how do you move away from ambition and traditional career paths?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

Following up on discussions about “quiet quitting” and articles about women moving away from “hustle culture,” I would love to hear how people have redefined what success looks like for them or how people have pursued unconventional work and life paths.

In the past, I’ve felt like I should want to move up in whatever the traditional path for my role looked like (assistant to coordinator to manager to director to AVP, etc.) or look for better roles in other companies to advance my career and make more money.

But I’ve realized that what I really want is to have lots of time off, do work that I’m passionate about but that doesn’t overtake my life or stress me out, work part-time, have enough financial security to not feel stressed about money and still be able to travel and pursue my interests, take classes, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends.

But then I see a friend achieving traditional success in her career, or my (awesome) manager talks about supporting me in moving up in our company, and I feel that internal pressure to conform to a more traditionally ambitious career path.

For readers who might be following non-traditional paths and working towards less conventional goals, how did you figure out what you really want, and how do you not get pulled back into the capitalist/keeping up with the Joneses/hustle machine?


{ 442 comments… read them below }

  1. Morgan Proctor*

    I just remind myself that “more ambitious title” = “way more work that I don’t enjoy doing anyway.” And then I do my best to focus on non-work goals and ambitions and make sure that I’m channeling that energy there.

    For me, it took the pandemic destroying my life to accept this way of thinking, and to make me realize that at the end of the day, I just don’t like working, no matter what I’m doing. After 2 years of turbulence I’m finally in a job that I love, but still, what really matters to me is time off and my personal creative pursuits. Also, seeing lots of other people in the last 2 years saying out loud “I don’t like working” has made me feel confident that I’m not out of sync with the world. It’s the world that’s out of sync with me. And many others!

    So I’m content to chill in my current position at work. This works for me because it’s a unionized position that guarantees regular raises. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s situation.

    1. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      “For me, it took the pandemic destroying my life to accept this way of thinking, and to make me realize that at the end of the day, I just don’t like working, no matter what I’m doing.”

      -This, 100%. The pandemic wrecked us all. I finally decided that if I already don’t like what I’m doing, I might as well work in a field where I get paid more for something I don’t like doing, so I switched fields. I’m making more money and have a ton more prospects, but more importantly, my old field was a passion field. I CARED, so so deeply. Now I don’t. I don’t need to. I log on, do my work, log off the second the clock strikes 5, and I don’t feel pressured to defend my work or be the best. If someone else gets promoted or recognized over me? Eh. No skin off my nose. Good for them. Plus, I can save my mental and creative energy for my own projects on my own time.

      It’s a much, much healthier mindset (at least for me).

      1. WheresMyPen*

        That’s really interesting. I’m in an industry that doesn’t pay that well but that’s ok because we do it for the love /sarcasm, and I do really like my job and believe in what we do, but I struggle knowing there’s a ceiling to what I can earn. Similarly I always think I’d struggle to work in a job I had no emotional investment in, but maybe that’s a healthy way to be if you remember that it pays for you to do the things you love in your free time. Thanks for that perspective!

        1. A Librarian*

          I’m also in a passion field, and lately I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to not be emotionally invested in my work. To show up, do a list of tasks, and leave again. To not feel like the wellbeing of my staff and my customers is all resting on my shoulders and I have to solve everyone else’s problems. To do something incredibly low stakes where my local elected officials aren’t watching my every move. I’ve loved this job and the way it’s allowed me to contribute to my community, but being this emotionally involved hasn’t been healthy for me and I have to figure out what to do about that.

          1. Sun in an Empty Room*

            I feel this comment and all those upline. I JUST started to look for a new job and am looking to get out of a passion field (or less in the muck of my field.) I literally said today, “I can’t be personally responsible for all the [my field] work in the county.” And I can’t. I think that the passion is what made me GREAT at this job but I can’t sustain it. I don’t enjoy spending my personal time doing the many hobbies I have related to work right now because everything’s so tinged with work stress and associations to work. It’s especially hard to start to envision a transition away from my current job because I’ve had to get so much education and specialized experience to get here (not to mention battling the sexism rampant in my field).

