobs in my field. They either sound like worse than what I have or more of the same or I am completely apathetic at them. I literally don’t care enough to put the work into trying to apply, all the jobs blurred together, I couldn’t reasonably argue that I should be The Candidate when I didn’t give a shit about what they do, other than “well, maybe it doesn’t involve the phones?” (And then they usually involve the phones.)

        People have suggested technical writing, grant writing, and UX(????) writing to me. I might have been into technical writing but that requires more work and experience to get into. If I could magically segue into it, great, but it doesn’t look that easy to get into at this point in time. Grants just leave me cold and I don’t care, plus see the requirements for technical writing. And I signed up for some UX “course” online and was so bored and lost I couldn’t finish day one. At this point, cleaning my bathroom is more exciting than looking for possible reasonable job opportunities, and I’m a slob.

        I’ll note this is “reasonable job opportunities.” Anything unreasonable that I would enjoy more doesn’t have job security (hi, journalism) or requires me to start and run my own business, which doesn’t sound even a tiny bit fun either.

        1. GothicBee*

          Yes! I could have written exactly the same thing (down to the part about people suggesting technical writing/grant writing). I’ve started just focusing on other stuff outside of work for now instead of job searching. I’ve been hoping that focusing on other stuff will take the pressure off the job stuff and give me a chance to figure out what I actually want to do. Hasn’t quite happened yet though, so who knows?

        2. Texan In Exile*

          I know you aren’t asking for advice, but just in case you were interested – I was recently hired to start and run an internal newsletter for the 2,500-person tech department of an F100 company.

          I have had to identify and learn the softwares for distributing the letter, get Creative to design masthead, and all those infrastructure things, but I also get to find cool stories about smart people doing interesting things, interview these people, and write the stories.

          I feel like I have all the advantages of corporate life – health insurance and pension – with all the advantages of journalism.

    4. Archaeopteryx*

      This is true; it doesn’t have to be about the dreaded ~passion~, but if you’re in a stable non-toxic workplace, you can derive a lot of satisfaction from getting to be the best you can at it, improving processes, and learning new skills. Don’t cheat yourself out of some subtler sources of happiness just because you don’t want to move upward.

    5. Liz*

      I think this can depend on the circumstances and on the individual. I’ve been that person, I know people who are still there. Sometimes that might be mental health at play (some aspects of autism and adhd make performing any kind of task on demand extremely challenging), or sometimes a person might just not have options available to them that they find enjoyable.

      I was very lucky in that I had a little guidance and support to direct my energies into something that I did get some fulfillment from, but I still sometimes struggle to believe it would apply to anything other than the one good job I’ve had. I was immensely privileged to be able to go back to college to train for a job I wanted. Other people do not have that luxury, and their only options are all equally unappealing (one friend has talked about how he pretends he’s performing grind quests in a roll play game while he’s at work so he can “pretend there is a reward at the end”). Before I had the chance to study, the idea of returning to work would make me literally shake with dread. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d not had those extra options.

      Of course it’s entirely possible that LW has other options but hasn’t realised, but they may need some extra guidance from impartial sources in order to identify those, rather than help with progression within an environment they clearly don’t care for.

      1. boop the first*

        Indeed, in my case, I need to feel busy and useful and challenged the whole time, or else I start to feel resentful that I’m wasting time moving objects around at work to look good for the cameras when I could be doing good things at home for myself. Not enough stimulation leaves my mind open to starting *thoughts*, and thought trains are bad news.

        Unfortunately, the only things I’m qualified for is lone, repetitive manual labour, which means yes, all job options sound bad. :(

  7. CupcakeCounter*

    Alison’s second line is a particularly great one that you can combine with something along the lines of “I want to become a subject matter expert in my current area and be the go-to person for questions regarding X. I feel that my role is an essential cog in the company and me being able to answer X and Y quickly and accurately helps the company run as smooth as possible”.
    I would also suggest that if/when to want/need to move to another company, really look for jobs that have had long timers in the past. Certain areas really require someone consistent for decades – quality control is one particular area that comes to mind. While he is somewhat opposite of you (he would like to move up), they are throwing money and title changes at him to keep him in the role because he knows it so well. Took a couple of years to learn all the parts and pieces so now that he knows them all, he is a HUGE asset to the company. And since they really don’t want to lose him, he has a lot of capital to control his team and environment.
    Another is order/AP/data entry – consistency is key in those roles as well and since there can be higher turnover, someone who wants to stay and bring some stability is appreciated in the right company.

    1. Smithy*

      I think another way to look at this is where there are jobs that have a reasonable track of individual contributors. Essentially jobs where a reasonable number of staff forgo switching into management tracks, because it would mean giving up too much of the primary task they enjoy (or don’t hate) doing.

      If what you’re fine doing is Teapot Painting, but the more traditional trajectory for the role leads to team leader/manager/department head – then really focusing on how to become the best at that job is a helpful distinction that you’re not gunning for the next Teapot Painting Team Lead role. Additionally, it may be that it’s relatively uncommon for Teapot Painters to remain in the roll, however Teapot Glazers do have a larger group of staff who take that approach.

  8. Blueberry*

    I’m the same way. I’m in a “passion type” career right now that sounded amazing and cost $150k in student loans to achieve (now $250k thanks to the 6% interest rate set by the government and extremely low starting pay). If I won the Powerball I would quit in a heartbeat. I stay because I make low six figures now and I work 40 hours a week at a job most people in my sector don’t want to do which is amazing job security. I don’t want to move to management and work 60-70 hours a week for a little more money and I don’t want to move to a job where I can use more of my very expensive grad school skills. Most of my classmates were gunners who wanted to do the full mile on advancement and education while I was happy doing the basics and it has worked out for me. I don’t really think about work after work despite everyone thinking I should be highly depressed about it all the time. (I don’t want to say what my job is and dox myself, but it’s in an emotionally heavy field).
    You’re not alone. Gunning for the sake of it is just exhausting and unfulfilling.

  9. ThatGirl*

    I think about this sometimes. I want to get better at my job, I want to do new and interesting things, and get paid more…. but I don’t really want more responsibility! I like being an individual contributor, I think I’d be an OK manager but it would take me away from the day-to-day creative work I actually enjoy. I guess the main difference is I don’t hate my job or do it primarily out of fear of getting fired, but I’m still not super ambitious.

  10. ThatGirl*

    I think about this sometimes. I want to get better at my job, I want to do new and interesting things, and get paid more…. but I don’t really want more responsibility! I like being an individual contributor, I think I’d be an OK manager but it would take me away from the day-to-day creative work I actually enjoy. I guess the main difference is I don’t hate my job or do it primarily out of fear of getting fired, but I’m still not super ambitious.

    (I’m trying to repost this because I got a message that it was spam, my apologies if it comes through twice.)

    1. Dan*

      Hehe. On the record I come up with workplace appropriate language for career goals. Off the record, I told my boss my career goal is to make the most amount of money for the least amount of headaches, and we’ll need to have a candidate conversation about the headaches involved at the next level.

      I’m an IC, I make in the mid-six figures. I have a truly flexible schedule — I need to do 80 hours in a two week pay period, and it really doesn’t matter when, where, or how. (I don’t work more than 80 either.) I take PTO whenever I want, no permission required. I don’t have the responsibility of managing project deliverables which is a real PITA. I don’t really have deadlines either. The ones we do have are associated with project deliverables, and those are known well in advance. The PL’s job is to pull together the report, which is the time consuming part. I’m good at what I do, and my managers stay off my case.

      So when it comes time for the career development conversation, I just have two questions: Why should I give all that up, and what do I get in return?

    2. Spotted Kitty*

      I’m with you on this. My job is fine, but I have no interest in progressing to the next level, which is a manager-type job, because I like doing the hands-on stuff. My problem with work is that I always seem to be the best at (and enjoy doing the most) the grunt work. And the grunt work doesn’t get paid well. I’m not a big picture person. I like executing details and producing stuff.

  11. Free Meerkats*

    I had one of those managers once. He was ambitious and expected everyone else to be the same. It served him well, he started at my employer as a lab analyst at the same time I did in a related position. He became lab manager, then plant manager, then superintendent, then moved to the largest sewer agency in the state where he runs an entire division now. In that time, until 6 months ago, I was in the same position.

    When he’d ask about my career goals, I’d reply, “When [manager] gets promoted, take over his position, running the program.” and that satisfied him. I knew that, A. [manager] had no desire to get promoted, and B. there wasn’t anyplace for [manager] to get promoted to. [Manager] finally retired, and now I’m in that management job.

    1. JM in England*

      I too once had a manager like that. He essentially looked down his nose at those who weren’t ambitious and once put lack of ambition as a negative point on my performance review.