            1. fish*

              I have been on both sides – low-paid passion job and a well-paid 9-5 bleh job – and until I tried both it was definitely a case of the grass being greener. Now, I can say that for me, the passion job is a much better fit because I got to the point where I just could not motivate myself to do bleh things at the bleh job and spending 8h / day feeling bleh was miserable.

              1. Sloanicota*

                Yeah, companies are really good at making you feel as guilty and stressed in a non-passion role as you would be if you were actually passionate. It’s hard to stay emotionally remote from the thing you spend most of your waking hours doing.

            2. This too shall pass...or shall it?*

              Ok, Sun in an Empty Room, would you get out of my head please?!?!? But seriously you have said a lot of how I feel. I have really invested myself in my work and my work place has also invested a significant amount in me via specialised training. But I am convinced that I no longer want to be the go-to person, it is a very technical field and I am tired of the implications of delays, etc. I wish you luck in your job search. My prospects aren’t very good because the job market in my small country is TERRIBLE.

          2. Library Survivor*

            Hi Librarian,

            Fellow Librarian here. I was you where you are a few years ago. I just want to let you know – you can do the work without emotionally exhausting yourself.

            Have you read Fobazi Ettarh’s article Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves? ? If not, I recommend it. It does a great job of laying out the issues around Library Science as a “calling”.

            What I had to do, and what I am training my staff to do, is 1) Set good boundaries with work. You are not a 24-hour attention vending machine for either your public or your staff . From experience I can tell you this feels weird and bad when you start doing it, but it’s vital. 2) Learn the difference between a want and a need. Yes, my patrons and admin want more hours, more materials, more programs, just MORE. But, what do they actually need? Am I filling the need that I am paid to fill? Then my work is done. Again, this will feel weird and bad when you start putting up bumpers, especially since your training (like mine) probably stressed “Service above all”.

            Part of the reason that librarians are underpaid and underappreciated is that we have done less with more for as long as I can remember. We, as a profession, have to learn to say no.

            (Postscript: I don’t want you to think I’m chastising you! I’m not! It just took a set of personal and professional crises to get me to evaluate my relationship with my profession, and I try to save others the drama)

            1. Pam Adams*

              I’m an academic advisor- “service above all” is, like you, written on my heart.

              But if I burn out- I can’t give service to anyone.

              1. Library Survivor*

                Exactly! “Put your own oxygen mask on first” is a cliché, but like most clichés, there is truth there.

            2. Nethwen*

              Public library director here (until 5:00 p.m. today :D). I never felt this deep calling to library work, so being the colleague who put up boundaries as a matter of course and then had other directors shocked because “of course you do whatever the patron wants!” was very exhausting. Add to that my focus on treating all people as equally as possible and the profession’s general focus on doing whatever it takes so that people don’t complain (two things that I see as contradictory), and it’s been a tough ride.

              I decided that I did the good I can do and am moving out of the profession. Tomorrow, I start as a civilian supporting libraries and the civil liberties they help maintain.

              For those wondering how I moved out of libraries, it came down to things out of my control, like my spouse getting a raise and offering to support me while I figure out what’s next. I feel for all of you who don’t have that option. I’m sorry our culture (US) doesn’t value your work equal to the effort it requires, provide adequate staffing, and compensate you accordingly.

        2. Plant Doctor*

          I just made this switch. I was in a passion field where my personal investment was used to overwork and underpay me. 5 weeks ago I made the switch because I reached a place where nothing was left to give. So far, I like leaving at 4:30 and sleeping well at night and not deflating when I open my email. I haven’t cried for work reason since I left. I have found things in this job to interest me and I feel valued. We’ll see how it goes in a year or two.

          1. CowWhisperer*

            OMG, yes. I taught for years, loved the students and teaching, but was killed by our inability to magic high test scores from students who were dealing with generational poverty, being first-generation immigrants, trauma of all kinds, neighborhood violence and teenage parenting.

            After giving birth to a micro-premie, I went back to retail work – and my stress level is so much lower it’s ridiculous.

            The saddest part: my retail coworkers are more appreciative of the miracles my students and coworkers pulled off than any administrators I had seemed to be. Because getting a student who was reading at early first-grade level to sixth grade level in 18 months was impressive – and the fact she bombed the MME/ACT that year takes nothing away from her hard work.

            1. AspiringWhispererOfAnyVariety*

              CowWhisperer, this internet stranger is also massively impressed with your hardworking.

              Maybe consider changing your username to CowAndEmergingReadersWhisperer.

          2. Kayem*

            Omg yes this! At an OldJob, every email notification ding brought dread, every time a phone rang I would jump. It was when I started crying myself to sleep every night that I finally realized I had to leave the place because I couldn’t go on like that. It legit took me three years before I stopped having to work up the courage to check my email.

        3. DontTellMyBoss*

          I could not care less about my company’s mission or work. I have zero personal connection to it and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I clock out and literally forget about it until the next day. I highly recommend it.

      2. Shoryl*

        I’m not ambitious, and work in an entry level department at my company, which means I’m constantly pushed by a variety of parts of the company to look for new opportunities.
        I finally figured out that i could tell my boss that I might apply to very specific opportunities that allow me to continue to directly positively impact customers without being in a customer facing role, because that’s the one thing I love about my job.
        so maybe your solution will be to make know.n to your management team that you have very specific strategic ideas… even if the reality is there’s no job that can fit them.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I made it clear to my manager that I wasn’t interested in being promoted to a management role. He took that to heart, and he’s trying to get a new level of my current position approved so there’s still a promotion path for me.

            1. MigraineMonth*

              My understanding is that the reason he became a manager is that there wasn’t a promotion track for him, so he understands the problem well.

              (My former manager “jokingly” referred to my current manager as a traitor for changing departments to take a promotion. It was… awkward.)

      3. Alice*

        I’ve always taken this approach- I may as well get paid the most for my 40 hours. I can suck it out in up in the short term and plan to “retire” to a passion/ volunteer role in my 40s. I care less about my day to day job as I become more financially secure.

    2. Cookies for Breakfast*

      This is so well put and I’m glad I came across it – as you said, it makes me feel confident I’m not out of sync with the world.

      After years at a workplace where pressure was relentless (for no valid reason but management’s mindset), I’m now in a role that, at least for the moment, allows me to be content to chill. I’m still mentally recovering from the previous job, and spend most of my non-work time relaxing and catching up with life admin I’ve put off for way too long, but making time for creative pursuits I’ve been neglecting for years is what I eventually want to build up to.

      On a recent visit to my family, I realised this is pretty much impossible to explain to my family and it stung. Because of a combination of not really understanding what my job in tech means, and her own experience of only having known one all-consuming job all her life, my mother is telling people that I spend my day working little and just sitting around at home. Both my parents and in-laws keep questioning me on how fulfilled I’m feeling at work, as if nothing else mattered. The one time I tried explaining that my fulfilment comes from the fun and creative things I can afford through getting paid to work, rather than the job itself, it was as if I’d said sitting around at home really is all I aspire to (“well, you may not like working, but work you must, my dear”). So thank you so much for sharing your comment, I feel less alone having read it and I hope the OP will too.

      1. Well...*

        I think the horror that we all must spend 1/3 of our lives working regardless of whether we like it is too much for some people to bear, so they literally just block it out and pretend everyone is passionate about their work.

        I guess they just don’t acknowledge people who do important but not very exciting/enjoyable labor or see them as others/failures/etc.

        1. Caroline*


          There are few of the ”do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” types who visualise, say, sanitation work or similar as relevant to this mindset AND YET… if the people tasked with the various sanitation work, from refuse removal, recycling collections, street cleaning etcetera simply downed tools one day… they’d be missed instantly! What could possibly be more important than a role where it is ESSENTIAL that the role is done 99% of the time or there are serious consequences?

        2. Kayem*

          And we already spend another 1/3 of our lives sleeping, so I’d rather not eat too much into that last third of my life that I’m awake by doing work if I don’t have to.*

          *I know not everyone has the privilege of working just one job, which is a whole other level of what’s forked up about it.

      2. Avoiding hustle culture*

        Feeling similarly. I hate working and carrying the additional mental load. It’s now only a means to an end. I found a six figure salary doing work that is not as intensive and I have zero ambition to manage people or huge projects. I’m sure my parents (currently in their 70’s and retired in their 50’s) would be disappointed in me for not picking one company and working to rise through the ranks for my entire career. I job hunt every three years to increase my income and reset my responsibilities (read: avoid being pushed to manage others).