  12. AnonEmployee*

    I have never had any interest in career development either, hell, never had any interest in working but got bills to pay so there’s that. I started out as a receptionist (perfect for my Introverted self, not), and figured out over the years that I had a knack for computers. I transitioned to a tech support role, and am now in a more senior level which I can handle most days and comes with a nice salary. I’ve been asked a few times to become a manager to which I’ve always responded with a resounding “No.”. My job is pretty secure, and I am not asked to do anything too strenuous most of the time and rarely work overtime. At this point, I’m 55, and looking to retire in the next 3 years. Just make sure you have all your ducks in a row as far as savings/retirement, I have a couple of 401Ks and pensions (lucky to have landed in jobs that had both) as well as SS and have a husband who has a decent pension and SS. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, but I’ve found it more enjoyable to actually have a job that is interesting to me. You may want to look deeper into your own (personal) interests just to see if perhaps there is a job out there where you could do something you enjoy, and perhaps the development piece will occur organically.

  13. Alex*

    I think LW may underestimate the amount of people whose true ambition comes from the desire to make more money. If that’s not important to her, there’s nothing wrong with that! But I don’t think *most* people do what they do because it delights them and they just would love to do a more advanced version of it because it would delight them even more. Money is important to a lot of people and probably the source of a lot of the “ambition” floating around there. It certainly is my main (aka, only) motivation for wanting to be promoted!

    1. Cat Tree*

      It can be both things. I like my job pretty well, although I’d hesitate to say I actually love it. I even find my job fulfilling because of the industry. But ultimately, if they stopped paying me I’d stop working. Also, the money and benefits go a long way to smooth over the parts that I don’t like.

      1. Dan*

        I once heard that we don’t get paid to do the parts we like, we get paid to do the parts we don’t like.

        1. Cat Tree*

          That’s a good point. I’ve always been salary and genwork during the day, but at places with 24/7 manufacturing. So sometimes I work odd hours to support off shifts. Usually it’s planned, but sometimes I get stuck there late because of an emergency or change in manufacturing schedule. One time early on, my boss and I got stuck there late on a Friday night. I was annoyed, but he made the point that this is when he really earns his (large) paycheck. That really changed my perspective. As long as I’m not working long hours every week, I’m fine with occasional long weeks or days because I feel that I am paid fairly to account for that.

        2. UKDancer*

          Definitely. I’ve also heard (which stuck with me) that part of what we get paid for in work is being willing to put up with other people (colleagues, customers etc).

  14. I'm just here for the cats*

    There seems to be more companies who want their employees to have career goals. My last job wanted a 5 year plan and for me to list my personal goals along with my work goals. (Ick!). But at least they realized that not everyone wants to advance up the corporate ladder. And they said that out right at my first performance review (where we had to set these goals). There was one coworker who had been there for 10 years in the same role. They said it’s fine if you want to stay in X role and just do that, but if you want to grow there are limits in this department and you would have to move to other departments.

  15. ES*

    As a manager, I love it when I have a few of these types on my team. The reality is that an organization can only accommodate promotion tracks for so many people. While I enjoy and feel rewarded by helping develop ambitious employees on my team, it’s really nice to have people who are dedicated to sticking in their current function and getting better at it.

    I do make a point of revisiting that conversation periodically — after all, interests and desires change over time — but otherwise I leave it alone. I also make sure to point out potential consequences (at some point you’ll hit the top of the salary band, etc.) but in general I affirm their desire, make sure these folks know they’re welcome on the team, and shift my coaching role more toward professional development around functions and duties than career progression.

    Every team needs people like OP!

    1. NotQuiteAnonForThis*

      Furthering the point, if a company leans too far into “promotions and career advancement are EVERYTHING”, you wind up with a large number of “senior teapot designers” and a large number of “intern” and “brand spanking new teapot designers”. What’s missing? Just plain old “teapot designers”, who do the bulk of the work, keep the senior teapot designers sane by being able to run with individual pieces without having their hands held, and at the same time, mentor the new teapot designers and hold their hands. And then TPTB would wring their hands over not having any solid teapot designers, but the new hires were too green and needed mentorship, while the senior designers were too swamped to do any mentoring, and “what on earth can we do?! We know! We’ll promote people!”.

      Granted, maybe not every company will do the last part. It was baffling to watch two to three rounds of this, get not-quite-scolded for not being on the promotion-train, and repeat. I didn’t stick around for the fourth round of this nonsense (in three years).

      1. Dan*

        At my current org, I was hired into a department with this mentality. It was maddening. In that department, people *doing the work* weren’t valued, and this was kind of problematic because most of the “doers” were hired in straight out of school without any real world experience. This was an issue for two reasons. One, the work is tricky and you can’t just figure out on your own. Second, once you actually add some experience under your belt, the typical entry-level pay grades are below industry average for “experienced” staff. The next level up came with a substantial pay hike that was more competitive.

        I say the “doers” weren’t valued because that department’s management would not promote people who were just IC’s without any other “lead” or sponsor responsibilities. Why? I donno. I left that department when I started doing work for another department, and I took a look at the new department’s org chart and realized everybody in that department was at the pay grade I aspired to be at. I made a formal transfer and was promoted in a year… for just being a strong IC.

        FWIW, my old department has a reputation for being extremely toxic, and their attitude towards the IC technical staff is a big reason why.

    2. Mockingjay*

      ExToxicJob liked to hire ambitious, Type A personalities. Lots of “Go Getters” and “Gumption!” People were so busy jockeying for the few slots at the top that their work didn’t get done. I was talking to a coworker one day who completely dismissed my quieter, not ambitious colleague, until I pointed out that Quiet Colleague completed more work than anyone else, on time and accurately. Companies need steady performers; unfortunately they tend to be overlooked by squeakier wheels.

      1. JM in England*

        Your quiet colleague is the type of worker who isn’t truly appreciated until they are gone…

  16. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    Yes, I appreciate Alison’s advice on this topic. If your boss (current or future) push it during the conversation, consider adding a conversational pivot to Alison’s scripts, e.g.:

    “I do want to keep getting better at my current job, so I would be interested in learning how to use (new software, process, etc.).”

    Pick something that will make you more marketable, to help you increase your job security in the future, either with your current company or at others. This may satisfy your manager’s desire to help you grow, without making the mistake that growth must come in the form of advancing to a higher level role.

    1. Sara without an H*

      This is good advice. A lot of well-intentioned managers assume that there is something “wrong” with employees who don’t express ambition/passion/wild-eyed enthusiasm for their jobs. If OP can come up with a convincing speech about wanting to “grow and develop my llama-clipping skills,” attendance at a couple of llama-clipping workshops per year may keep the manager happy and make OP more marketable.

    2. Bostonian*

      Yes. Career development/growth doesn’t always have to look like climbing the corporate ladder. Sometimes you are OK with making sure you stay up-to-date with the industry, looking for process improvements where needed, and just overall continuing to improve in your work in whatever way makes sense for the role.

  17. Jennifer*

    I LOVE this letter. There must be more of us out there who, if we were being completely candid to the boss, would say “I work here because you pay me and because I like going out to lunch with my co-workers.”

    Given that “progressing in your career” frequently mean moving up into management, another thing LW could tell their boss is that they wouldn’t enjoy being a manager–it doesn’t suit their personality & work style–and that a management position would take them away from doing the work that they enjoy & are really good at.

  18. Aggretsuko*

    What I want careerwise in my industry is to be a subject matter expert/analyst. Someone who’s a relied on specialist/expert but ISN’T management or customer service. Something in the middle between “shitty peon” and manager. However, literally nothing I’ve done in the last nine years (job apps, classes, career counseling, an ill-fated job transfer that was my dream and then turned into a nightmare) has gotten me there, or even close to there. I have come to the conclusion that nobody wants me in that kind of role, and even the career counselors here have been all “heck if we know how anyone becomes an analyst.” Finding something that isn’t “peon” or “management” frequently doesn’t seem to exist as a thing, I suppose.

    This is my compromise career. I had my dream career (journalism), but I got booted out of that early on when things were starting to go to hell but hadn’t REALLY gone to hell yet, and was fortunate to get into my current industry before it became a a nightmare to get into. I wouldn’t be able to get back into journalism now and it wouldn’t be a good idea anyway, obviously. I consider myself fortunate that I’m not expendable in a pandemic and have remained safe, employed, insured, and at home. I am an artist type (like my name, I wish I was performing…and I disagree with the end of the last season!), but artists are almost always very expendable and if I had somehow been working in the arts or running my own business or whatever, I’d be super screwed now. I will NEVER work in a field I care about or enjoy again because what I love is expendable. You gotta go where the need is.