        1. Linda Evangelista*

          i love your strategy. i deeply do not want to manage people because it either takes time away from the cool project work i like OR it just piles onto that project work. unfortunately for some reason corporate culture decided that moving up = managing people.

          1. Avoiding hustle culture*

            I work as a Chief of Staff in a Business Operations type of role. I basically remove obstacles for other people or make sure they know about policy changes, create PowerPoint decks, organize a small amount of recruitment work, keeping track of compliance, and stay on top of what managers can and can’t do with their budgets. I send a lot of reminders (Hey, any movement on that job req? We’d like to use the budget for something else.) I thrive with lists so it’s a good fit for me. Plus, I’m informational only so no one reports to me and any consequences for not adhering to my notices are not my responsibility but that of their managers and the exec leaders.

            I make about $120k before taxes and bonuses and I have about 20 hours of work a week with the other 20 just making sure I’m available while working on passion projects. Plus I get to sleep in because I WFH and I arrived at an agreement to work Pacific Time and I’m Mountain.

              1. The Real Fran Fine*

                Right, lol. Mad respect. I make low six figures, but I definitely have to work (too much) for it (ugh), lol.

            1. Glou*

              Interesting! What are “passion projects”–does that mean projects related to your work that you are also passionate about, or non-work projects?

              1. Avoiding hustle culture*

                They’re work related projects but not urgent. I’ve organized virtual volunteering events, created some new internal Wiki pages with all our relevant deep dives and training recordings, and I have a small project I’m currently working on that is curating online training that can help people learn some of the skills we’re looking for when we host internal job fairs (internal transfers are highly encouraged so I’m trying to give people interested in our roles somewhere to start learning if it’s a career change for them). All of these are not urgent and unasked for by my manager but they do get noticed and improve the morale and employee engagement without being another survey and virtual pizza party. Plus, I really enjoy organizing and researching different ways to pull these projects together.

                I also carve out a few hours a week for training for myself (currently doing a business analytics course through Degreed).

            2. Too Many Tabs Open*

              What kind of training and work experience did you need to get into this role? This sounds like work that I could do well.

        2. Mary*

          Yes!! This! I do not want to people manage people – I work in marketing so this is typically how you move up the ranks. Currently I’m making 6 figures doing campaign management, however I’m looking at other jobs because my company is a mess after a merger, and my new boss who started a few months ago is horrid. I’m being very picky with where I apply. I’m looking for a similar job with no people management. I’m in my mid-30s.

          1. Missy*

            Are we the same person? Im also in my mid 30s making six figures in campaign management and am finally accepting that I kinda don’t wanna manage anyone. I hope you feel this way too – but now that I’m fairly established in this type of work, I can typically get things done in less than 40 hours a week and spend a good amount of my weekday time getting errands done or working on hobby projects. It’s a real pro of working from home with no direct reports!

        3. Lanlan*

          “I job hunt every three years to increase my income and reset my responsibilities”

          See, that’s the mental picture I have of hustle culture in the first place. My ex-bestie told me I would be shuffling from this job to that just to build a resumé before I ever got to work somewhere I vaguely liked, and I kind of blue-screened. I like where I am and the work we do here, and if I had to leave after three years because That’s What Millennials Do, I’d be deeply sorry to go. There aren’t many places *to* go here, which means I’d either be taking a pay cut or abandoning my entire support system.

      3. Vacayallday*

        OMG cookiesforbreakfast, are you me? I too have moved to a role that is one step down career wise, buy frankly pays more and isn’t personal.

        I too am still recovering from my previous role, an organization whose purpose I believed in and where I was horribly burnt out. Now I get my shit done, but don’t take it personally if things outside of my control prevent me from doing everything right all the time, and just relax and catch up on life.

      4. Kayem*

        My partner’s father was a C-suite in a big oil company. He hated his job with a fiery passion, but believed that was how things had to be. So partner grew up thinking that one wasn’t really working hard if they weren’t miserable. It’s only a recent revelation for them to realize that they can have a job that they don’t have to be miserable at all the time.