    Anyway, I don’t have any ambition either because I can’t do what I want to do or care about at all, and I don’t want to be a manager. There doesn’t appear to be anything else that I can see.

    This reminds me of one of my managers telling me that my coworker (probably in his late 50’s at the time) had said in his review that he just wanted to keep doing what he was doing until retirement. Sadly, that coworker got job switched like I did and he didn’t get to, but as far as I know he literally just endured the new job until retirement. That’s life.

    1. Bostonian*

      I hear this. Being that expert-level individual contributor means you get to have more influence, respect, independence, and visibility without having to deal with the headaches and politics of management.

  19. Betty Esq*

    I’m an attorney in a policy think tank. It was new when I joined it over a decade ago. The two very best things I have done in my career and my life are:
    (1) when I joined the organization, I agreed to the salary on the basis that my job would be classified full tine for benefits and loan forgiveness programs, but capped at four days a week with an expectation that those would be typical 8-hour work days, not expanded 10 or 12 hour days (to compensate for the reduction in salary I was taking with the job). AND
    (2) Sitting down with my boss about 5-6 years in and basically having this conversation. I used a combination of Allison’s suggested statements:
    “I’ve found my current role lets me focus on some of my personal goals outside of work and is a really good fit for my life, so for the foreseeable future I’d like to keep doing a good job in the position I’m in.” and “I value the way this job lets me focus on my work without some of the pressures that I’ve seen come with higher-level roles, so my goal is to continue doing well in this job, and I hope to be here doing it for a long time.”

    Boss appreciated hearing it. It’s shaped the sort of professional development I do and the projects I’m assigned. But it set very good ground rules and it’s worked for both me and the org, and my life.

    It’s not quite the same situation as the OP, but it helps me push back against how broken the US working culture is.

  20. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    During my senior year of college I had this conversation with my advisor/professor for my major. I was burned the crap out at that point. After 8 years of intense pressure (HS & undergrad) I was done. I told her that at that point I just wanted the degree so I could go and get a job that would pay me enough to live. I didn’t (and still don’t) have grandiose plans to be the President, a CEO or a groundbreaking researcher. I want to go to work, not hate it, make money, and enjoy my friends, family, hobbies, and spend my time making the world a better place. Despite what I thought she’d tell me, she just said that she understood and that she wished that the University put a little more focus on the latter part of the University’s mission “responsible citizens in the global community” instead of always focusing on the first part which is to “educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders”.

      1. JM in England*

        You’ve nailed it!
        As I said in an AAM post a few years back about not wanting to become a leader, if everyone was a manager, who would they manage?

        1. RussianInTexas*

          OH, this reminded me! In the 1990s Russia when the Western business nomenclature started to move in, titles got very screwy. I didn’t notice, because I lived there at the time, so it was normal.
          But then my dad visited, around 2003, and asked me “why is everyone in the department store has a name tag that says “manager”? Why is everyone is a director or a manager?”

          1. JM in England*

            A military analogy for this is having an army composed entirely of generals…….who does the actual fighting??

    1. Mockingjay*

      Concur. Sometimes I just toss the alumni newsletter without reading, to avoid the fawning list of grandiose accomplishments by my alma mater’s undergrads and graduates. Yes, some of them are doing wonderful things to “change the world” and that’s great. (These accomplishments also sound exhausting.) As for me, I’m glad I went to college, but my bachelors degree was a means to get a decent job. I purposely chose Current Job because it’s mundane and leaves me plenty of time for family and friends outside my 40 hours.

  21. learnedthehardway*

    No matter what your (lack of) career ambition, you should at least always be progressing your knowledge of the technologies in your field. That’s important to staying relevant and employable. If you have to participate in in your organization’s career planning / progression, perhaps stating that you want to get more training and experience with the technology tools and advancements could be a way for you to show the right kind of ambition, without requiring you to pursue more senior positions. Also, with some companies, it’s possible to progress your career as a subject matter expert – ie. deep in the functional area at an extremely expert level but not managing people. That could be an option for you to consider as well, that would allow for your participation in the company’s career planning without falsely positioning you as someone who is pursuing management opportunities.

    I could say that in a lot of ways, I’ve pursued this kind of strategy in my career – I am an expert in my field, but don’t manage a team.

    1. Haijlee*

      This is similar to what I came to the comments to say. As a manager, I appreciate solid performing employees who are happy in their current role. However I am also vested in development and constant learning. If employees learned nothing new or grew their skills from year to year, then we can’t grow as technology and tools evolve. Some people on my team have development goals to learn how to use MS Teams more effectively or perfect their powerpoint skills or to learn more about other areas of the organization just to expand their general knowledge. Career development isn’t always about moving up. It can be about staying relevant in your current role as the world evolves around you.

    2. J.E.*

      It’s also good to stay up to date on changing technologies because there could be something that makes your job even easier or allow you to automate chunks that you don’t like.

  22. Copyright Economist*

    I know people in the (Canadian) Government who are always looking for a higher position. Personally, I am happy with my present position and have no intention of seeking a promotion in the next 20 years.

    1. Neil*

      I’ve also heard of people like that. I’m glad that you’re happy with your current position – not everyone wants to be promoted. I am a temporary help worker doing data entry/records management in different Canadian government departments. I’ve never sought promotion as I move from job to job as I’m required – for most jobs I’m there for under a year (with rare exceptions I’ve had longer terms). Networking is an absolutely useless thing for me to do as the people in charge often change positions within their department or change departments altogether, also these people have no influence over the types of jobs I have.

    2. Domino*

      They’re not going after those higher positions just for the sake of it. They want to maximize their salary at the point of retirement in order to get the biggest pension they can. I currently earn $60,000, which is great and gives me a perfectly comfortable lifestyle. But my pension calculation tells me that when I retire, I’ll get something like $25,000 a year. Yikes. If I want a halfway decent standard of living in my twilight years, let alone afford a nursing home (they’re crazy expensive!), I need to somehow become a manager ASAP, despite having no interest or aptitude for it, and despite knowing that it would make me miserable for the rest of my career. Yay!

  23. BeenThere*

    Every year at my employer, we have to justify our existences by explaining in our annual evaluation how we’ve added value to the company and what four or five goals we want to work on for the next year.
    I hate this process.
    I’m good and fast at what I do. I have no goals to do anything else next year. I am able to come up with a few statistics that show that I’m good and fast. But I really, really struggle with the goals part.
    I have asked my manager why we have to do this, and basically the answer is that, well, some people want to do other things, and we want to help those folks achieve that. OK, I get that. But why am I not allowed to say: “I just want to keep doing the same good job I’ve been doing”? Manager can’t really answer that; it basically comes down to “Because it’s a requirement. And she gets this pinched, pursed-lip look on her face when she tells me this. I’ve asked twice. I know I’m really going to piss her off if I ask again, so I won’t.
    But still…

    1. Katydid*

      Yeah, I had this issue at a past job. I got around it by making my “goals” things that I was already doing well, but hadn’t documented to my boss. That way at the end of the year I could just record the good work I was already doing, and get credit for it in my evaluations as if it was something I had just “achieved”

    2. NaoNao*

      What about adjacent skills? I was in a similar “this job is just fine, thanks” role and some of my colleagues branched out to doing nano degrees in computer science, data science, and the like. I was pursuing 3-D and immersive tours as part of training courses before I hopped to another job/org.

      You could also go with personality test stuff, like Strengths Finder and go along with the “Well I’d like to learn my strengths and how to leverage them, and how best to work with others based on their strengths” etc.

  24. Secret Identity*

    I could have written this letter myself. I absolutely hate the idea of having my identity wrapped up in my career. And I hate the idea that you have to “love what you do”. I don’t. It’s not a bad job and I love working with the people I work with, for sure. And, I work for a nonprofit that helps people and I’m really happy that what I do, at least indirectly, has a positive impact on our community, but if I won the lottery I’d be gone tomorrow. I’d be done – I am not my job and my job is not me. I am who I am outside of work. My passions lie in my family and in the things I do in the evenings and on weekends. I work because I have to, not because I want to.
    I wish we could change our culture of “be passionate about what you do, dammit!”.
    Anyway, now that I’ve showed solidarity with the LW, I’m going over to the article to read Alison’s response. Peace out!

  25. Kali*

    NB. probably important to know I have ADHD for this.

    Honestly, I just want to do something interesting that pays the bills. My trouble is “interesting”. I started a degree way back in 2016 (as a mature student – I was 27) and that was a lot more interesting than anything I’d done before. But…part of that is because what I was focused on kept changing. I’m now doing a masters degree and for the first 6 months it was absolutely fascinating and I could see myself doing it forever…but then that feeling went away. So now what? Obviously, I’m going to finish the masters and get the highest grade I can, but then what? What stays interesting? How can I find that? I find it difficult to imagine what something will be like without trying it out. I think something to do with research will be good, but then there’s a lot of writing grant requests and so on which just bores me to tears. Something creative – which includes research – is also good, but any future career moves are likely to involve longer term projects, which increase the likelihood of boredom.

    Actually, all that said, there is something I’d like to do as a career. I’d like to identify the remains of missing WW2 soldiers. The problem with that is, the US is the only country that intentionally tries to locate and repatriate all ww2 remains, and I’m not American. Nor do I want to live in America, and my partner doesn’t either. There is a small team that does that job in the UK, but that consists of exactly 6 women and openings just don’t arise that often. That’s because they’re only needed when unidentified British remains happen to be found when, for example, the foundations of a new building are dug. Most of our soldiers were buried on the battlefield or in special cemeteries in Europe. Two of my great-grandfathers are in France and Belgium, respectively. There are still around 70,000 missing US soldiers from WW2, so the work is there, but, for a lot of them, the trail is cold or there’s no funding. The Red Cross does similar work for more recent conflicts, but I think more recent grief would be hard to cope with. I mean, for ww2 soldiers, they’d all be dead by now anyway. The grief is old. You know your grandfather has passed away, the only news is how and where and that his remains are coming home. But if your brother was disappeared by the government 10 years ago, you’re going to hope to find him alive. That’s a different kind of grief.

    1. Metadata minion*

      I’m hesitant to suggest this because the job market is terrible, but have you considered library science? One thing that I love about my job is getting to research lots of random different things rather than commit to one field of study.

      1. Kali*

        I’d never heard of it before. My first instinct is “dislike”, but when I examine that feeling, I suspect it’s because my teachers tended to notice I enjoyed reading and writing and say things like “you should be a journalist”, completely ignoring any other skills I had/have. So I think it’s the bit of me that’s had to defend and justify and interest in maths and science for years that doesn’t like the idea. In practice, I might enjoy it. From what you describe and a quick google, it does sound like it’s multiple projects with different timespans and research, all of which I like. It also doesn’t have the element of having to be original and creative to the extent that academic scientific research would require, which is one of the things that puts me off that field. It sounds more like, there is scope to be creative and original, but it’s guided. I’ll look into it more, thank you!

      2. Autumn*

        Same hesitation (though I am in the US, so I don’t know the job market where you are), but I would add – I have been in the book business for 30+ years, as a bookseller, publisher, and now librarian, and the thing that keeps me interested is that there is always a new book, new author, new subject to get excited about. The work is very similar yet also unpredictable day-to-day (look up books for patrons! report that the roof is leaking again to maintenance!) but I am constantly engaged, which suits both my need for a basic routine and my insatiable curiosity. I have politely told administration multiple times that no, I don’t want to be a branch manager, that’s all the dreadful part and very little of the fun part.

      3. Cendol*

        Yes! Seconding. I know the market is terrible right now, but this is also what I do and it works very well with my executive function/concentration issues–a lot of varied, interesting research projects that (in my case) typically don’t last more than a week or two. I work for a corporate library, too, which means that we generally have the money to buy cool resources *and* my internal clients are polite. Would recommend poking around the site “I Need a Library Job” (INALJ)!

      4. J.E.*

        There are more library science graduates than there are jobs and it’s been that way for a while. The market is tight and you have a better chance if you are will to go just about anywhere for a job that often doesn’t pay a lot for the amount of education required.

    2. HardlyLovelace*

      Do you like words and languages? Translation could work.

      I too have ADHD and have become a translator. It allows me to have lots of short-term contracts on a variety of subjects. I love words, so even when the subject matter is not interesting to me in and of itself, I still enjoy finding the right words to convey the text’s meaning. And believe me, I find LOTS of topics painfully uninteresting a priori. So being able to work in translation and being good at it is a sort of miracle.

      Also, translation lends itself well to being a subject matter expert.

      1. Kali*

        I do like words and languages, but I only speak one. I do quite like thinking about translations and how words are used, but I’d only be able to do the very last proof-ready bit* and not the bulk of it, which I suspect wouldn’t be that useful.

        *e.g., there’s a bit in Final Fantasy 4 on Steam where a character representing a developer asks if you’ve been opening chests in people’s houses. If you say “no”, the character reacts with shock and asks “What are you, a bondage freak?!”. It seems obvious to me that they meant “masochist”, because by not opening the chests you’re making the game harder than it needs to be and making things tough on yourself. So, that sort of thing, I could pick up on help with. Though, ofc, since I don’t actually speak Japanese, I can’t be 100% certain that my theory here is right.

        1. HardlyLovelace*

          Being a reviewer could be an option. It probably requires a grasp of the original language, but it’s worth looking into.

    3. Spotted Kitty*

      If you’re a decent typist/listener, you could try transcription. I did that for a while, transcribing all manner of video to be used for closed captioning. LOTS of different stuff. I’d work on a different episode of a TV show or a movie every day.

      I really actually liked that work quite a bit, but most of the jobs that used to be done in-house are now farmed out to bigger companies in fewer locations, so I didn’t follow the job.

  26. Marion Ravenwood*

    I feel you on this OP. I have never thought of myself as an ambitious person; I like my job and colleagues, but I have zero desire for the extra hassle/hours/politics that seem to come with progressing. Plus the one time I was in a management role was utterly disastrous and I think it’s a case of once bitten twice shy for me. I just want to do a good job and earn enough money to live comfortably and do the things I enjoy outside of work (which, similar to others here, is where my real interests lie). Alison’s advice is excellent as always, and I’m considering using some of the suggested responses in an upcoming appraisal myself.

    I think the worry comes though when there’s the potential for it to affect your role in the company. For example, where I work has recently announced a new appraisal structure (coming in next year) where we will all be graded on performance and potential. The ‘high performance, low potential’ people are the ones who do a good job, but don’t have much desire to progress, and there have been concerns raised about this internally that it could be used to push people out (especially as we’ve just had a restructure which led to around 20 per cent of roles being made redundant, including one in my immediate team). I fully expect to end up in this category, because when I get asked about career development I literally cannot think of anything I want to do that would help me get better at my job, because I don’t want to go down the path of being somebody’s boss (even though that increasingly seems like something I’ll have to do eventually if I want to earn a decent amount of money), and I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a worry on some level.

    If that’s the case in your organisation, it may be that you might have to play along a bit, or look for development opportunities that help you get better at the job but don’t necessarily directly lead to progression (eg becoming the specialist in a particular topic area, building better relationships with particular clients or developing a knowledge of industry trends). Lots of those can be relatively low-stakes/not require a ton of extra effort, but are still helpful.

  27. RagingADHD*

    One way to think of career development is, “Would you like to get paid more money for a job that is more pleasant and less annoying, without having to actually job hunt?”

    I mean, most of us who work to live instead of living to work would still answer “yes” to that question. Finding a career path in that case is about looking for opportunities to do things that are easier/more satisfying for you but provide more value to an employer, thereby earning a higher wage.

    That’s what “good fit” is all about. I mean, maybe there are no such jobs for you. But there might be if you keep your eyes open.

    1. Metadata minion*

      That really depends on whether jobs further up the typical salary-progression chain are actually going to be less work and/or more enjoyable. I want to focus on technical skills and maybe be able to move into a higher-level specialist position, but I actively don’t want to move into management, which is the more standard career progression in my field. I would make more money but be miserable and not very good at it.

    2. JobHunter*

      When the interviewers for my current position asked me ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years?’, I responded that I wanted to stay with a company for 8-10 years. I drew on a story I read somewhere about Sherlocks and Watsons.

      I answered that I feel most successful as a Watson, helping people with bigger ideas than mine achieve them. My goal for any position I took was to find the right Sherlock for me, who would take my support seriously and not hesitate to help me in case I outgrow being Watson and become a Sherlock. IDK if that scored me any points, but I enjoy working with my new Sherlock!

    3. Aggretsuko*

      “One way to think of career development is, “Would you like to get paid more money for a job that is more pleasant and less annoying, without having to actually job hunt?”

      God, that sounds great! I just…don’t know how that happens in reality.

      1. RagingADHD*

        Developing advanced skills in the same job. Making lateral moves into related departments. Becoming a specialist, individual contributor or subject matter expert. And some people actually like being a team lead since there’s more responsibility but it tends to stay project-focused rather than people-management focused.

        The opportunities vary with the industry, company, and person, of course. But there’s often something.

      2. West Coast Reader*

        It can happen when old coworkers move onto new companies and have opportunities that they think might be a good fit for you. It would still involve interviewing, but it can be a shorter process.