    3. Koalafied*

      Yes , I think you’ve hit on the key, which is getting clear about what “moving up”/”ambition” actually means in concrete terms.

      If you change the question from the abstract, “Do I want to rise in my career, make more money, and gain more prestige?” to, “Do I want to do the work of a Director instead of the work of a Manager?” it can be a lot easier to remember your reasons for deciding you’re okay being exactly where you are. Or, perhaps less likely, maybe a specific higher level role actually does sound like appealing work and the added money would just be icing… or a specific role actually seems to entail work that’s only slightly more responsibility than your current one and would come with such a huge pay bump that you’ll decide it’s worth it.

      You just need to keep bringing the question back to whether you want the whole package, the good and the bad, that would come with specific job paths one might consider ambitious, rather than just thinking about the generalized notion of climbing rank.

      1. Dinwar*

        “You just need to keep bringing the question back to whether you want the whole package, the good and the bad, that would come with specific job paths one might consider ambitious, rather than just thinking about the generalized notion of climbing rank.”

        This mimics the Classical Greek Stoic philosophers’ way of looking at it. If you want to do something, look at ALL of it, and decide if that’s right for you. Sometimes, it is–the bad is so overwhelmingly outweighed by the good that it’s worth the price. But for many things, once you really take a hard look at the reality, you decide that nope, not gonna happen.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I’ve heard a variation of this that if you’re jealous of someone, you have to consider the whole package. If I’m jealous of a friend’s musical skill, am I really jealous of the hours of practice they put in every day? If I’m jealous of a neighbor’s new car, am I really jealous of the nights and weekends they worked to afford it?

          If I’m jealous of my manager’s salary, but the thought of firing someone gives me hives, I’m not really jealous of her whole package.

          1. LW/OP*

            Great points! It makes me think of the importance of not confusing your goal with the steps to achieving that goal.

            Is my goal to buy a house? Or is my goal to have a lovely place for my family to live that feels secure and safe? Maybe there are other ways to achieve that goal besides buying a house.

            The steps can always change.

      2. Missy*

        I love this line of thinking. A random thing that’s helped me accept that I don’t want the full package of higher level roles in my industry is a close work friendship with someone one step on the ladder above me, who does have those corporate ladder ambitions! When I hear about how hard she works and how stressful things are for her, it always resets me to feel happy making less money in exchange for less office politics and ocertime’

    4. Lunachick*

      Your work situation is very much the same as mine. I’m super lucky in that my job is unionized and I work from home full time, which has been the ultimate game-changer for me.

      I am a recovering codependent and I used to put way too much energy in work in trying to please and trying to have every boss love me, and while some of that definitely helped get me where I’m at now, I now have zero desire to be a manager/move up, and I am perfectly content. It’s been an adjustment for sure but definitely a healthy adjustment for me.

    5. LW/OP*

      Hopping on your thread to say THANK YOU for all of these amazing comments! I’m reading through them all and trying to respond to them throughout the day.

      It’s already been really helpful to hear other people’s stories about how they’ve determined what’s important to them in life and redefined what ambition means to them.

      Thank you all for sharing; I can’t wait to dig into all the comments :)

      1. LeftyRighty22*

        I’ve been having conversations with people at work about this, and I think of career development & advancement as being like seasons or stages. There are times in my life where I eagerly took on more work, looking for the biggest challenges and would do whatever it took to advance quickly. I’m not there now. I like what I do, and I still like being challenged, but I’m not looking to go “above and beyond” in an effort to advance. My life outside of work has changed (young kids!) and they are where I put all that energy and focus that used to go into excessive overtime. But I don’t think I have to stay in this season of my career forever. Who knows, maybe 10 years from now I might go back to school and get my masters or decide I want to lead the department I’m in now. Or maybe 20 years from now I will retire from the same role I am in now. I guess my point is: you can be happy where you are in your career and choose not to advance. But you can also change your mind in the future. Ambition ebbs and flows, and the only thing that matters at the end of the day is if your career is enriching your life. Good luck to you!

    6. NancyDrew*

      I think there’s a massive misconception that higher title = more, harder work. I haven’t found that to be the case in my 20-year career.

      If anything, the more senior and valued I am, the more flexibility I’ve had, and the less stressed I’ve been.

      1. Flash Packet*

        Yep, my managers have straight-up told me that their work lives got immensely easier and less stressful as soon as they were promoted out of my position (Senior Internal Auditor).

        The two easiest roles in my department are entry-level staff (for about $65K/year) and manager (for about $135K/year).

        I can’t wait to get promoted so I can get some breathing room.

      2. Zweisatz*

        Everybody should certainly examine that for their own role and I did get more freedom to pick the exact things I want to work on as a manager and move my work time around. But overall this role is certainly more stressful in that I have certain responsibilities that I cannot put down (be it staff performance management or strategic development of my team).
        And on the other hand I also got more demands on my time in that management is supposed to participate in certain strategic sessions, offsites etc.

        In short, it may not be universal that management is more stressful, but it’s not universal either that it’s Less stressful. And if you hate the very nature of the task (e. g. managing people) there is no point in making yourself unhappy – even for an ostensibly lighter workload.

    7. Office Gumby*

      Yeah. Passion or not?
      If I had my druthers, I’d spend my days indulging in my passion… but only at my pace, and only for as long as I want. The problem with a passion job, for me, is that if I’ve only got six hours of passion in me for the day, but the job wants eight, then those last two hours become drudgery, which eats at the soul. I don’t want to *have* to do the work. I’d rather want to *get* to do the work.
      Being tied to someone else’s timeline and the need for financial viability is what kills the passion for me.
      But to work a passionless job also sucks, as it takes time away from the stuff I’d rather be doing.

  2. The Happy Graduate*

    Honestly, I’ve found it’s a mindset shift that takes time to fully dedicate to. Moving out of academia, people were surprised when I happily said that I didn’t plan on continuing to a PhD because that was always expected if you were successful in a MSc. I had to reassure myself and others that no really, I genuinely wanted to stop here.

    For me, what kept me steadfast was setting goals and aspirations in my personal life and doing regular check-ins with myself to see how fulfilled I was feeling both in my work and personal lives. Wanting to complete a big hobby project, learn new skills, etc. were attainable physical goals that reminded me why I didn’t want to keep chasing the next accolade because it meant I would have to give those up.

    1. Duck Confit*

      I am very much in the same boat. “Surely you’re staying with us for a PhD!” I was told by the dean of my grad school. Nope, a master’s was plenty. He was very disappointed. I was a full-time student, working part time, doing research, working on papers getting published…and it was exhausting. And I decided that I just didn’t want to keep going with that. Who did I need to impress? And more importantly, I didn’t need to impress anyone. But that took time – in my case, years, to move towards that.

      Now I am a civil servant in a job I like pretty well, but an important factor in staying where I am is my union job where I work a strict 9-5 and don’t check (and don’t need to check) email outside of the office. I am very fortunate to have that option, and to have the job security that comes with being unionized in the civil service. And I do just fine at work, especially since I fortunate to have a boss who respects work-life balance. This lets me focus on my life outside of the office.

      1. JayNay*

        it’s also remarkable that this conversation centered around “surely YOU want to stay with us” and not “what can WE do to make it appealing for you to continue your work here”. Because what you’re describing is not uncommon in academia with their low pay and short-term contracts.
        so good for you for taking the way out.

  3. L*

    To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

  4. I Would Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

    I don’t have any really strong career-specific advice here, but I do want to gently point out that you’ll likely always feel some wistfulness and maybe even envy around life paths you didn’t take. This is true for much of life, especially in times of challenge and change.

    I know childfree people who occasionally have pangs of wondering what it would be like to love their own child; I know parents who sometimes feel jealous of the freedom they would have without children. I know people who stayed in my hometown and always ask about the excitment of living abroad; I know people who moved far away and sometimes wonder if they would be happier in a familiar community.

    For lots of these really *big* choices there is no right or wrong as such. It sounds like you know this, but in moments of doubt it can be helpful to remind yourself that wanting a slice from every pie is a charmingly annoying human impulse, and doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve picked the wrong path.