        That’s how I actually got my first job after graduation. The non-profit I volunteered for had an opening and the manager contacted me. I don’t even remember if I had to submit a resume before the interview and offered me the job.

        The key is to establish a reputation of being a great person to work with at your company and volunteer organizations.

  28. CrankyPants Today*

    I hope it was just hyperbole when the letter writer says

    I’ve never read any job description and not thought, “well, that sounds awful.”

    Because if not, that’s more concerning than anything else in the letter, to me. Someone in an earlier comment mentioned that this sounds like a question coming from a place of privilege, and I’m with that commenter – there’s no reason in the world that EVERY job description EVER sounds “awful”! If that’s really and truly the case, look at other job descriptions. There are countless jobs doing a myriad of things, and if at least ONE of those isn’t something that sounds “awful”, then that’s probably on the letter writer. None of them have to sound absolutely fantastic, but a list of duties in exchange for money in order to live isn’t actually awful!

    I am aware it’s likely hyperbole and I’m just too fixated on it, but as someone who has always worked (even as a kid, on a farm, doing chores) and who was always aware that work is what everyone does, this just rubbed me wrong. Admittedly, this maybe just says more about me than the letter writer……

    1. Metadata minion*

      Yeah, I was also wondering if “every job description” actually means every, or if they’re primarily looking at standard office jobs. I don’t know if it’s necessarily privilege, since you can be very aware that you need to work to eat and yet still think that the actual work is terrible, but it seems kind of unlikely that literally every job sounds awful, unless it’s the structure of having a job at all that’s terrible. Plenty of people aren’t wedded to their careers, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope for something that has some elements of interest and satisfaction and that you feel is serving some sort of useful purpose. There’s a huge range between “this is minimally bearable because I have to do it to live” and “my passions are elsewhere but I don’t dread going in to work and I was actually quite proud of that project I got done last week”.

      LW, how far afield have you looked in considering jobs? If you hate the 9-5 office grind, would something like being an electrician or a lab tech be more bearable? I think a lot of middle-class kids are kind of routed into white color positions, with food service and retail the usual fallbacks (which are frankly almost universally terrible), and there are other career paths out there that can pay well and offer a very different type of day to day experience.

    2. CrankyPants Today*

      And I say all of the above as someone who literally told a supervisor “I’m not ambitious”, meaning I’m not really looking for more responsibility, or to move on or move up. I just think there’s a whole lotta range between “every job listing sounds awful” and “I don’t love this, but I can live with it because it provides me funds to be able to live my life in return for doing this stuff”.

    3. londonedit*

      Also…whenever I’m looking to apply for a job, I always end up having to have a word with myself because when I initially look at a job description on an advert, I invariably think ‘Oh my god that is SO MUCH, I could never do all of that, it sounds like so much work’. And then I have to remind myself that the job description encompasses *everything* within the scope of the role, and that I wouldn’t be doing every single thing on the job description every single day. There are things on my job description that I only ever vaguely do, or that I do once a year, or that I’m technically responsible for but in reality never actually come up.

      I completely relate to the idea of not having the ‘climbing the career ladder’ ambition – I tried that earlier in my working life, because I thought it was what everyone was meant to do, but I quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Now I earn less money than I ‘should’ do for someone with my level of experience, but I can get on with the work I enjoy doing, I don’t have to manage anyone and my job is enough to pay the rent and leave me plenty of time to actually live my life. But I’m wondering if maybe the OP needs to take a step back when they’re looking at these job descriptions, and actually think about what they might look like in real life rather than having a kneejerk ‘Argh that sounds terrible’ reaction.

  29. Sled dog mama*

    I had one of those managers once.
    So frustrating! One of the reasons I went into my particular field is because it looks pretty similar to how it did 20 years ago and probably how it will look in 20 years. Sure knowledge and technology are evolving and I keep up with that but my actual day to day is pretty similar now 10 years into my career as it was on my first day (minus the location). That manager just didn’t get it, he was constantly asking what’s next. I started answering with what new software or technology I was looking at learning next to show I wanted to learn and get better at my current position.
    I don’t aspire to move up in any way because it would take me away from what I’m doing now, and mean more hassle and managing people instead of things. I’m a terrible people manager. I know that my desire to stay where I am means certain things regarding income and retirement down the road but I also know it means certain things regarding my mental health and family right now and I’m very happy with that trade.

  30. agnes*

    I think this is fine as long as you realize that at some point, the company will decide that you’re earning as much as they think the job is worth and won’t be as willing to discuss a salary increase. I’ve seen people like you spend a long time in an organization in one position–not interested in advancement– and then get very sour and offended because they hit those salary caps. Time in the seat is only worth so much to a company. Not saying that’s right, just saying that it’s true.

    My mom was just like you. She didn’t live to work, she worked to live. She was a blue collar worker and I think there was a lot less pressure to ‘advance’ or have a ‘career plan.’ She showed up, gave them an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, was reasonably pleasant to those around her, and had a full and interesting life outside of the workplace.

  31. Goals*

    Solidarity. I have no career goals other than keeping my job (which I mostly like). I don’t want to advance. I don’t want more responsibility, I just want to do this job, and retire ASAP.

  32. Mockingdragon*

    You’re definitely not alone. I ran into this a little bit at a previous job. I’m an editor – I like to edit things. (Finding proofreader/editor positions that don’t also manage people is a chore when I’m applying for stuff.) And I watched several of my colleagues get promoted into management, and then not be able to edit things anymore. So I told my bosses point blank that wasn’t what I wanted. I’m just glad they believed me.

    In interviews, when asked about career ambitions, I tend to say something like, “I’d like to get into a job doing things I like, get really good at it, and then keep doing it. I like to be good at what I do.” And for the most part people have smiled and nodded and moved along.

    But this is definitely another reason I freelance now. I actively don’t want to have to manage people and a lot of the time that’s the only way up. This has felt like the only way for me to just do the job I actually want to do without pressure to change.

  33. a clockwork lemon*

    I hope LW is confident that they’re actually doing a good enough job in their role that they CAN stay there for a long time. I’ve got a guy working for me on a project right now who does the absolute bare minimum and even straight-up told us that he’s hoping to do a bad enough job that he’s reassigned.

    He’s been with our company for over twenty years and has built up a lot of capital by performing highly on previous projects so now he gets away with a level of coasting that is, frankly, problematic. But he would not be getting any slack if he was a less-tenured and lower-performing employee, because his desire to coast has created genuine obstacles for our business and our team.

  34. SJJ*

    I think the biggest problem is using the term “career ambition” or “career development.” They both carry a limited perception of scope of upward mobility or “being the best at X”.

    Sometimes it’s just about learning a new skill, sometimes it’s about planning for retirement (which includes succession planning), and sometimes it’s about what it takes to keep employment. That last one is important.

    ***You want to make sure you have the skills to stay employable (whether it’s at your existing employer or another).

  35. Pikachu*

    This whole concept has brought my career to a standstill.

    I do not want to be a people manager. I can manage a project team to get things done, sure. But I do not want to be a manager in the general sense. Ever. I want to work. That’s it. I love what I do though. That’s why the management thing is such a turn off. I don’t want to have to deal with the interoffice drama, the emotional labor, even the mentorship/coaching factor… no thanks.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I’ve heard several managers opine that the biggest difference between managing and teaching kindergarten is the pay scale.

    2. EngineerMom*

      Pikachu – there *are* some companies out there who have an alternative development track that’s NOT focused on becoming a manager. There’s a technical development track, and a management development track, and the technical folks can still advance and get raises, working on bigger and bigger projects, but they don’t end up managing people as their primary day-to-day responsibility. There are two big companies I know of that do this, not sure I can mention them by name in here?

      1. RussianInTexas*

        My partner is supposedly on the “technical track” in his company, because he likes what he does (software development) an absolutely does not want to be a people manager.
        Guess what. While he is still not a manager, he gets a whole lot of projects coordination dumped on him, and spends something like 80% of his time in meetings. He hates it, he has no time to do what he actually like to do, but at his level (Senior), no one does actual development anymore, even being on the technical track.

  36. MP*

    As a manager this is frustrating… I want my staff to have a career plan because (a) I can’t guarantee that I will need your exact job in a couple of years time and (b) my targets are for the team to constantly improve which means I need my people to get better over time. That doesn’t mean you need to have a plan to move up but it doesn’t mean you have a plan to get better, or gain new skills, or cross train with someone else, or add some value beyond the strict details of your defined role.
    I get it: you’re here for the dollars. Me too. But success is not just defined as being good at the role today.