    1. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      It’s like being a Spoonie. You only get so many spoons. How many do you want to spend on work? If your answer is “a lot,” that’s okay. But if you’d rather spend your spoons somewhere else, that’s okay too. You just have to come to terms with the fact that you only have so many spoons, and you can’t afford to do everything.

      1. Leems*

        I got the best insight along these lines from, of all things, a Dove chocolate foil wrapper “fortune”: “You can do anything. But you can’t do everything.”

      2. Eldritch Office Worker*

        I do spend a lot of spoons on work and I’m okay with that, but I’ve also had to be very explicit with myself and my husband that that’s what’s happening. If a time comes where spoons need to be reallocated, then that needs to be a conversation and I have to know what tradeoffs I’m willing to make. But there are always tradeoffs one way or another.

    2. Michelle Smith*

      This brought up so many emotions for me. Thanks for saying this. Hard to describe in text how much this hit me right in my core.

    3. never mind who I am*

      Read the Hamish Macbeth books by M.C. Beaton. One subtext is that he’s happy being a village policeman and everybody around him wants him to get promoted and move to Strathbane, a place that he hates.

      The only avenue of advancement in my organization is management, which I don’t want to do and which I’d be terrible at. Fortunately, my bosses understand that. I don’t want to move to another organization because I don’t want to start over. (YMMV–I’m 61)

      1. Not Today*

        I used to love Hamish Macbeth – he’s the one who made me realize that “ambition” can mean so much more than just ‘obtaining the highest possible job title’. He is very ambitious and works hard for his goals – which are to stay in his village living a quiet life, and if that means putting all his efforts into getting someone else promoted above him, that’s what he does.

      2. Some more books*

        More recs for those interested, some have been recommended here before [CW: suicide mention]
        Laziness does not exist, Devon Price, Ph.d (nonfiction)
        Does what it says on the tin and discusses the present day American work culture, how it came to be and how to challenge this mindset both in private and in our professional life.
        Can be read in conjunction with:
        Four thousand weeks, Time management for mortals, Oliver Burkeman (nonfiction)
        Discusses how we can evaluate how to best use our limited time on earth. He specifically takes a look at those diverging life path choices and how to reconcile with our own choices. Thought-provoking and surprisingly hopeful for the fact that he repeatedly states that you will miss out on most things after all.

        And to round it up with a fiction book
        The midnight library, Matt Haig
        The protagonist gets a chance to take a peek at several different life paths after she decided to commit suicide. A well written and hopeful look at all the paths not chosen. The resolution worked really well for me.

        If you would like additional details thanks to the premise, let me know and I’ll include them in a comment.

        1. Kaye*

          I was going to recommend the Oliver Burkeman book! Really helped me clarify my thinking around some of these big decisions.

          1. Summer Day*

            For me it comes down to realising that I could live many different lives and be happy. I have a job that I love and my colleagues would say I cherry pick the work so I do what I love the most. However- I also have to accept that when I choose not to do certain types of work- that will limit me career wise. As long as I can accept that the choices are intentional, and have some consequences it’s ok … there are definitely consequences. However, three decades into my career I’m still feeling good about my choices and actually- I’m pretty impressed with how far I’ve got career wise, while still maintaining the life I want. I was at a conference recently and talking to colleagues who work way over the hours they are paid and I felt pretty good about where I was at professionally. I know if I’d chosen to be 100% career focussed I would have had a fulfilling life. I’ve chosen to have a loooooong (8 years) parental leave and then work part time, and I’m good with that choice. Interestingly
            I’ve had career women who have made inference that I judge them negatively for
            Making a different choice to me- completely not at all- if I’d made that choice I’m confident I would have had a fulfilling life too

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Can definitely recommend the Midnight Library. A very dear friend gave it to me, we had often had “what would my life have been if” discussions together so I was also reading it thinking how she must have reacted to this or that.
          I loved how the same people cropped up in different lives as lived by the protagonist, but on different trajectories because they hadn’t had the same experience with the protagonist, who then gradually comes to see just how much of a difference they’d made to people’s lives.

        3. Jan*

          My brother gave me that book a couple of birthdays ago, and yes, that’s exactly the book I was going to recommend! It showed that there will always be a “What could have been?” feeling because whatever path you take there’ll be regrets about not doing this or not doing that. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

      3. MigraineMonth*

        My organization has two levels of my job: entry and regular. To be promoted above that, you have to apply for a management position.