    1. irene adler*

      As someone who has never had any career development discussions with any of my supervisors over the 30 years I have worked- because that’s not a thing with my employer- this aspect strikes me as the most common sensical application of this career development discussion I’ve read yet.

      It’s not all about moving up, or moving across, but moving in the direction that involves updating/obtaining the skills/knowledge to keep one attractive to employers-including one’s current employer. If a manager can steer me to what skills I should work to obtain to remain gainfully employed, that would be wonderful. Job descriptions will change over time-that’s a fact. Helping me to change accordingly -and remain a success at the job- would be the kindest thing a supervisor can do.

      Truthfully, I didn’t know career development was something one’s supervisor talked to you about. Thought that was entirely on me to figure out- on my own. And that “where do you want to be in 5 years?” interview question just gives me the willies. Other than “taller”, I truly do not know what to answer.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        I only ever had one manager who was interested in my career advancement and skills being expanded. Except a bunch of other problems started coming up (i.e. my team hated my guts) and that fell by the wayside. I’m not going to go to a conference with a team that hates me, I’m not going to get to learn other skills from a team that hates me, so…. And also, that stuff doesn’t matter when you are trapped as a clerical worker.

    2. sb51*

      +1

      Also, as a manager, I have to carefully thread the needle between people like OP and ones who are saying “I just want to be good at this job” but really mean “I want YOUR job/to move up in some other way but feel like that would be Too Ambitious so I will politely say nothing and then just leave the company”. Whereas if they’d told me that, I could at least help look for internal transfers if I had no promotion opportunities available in my area. (Some of this may be cultural differences; reading between the lines is always tricky, I’m not great at it, and when you add differences in what is “ambitious” vs “greedy” between cultures, it gets even harder. I’m working on my skills there!)

      OP: if your current employer folded tomorrow and laid everyone off, are there skills that would make it easier to get the same as-tolerable-as-it-gets position in future? (I’m a software engineer, so in my field that would be something like learning a new language as what’s trendy (or in business-speak, “state of the art”, haha) changes.) Or, is there something you hate more than the other parts of your job? Could you think of a way to make it less painful? Spin that as “leading process improvement” and boom you have an objective and a less-painful job, eventually.

    3. rosaz*

      +1 MP

      And as far as (a) – not only can I not guarantee that I’ll need your job in a couple years’ time, but if there is anything at all manual about it, I will be doing my level best to get it automated. Our competition gets swifter and leaner everyday, so we need to as well. That doesn’t mean I want to lay you off – quite the opposite – but it does mean I want you building the skills needed for higher-level work, so that automation will allow us to take on more work without adding FTE’s.

      Of course, the above may not apply to OP; they may have a role that can never be automated. But for a lot of people in office jobs, at least, it is something to keep in mind.

  37. CommanderBanana*

    “I do not dream of labor.”

    (If anyone knows where that quote originated, please let me know!)

    1. Rez123*

      “Darling I’ve told you several times before, I have no dream job. I do not dream of labor.”
      Makes me laugh every time. And it is very applicable to me. Wish I knew what the original was.

  38. Generic Name*

    Keep in mind that at many companies career progression=continued raises. So if you are okay with not getting much of any raises after a certain point, then yeah, not having any career ambition is fine. But if you want to, say, stay in an entry level job for 20 years with no increase in responsibility or complexity of tasks you take on, expect your pay to be commensurate with your job level. I wouldn’t say I’m super ambitious (I refuse to regularly work more than 40 hours a week), but I have recently come to the realization that if I want a decent raise, I have to take on increased responsibility (in my case, project management). I can’t stay as a field person/technical report writer forever if I want to get paid more.

  39. Former Retail Lifer*

    I’ve progressed to the point in my career where money, stress, and work/life balance are all relatively in balance. Any other position I take is going to increase money but also stress, and not in even percentages, as well as negatively impact my work/life balance. I want to get better at my job, but I most certainly do not want to move up.

  40. Atlantic Beach Pie*

    OP, are you in an office job? There’s definitely a lot of pressure to be rah-rah about the company culture and an expectation that you will want to move up (tho I agree with a lot of the other commenters that we need more people who just want to work their 8 hours a day, do a good job and go home).

    Do you think you might be more suited to a skilled labor/trade job? Not that those don’t require dedication or ambition, but at least if you are an electrician no one’s going to wonder why you don’t aspire to be the CEO of the Electric Company. And those jobs can pay really well, too!

  41. Spearmint*

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I wonder if part of the reasons dome companies focus on this is not because the expect everyone to become a manager, but instead that they want to make sure you’ll continue to develop skills and keep up with changes in your role/industries. For most professional jobs, you need to keep up with new technology, best practices, etc. or else you’ll become less effective in your role over time. There’s a big difference between an individual contributor with no ambition for advancement who keeps their skills up to date versus one who just coasts along and then they’ve been there for 8 years and are being out performed by recent grads with more up to date skills.

    1. rosaz*

      Yes, I think that’s a big part of it. Companies just prefer to phrase it as “career development” because “development so you can keep your current job” sounds hostile!

  42. EngineerMom*

    OP, it might be worth taking some time to work with a career counselor.

    I did that, and what it helped me clarify is what I actually DO like about my job, how to maximize what I like, and how to minimize the awful parts.

    Being a stay-at-home mom for 6 years made me realize that what I *like* about my engineering job (career?) is getting paid, intellectual curiosity, and engaging with other technically-minded people. I’m not terribly interested in advancing my career way up some imaginary ladder. I’m perfectly content to keep doing the job I’m doing, doing it well, and gathering a large body of knowledge in order to do my current job better. I think I feel more free to think and work this way because of my dad – he was also an engineer, and consistently turned down management opportunities because he had zero interest in playing office politics or giving up engineering work to manage people. He and my mom focused on putting most of her income (she’s a more career-oriented college professor) into savings, so they were able to comfortably retire a few years ago with a reasonable amount of time/energy/health to enjoy their time “off” paid work. My mom actually still volunteers her time as a nurse practitioner because of her passion for her career, but my dad said good-bye to engineering with nary a look back as soon as he could retire!

    When it comes to my personal life vs. my work life, my work life is NOT going to win that battle. I have a lot of things I love doing that have nothing or very little to do with my paid work. To that end, my husband and I are focusing on saving for retirement, figuring out ways to make our current life work on a single income, etc.

  43. rmric0*

    The cynic in me says that employers like people who are “passionate” about their work because they’re easier to manage and get to work in favor of the company versus their own interests. Passionate people will put in the 60 hour work week, no questions assked.

    1. Forrest*

      Dunno about that. I love my job but I’m strictly 30 hours a week (slightly less during the pandemic, tbh!)

  44. James*

    I’ve known a lot of people happy in their current roles. Some were happy as grunts–they liked the physical aspect, of actually DOING something. Some made their way to project management and stayed there. Some became office managers and stayed there. You even see this with CEOs–I’ve gotten to know a few CEOs for contractors, and there’s a difference between one that’s happy with a small $5 million company and one that has ambition to run a $500 million company.

    If you’re happy with where you are, and see no reason to go beyond it, that’s fine. People like that are honestly quite valuable. They have a wealth of personal experience dealing with problems that arise in those roles, experience that can’t be taught except through working that job for a long time.

    If you just don’t want to work, that’s a different problem. I get that few people will be able to find a job that’s also their personal mission in life, but doing the bare minimum to not get fired isn’t exactly a way to ensure job stability. Those criteria change. “Manager Tools” argues that you need to become something like 5% more productive each year, because the economy is growing that much each year and you need to become that much more productive just to break even. And if every job sucks, you have to look at the common factor: You. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve known people who work jobs that earn just enough to allow them to do a hobby that’s their real passion. They were happy people, usually with families and usually well-respected (two people I’m thinking of were fire fighters/EMTs–they worked enough to pay the bills, then spent the rest of their time saving lives). If that’s the case that’s fine, but you need to go in understanding that your bosses probably aren’t going to be terribly invested in keeping you. The only way those two people I mentioned above got away with it was because they worked for a local perish, and the bishop had decided that firing someone for being more interested in saving lives than making money violated the Church’s founding principles. Other people job hopped from menial position to menial position.

  45. Chickaletta*

    OP, I’d reframe the question so that you think about career advancement as a way to enhance your lifestyle outside of work, rather than enhancing your life AT work. In other words, think about what does set you on fire – whether that’s a hobby, family, travel, money, free time, vegging in front of the tv – whatever. And then think about how your job does or doesn’t support that and what job would do it better. Do you want more money? Do you want more free time? Do you want to live somewhere else? Do you want to always work at home? Then, think about what jobs at your current company (or elsewhere!) that would help make those dreams come true. That’s the job you want to talk about when your boss asks about career advancement.

  46. Didi*

    A key issue here is not necessarily career development but SKILL development. Often I see people in OP’s situation, enjoying the work and not wanting to do more. But if they let their skills stagnate, they find that it’s harder and harder to do the job and then they are in a bad space. Most jobs don’t stay the same year in and year out, even if the people do. Just be sure you’re growing along with your role!

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      It’s not only harder and harder to do their job, but they also end up creating problems for their colleagues who aren’t letting their skills stagnate. Who do you think ends up taking on a disproportionate share of the work?

  47. WantonSeedStitch*

    I think that I’d be fine with an employee who didn’t want to advance to a higher position, as long as I felt confident that they were making that choice positively rather than negatively (i.e., not because they were afraid to try anything harder for fear of not being able to handle it). If someone said they were really happy in their current role and wanted to stay there, then what I’d want to see from them would be a willingness to continually try to improve their work in that role, including participating in professional development/educational opportunities towards that goal. Setting goals of “get better at X aspect of my job” or “learn how to do Y” might get you out of the “advance to X role in five years” kinds of goals.

  48. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    I’m pretty sure that this has less to do with addressing what an employee wants, and much more to do with company optics regarding addressing institutionalized racism and sexism.

    I’m coming at this from a higher education perspective: I see a whole lot of low-income, first-generation college students, most of whom (because of institutionalized racism in this country) are non-white. Over the past twenty years or so, most universities have built upon programs like TRiO and McNair to provide extra support and mentoring for these students. Now that those same students are in all levels of employment, I think this idea has carried over: a company needs to ensure that all of its employees feel supported and mentored. The thing is, a company can’t single anybody out based on race or sex (or disability, or a bunch of other things), so they offer a lot of career development stuff to everybody. And then it goes overboard for a lot of people like OP.

    Alison’s advice is spot-on, of course: the company needs to actually listen to employees, instead of just frantically throwing everyone into career development.

  49. Gawaine*

    A few thoughts:
    * It’s not always a bad thing for me to have people who aren’t trying to break into the corner office, who’re happy to keep doing what they’re doing, but….
    * Companies don’t like having to lay people off/fire them, and if someone’s not showing an interest in their job and growing, they’re likely to end up eventually becoming obsolete. (At least in fields that depend on technology, regulations, business trends, etc.) Managers are often penalized for staff turnover, so they’d like to find ways to retain and grow people.
    * Companies like to promote from within. If there are too many people who don’t want to move up, then there’s an investment problem.
    * If you’re hearing this more than once or twice a year, and you hear it individually as opposed to as a group, it might be a passive aggressive way of saying to you: “You don’t really seem to care about your job. Is there a job you would care about?” Which is a warning sign that you’re coming across as being disconnected and disinterested, and if you’re not that into them, they don’t think they should be much into you.

  50. BBB*

    I totally get OP on this one!
    I’ve never been terribly motivated about my ‘career’, it’s about paying my bills and not hating my life. now I’ve got a pretty cushy job, enough pay to be comfortable, good benefits and lots of time off. moving up would mean less actual work but more meetings, continued education requirements and internal politics bs that I have no interest in. I’m pretty happy right where I am.

  51. EH*

    Ha, this is my exact issue when I’m interviewing and they bust out the five years question. For context, I’m a technical writer. I usually say something like, I want to keep improving as a tech writer, and it would be nice to get “Senior” in my job title at some point, but that’s the closest thing I have in the “ambition” department. Management is not my jam at alllllllll. Usually the interviewer laughs and I laugh, and we have a “haha, don’t hear that often!” moment. They seem to appreciate my honesty. I’ve had to have the discussion after being hired a few times, but it usually goes the same way.

  52. Mayflower*

    Sympathizing with you, OP, because this is a big problem in the technical fields such as software engineering. There is this super weird situation where there is constant pressure to have career goals that involve moving up while at the same time everyone involved really doesn’t want that to happen – the managers don’t want their software engineers to move up because it’s very hard to replace people with very specific skills/certifications/institutional knowledge, and the software engineers themselves don’t want to move up because you make more money and have better job security than your manager. It’s a corporate version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

  53. Jellyjellybeanbean*

    That’s where I’m at, but with a little twist. The job I have now is a post-retirement one. I spent 34 years teaching and loved it. This job (in the business world) just kinda fell into my lap and is still in the broad spectrum of education. The company I’m with has bonus incentives where you have to make up quarterly goals and get additional pay if those goals are met and/or exceeded. I did that for one year. I just want to do my job! I told my supervisor I didn’t want to be on the bonus plan (she freaked out at first) and am more than happy just getting the small annual bonuses that everyone gets. I still have to make goals, but they are stuff I want/need to do anyway. I just don’t have any artificial timelines – I mean why is a goal met on March 31st, but not met on April 2nd? My pension is equal to what I’m getting from the job, btw. I’m basically working for health insurance. And I’m damn good at my job!

  54. J.E.*

    I can tell I’m the type that’s content to stay where I am and not advance like this: Given the choice between more money or more time off, I’d like to say I’d take the money, but I’m also honest about who I am and I’d probably choose having more time off.

  55. BlueWolf*

    I have a job where I have a set schedule, rarely work overtime, and have good benefits and pay. The role is an individual contributor-type position where I have my “book of business”, so to speak and as long as I get my tasks done and keep my internal and external clients happy everything is good. My free time is my time and I don’t have to check email or deal with emergencies when I am off work. I have received promotions and raises (think assistant to senior assistant to coordinator, etc.), but my fundamental job doesn’t really change, and that’s the way I like it. Early on at my company a couple of people asked if I would ever be interested in managing and I basically said no. The idea of managing people sounds awful to me, and I wouldn’t want the increased hours and stress of being a manager.

  56. Jennifer*

    “There aren’t any jobs in the universe I’d ever actually want to do. I’ve never read any job description and not thought, “well, that sounds awful.” The highest bar I’m interested in setting re: work is finding something that isn’t too awful to bear every day, and performing well so I don’t get fired.”

    A woman after my own heart. I tried to do a job at a higher level than mine and it was one non-stop anxiety attack. I don’t know how people cope with jobs where they are in non-stop meetings all day with constant deadlines. I found a job that has great benefits and a good enough salary and I’m content for now.

  57. No goals at all*

    I was a stay home mom for 19 years. There is no way I can earn enough to retire in my own. I am a part time office manager and LOVE my very flexible job. I have no career ambition beyond being good at what I am doing right now. When my husband retires I will, too (maybe) and enjoy his pension. Until then, I just want to do what I do.

    1. OyHiOh*

      I stayed home for ten years to raise children and was tentatively dipping my toes into returning to work with a part time/weekends job . . . . . when my spouse passed away. It’s fine to have few ambitions and goals beyond work to live, but “what will I do – if?” is a valid question to ask yourself every year or so. At the very least, use that moment to look at social security earnings, the conditions on a spouse’s pension (LUCKY!), and if anything significant has changed in the past year.

  58. R2-beep-boo*

    I didn’t see where LW commented what kind of work he or she was doing, but I think a lot of comments here are assuming that LW works some kind of office job.
    I’m a QA manager, and the place I work would be over the moon to hire a dozen LWs. Yes, we need people who want to be line supervisors and things, but we’re a pretty small shop, and those spots don’t open up often. What we really need are reliable employees that want to come to work and consistently do an adequate job. Yes, we do everything we can to find positions with more responsibility for those who want it, and yes, we ask a couple times a year about skills they might want to learn or other ways to move up, but a lot of our really good employees are happy to have a job where they are reasonably happy to come to work, do a good job, and go home. And it’s true in different roles from the plant floor to more clerical positions.
    There isn’t something wrong with you if you don’t want to advance. There are a whole lot of other ways to have a fulfilling life than climbing the ladder or being a subject-matter expert.

  59. Not trying to be rude, just good at it*

    After college I bounced around some jobs and then went back to school to become a teacher. I liked it. I didn’t expect to stay for 30+ years, but it just worked out that way.

    My father said I should take classes to become an administrator. I liked teaching.
    My friend said I should apply to become department head. I like teaching.
    I was recruited to work “downtown” as an administrator. I like teaching.

    I had no desire to do anything but teach and live my life. Because of circumstances, I’m now retired and still enjoy living my life.

  60. Sleeping Late Every Day*

    At the cultural institution I was at, a lot of people stayed at the job they were hired into for years, some for their entire work life. There were advancement opportunities to apply for when upper positions became available, but nobody thought it was weird to happily stay put. 35 hours a week, no overtime, no extra headaches – time and energy left over for real life! Several of us got new job titles and bumped into a higher pay band after several years, but the job responsibilities didn’t change much – maybe a few chances to be involved in extra projects if we wanted them, but they were usually optional. The pay wasn’t great, but the retirement plan had decent options, the vacation time was generous and the insurance was pretty good. The whole ambition thing has become seriously overrated – and oversold, at least for some of us.

  61. LizM*

    I think that career development can include keeping up with current trends in your industry.

    In my experience, there subject matter experts who like being subject matter experts. They have no interest in going into management. They have no interest in moving. Given the way my agency is set up, that means they may hit the highest grade level for their field fairly early in their career. It’s not unusual to come across really good employees who have been in their positions for 10-15 years. For them, career development is attending trainings or conferences, conducting research, learning new computer applications and systems, authoring papers, etc. Those people are hugely beneficial to the organization.
    But the things is, it’s also not unusual to come across someone who has been in their job for 10-15 years, who stopped advancing 5-10 years ago while the world kept moving, and even if they were good at their job 10 years ago, they’re not good at it any more because the job has changed.

    I guess that’s to say, if I ask an employee about career development, I’m fine if their goal is “I want to be good at the job I’m doing now” and I see a development plan that reflects that. But I think if I had an employee who had zero desire to improve, that would be a red flag, because in my field, it wouldn’t take long for that person’s skills to become stale.

  62. Long-Time Viewer First-Time Caller*

    I find myself a little bit troubled by a lot of the “it sounds so sad and depressing to think work is miserable and not have any career ambitions!” that I’ve seen here– not to say that I feel it comes from anywhere malicious at all, but it can be hurtful to hear that someone thinks the way you’re experiencing things is depressing, rather than just addressing why one might feel that way, or simply accepting that it’s just how some people are, and seeking ways to accommodate them rather than change them.

    If I can submit a personal anecdote: I’m autistic, and was undiagnosed until last year, and as many adults in my position can probably attest to, it was intensely validating and explained that a lot of the problems I’ve had with employment throughout my life were not caused by laziness or an inability to care (or, god forbid, by stupidity). I’ve managed to hold two “real” jobs in my adult life, and each time, like clockwork, would begin to fizzle out around 8 months, and by the time I approached my first anniversary I was stretched so thin from trying to maintain the absolute minimum productivity requirements (I worked doing data entry for ecommerce sites) that I would be constantly suffering from all kinds of garbage like migraines, debilitating depression, etc. Eventually I would completely crash, and the second time this happened I ultimately lost my job while I was trying to negotiate time off to seek emergency mental health care. I am infinitely happier and more relaxed not working– there is no job that is designed for someone like me, because I live in a world designed for neurotypical people, and Normal Job Performance pushes me to my limits, which is frustrating for everyone– my managers, my coworkers who have to pick up my slack, and of course myself, because it’s not like I don’t *want* to be productive, but I just can’t sustain it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, every week, forever.

    I don’t have career goals because I can’t imagine myself surviving, literally and figuratively, long enough to pursue any kind of career growth, and I don’t LIKE working. Working doesn’t like me back! I have never been in a job that did not rapidly degrade my mental health because of being unable to meet even the most basic standards, even when on paper, it should be a position that gels well with my skillset (I’m technologically adept, have several certifications, type Super Fast, don’t really get bored by repetitive tasks, etc). There are a lot of things I can’t muscle through, not even for a paycheck just to get by, because it causes me physical and emotional harm. It sucks, and it hurts, and then it hurts more to just happen upon people saying it must be so depressing to not like work or think all jobs sound awful– yeah, it’s depressing, but it’s not depressing because everyone should find work fulfilling. It’s depressing because some people just aren’t going to be able to succeed in the workplace through no real fault of their own, and will probably be blamed for it anyway, and there’s no alternative. You work or you’re homeless, you have no insurance, you don’t eat, and if you don’t qualify for something like disability insurance… what do you do?

    I don’t mean to sound rude or accusatory, and I also don’t intend to project onto OP– I don’t know what their life situation is; they could be NT and able-bodied and just don’t like work. But that’s valid too. I want to gently suggest that instead of marveling over how sad it must be to have no work-related goals, we consider that there should be alternatives not just to “live to work” but also “work to live”, because not everybody can. I suggest examining the value we place on productivity– specifically when it comes to having career ambition, and how capitalism is often a life-or-death system. A little empathy toward someone’s outlook or personal situation goes a long way!

    1. Liz*

      Thank you for posting this. I’m in the process of pursuing an autism diagnosis and my difficulties with work and executive dysfunction are my main causes for concern. I’ve just never been much of a doer – more of a thinker and a talker. I did just ok in school because the external structure and the lessons suited me to a tee: “Turn up to this place and we will herd you around at nice regular intervals where you get to Talk About Concepts for an hour until it’s time for the next one”. The hard part in all of that was the turning up – my attendance was dire, not because I didn’t enjoy school once I was there but because the process of moving my body through the motions of getting ready and shifting it to the place it needed to be felt unfathomably hard. I never did homework, but I sailed through so my exams so nobody ever really bothered to intervene. My “bright but lazy” streak was seen as a quirk to be acknowledged rather than a problem to be fixed.

      To this day, I struggle with motivation. Even tasks I want to do, the things I enjoy, can take hours to prepare for. There are so many things I have “had a go at” in my life and been told I would be amazing at, but completely failed to get off the ground because taking the steps to actually DO the things required to make that happen felt impossible.

      I describe it as an 80/20 split – for any task, the actual DOING of the task takes around 20% of the effort. The other 80% is me gently trying to coax myself (non judgementally) to a place where I can at least BEGIN. Sometimes it takes all day. I sat down to do homework yesterday. I did nothing. It took me an hour and a half to even look for my glasses.

      Doing things is hard. It’s not that I would do literally nothing if I had the choice – when I was not working or studying I volunteered and did amateur theatre – but I wish I wasn’t required to force myself through this exhausting pattern just to afford to live.

  63. The Anonymouse*

    Where I work you can be automatically fired if the system thinks you’ve been off task for at least 2 hours.

    Where I work our equipment is constantly broken and are productivity suffers because of it. Thus we get write-ups.

    Where I work your rate is everything and your self-esteem crashes when you don’t make the rate.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I work at Amazon FC and it is in my best interest to move up because they treat you like garbage if you’re on the bottom run. Hence, I have been trying to move up forever. I couldn’t usually because they had a rule that you had to have 40 hours of upt available and no write-ups. I had formed a plan to make sure I would never leave to take a day off by marinating my feet in pain numbing cream and be able to function on 4 hours of sleep via drinking energy drinks. I studied what I could to be job better at my job.

    I had a mental break down and had to be admitted to a hospital. I’m still going to try and move up as soon as I’m reinstated because I want to be paid more, worry less, and be treated like an actual human being.

  64. Seashells*

    I could have written this letter. Seriously, this is exactly how I feel. I’ve mentioned on several threads here before that our annual performance review is nine pages long and even if you get an excellent review, it doesn’t come with an automatic raise, not even COL raise. We did get a small raise last year, even with COVID, but usually raises come once every 5 years and everyone gets a raise.

    Not getting a raise even with a great review does not bother me, it’s the expectation that I come up with 3 performance goals and 3 professional/career goals Every Single Year. Another thing that does bother me is that apparently no one other than my manager is reading them (we have to go over them with our managers) because I’ve been recycling answers for the last few years and no one notices. Actually, my manager told me I could copy/paste, so that tells me these just to check some box on some form and are not really useful at all.

    It’s almost a travesty for someone to be just fine with what they are currently doing instead of wanting “more”.

  65. B Wayne*

    Brother, or Sister: I can sure relate to it. I’m in it for the paycheck and the least amount of friction possible. I’ll do the job as best I can, hope for periodic raises and let the fast movers move fast away from me. Once the day is over, I’m over it.

  66. hodie-hi*

    I was lucky to sidle into my working life without a real plan. I’m an IC… a technical writer. I’m good at it and I enjoy most of it. Some employers and projects are better than others, obviously. I’ve been doing it a long time. I’m not specialized, but I am experienced enough to have become senior level. I have never been ambitious aside from wanting to have a good work-life balance, sufficient vacation time and the wherewithal to enjoy it, and to stop working before I get too old or sick. So my official ambitions when I’m required to have them are to be the best darn technical writer I can be. I read stuff, I’ve been to a professional convention, some meetings, I’ve had some training. That is all. The end.

  67. Jenny D*

    At our annual development talk (which is what it’s called here, instead of “performance review”), my manager asked the common question “Where do you see yourself in five years time?”

    My answer was without hesitation: “I want to be doing what I’m doing, only better because I’ll have five more years of experience!”

    So in my development plan, we’re focusing on what can make me do the same thing only better. It works out great for both me and the company.

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