        My manager transferred from regular to management just so he could be promoted, and he realizes what a bummer that is. He’s been campaigning to add a “senior” level for my job so that we stop turning our subject matter experts into mediocre managers.

      4. Chauncy Gardener*

        LOVE Hamish. He introduced me to the whole concept of loving the job you’re actually doing in the environment you’re doing it in

    4. Pocket Mouse*

      Similarly, I like reminding myself that there will be regret with any big decision. The question can then become: what regret (or set of regrets) do I prefer?

    5. JAnon*

      This is so true. I wanted to move away at one point but then got a job I knew I needed to take, met my now husband and knew I was never leaving my hometown. At times that has made me wonder what if, but then I remind myself I take vacations now instead of taking time off to come home and visit and that gets me back to not wondering what if. Reminding ourselves that we are doing what we wanted to do centers us again.

    6. Purple Cat*

      Yes, THIS!
      Even once you have happily settled on your own path, there will absolutely be moments of envy and “what-if” and smidges of doubt when you see other people on a shinier path. That’s a normal part of human emotion and doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong choices for yourself.

      1. Josephine*

        So true. I heard a great podcast the other day where the host suggested thinking about all the things you could have done that could have gone really wrong, and to be grateful that you chose what you did instead. I thought that was such great advice – we always assume that something we didn’t do would probably have been better, when it’s not necessarily true.

    7. Mid*

      This is something I struggle with at times. I’m from one of those towns that no one really leaves, but I left. And while I know it was the right choice for me, there’s also the what-ifs that linger on the mind sometimes. Likely if I stayed where I was, I’d probably be a homeowner, I’d have been with people I’ve known all my life and have a stronger community, I’d also have been able to spend more time with my family, including my grandparents before they passed away. But I also wouldn’t have had the adventures I’ve had, or the opportunities.

      Everything is a trade off, but that’s not inherently a bad thing, and thinking about the “what-ifs” doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice! It’s in our nature to wonder about the different paths we could have taken.

    8. Caroline*

      As my mum (who pretty much nearly did have it all – or all that she wanted anyway) said

      You can have it all, but you have to decide what ”all” is and make plans accordingly, and always know that it is rare to be able to have it all at once!

    9. Just stoppin' by to chat*

      I Would Rather Be Eating Dumplings* – It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth. You stated so beautifully what I’ve been thinking about for a while now – did I make the “right” life choices. But really, I made the right choices for where I was in my life at that time.

      Caveat – I realize how privileged I am to live a life where I can choose when/if to marry, when/if to have a child, etc.

      1. TechWorker*

        My manager phrases work decisions kinda like this too and it really helped me in not beating myself up too much. (I listened to a money podcast that had a similar sentiment too).

        If a decision you make leads to a bad outcome, that doesn’t necessarily mean the decision was bad. If the decision was a good one based on the information you had at the time (& you couldn’t reasonably have got better information), then it was still a good decision.

    10. SpringIsForPlanting!*

      So very true. I occasionally return to The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us, a post by Cheryl Strayed writing as Dear Sugar, when I feel unmoored by possibility. It’s worth a read if you’re in that zone.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I think of that same post! I didn’t see your comment before I posted my own comment about it. Her words about it kind of haunt me, in a way that gives a positive slant to the wistful melancholy I feel in response to it.

    11. Gigi*

      Carolyn Hax says “every time you choose something, you’re not choosing something else” and I think about it all the time.

    12. Beth*

      This is very true and wise.

      But I think it’s also worth remembering that for a lot of people, the reason to be ambitious about work IS to achieve the things OP wants. Having a high-powered career offers financial security (including the costs of supporting a family, if they have one), enough surplus money to afford classes and dinners with friends and travel and etc, and the promise of eventually being able to retire and have all the leisure time you had to give up earlier on. Sure, some people definitely get caught up in it and end up chasing that next promotion simply for the sake of it…but for most workers, work is a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself.

      OP, I bet if you talk about this frankly with friends who are on a variety of career paths, you’ll find that most people are actually choosing their work trajectory based on what they want out of it. If your current role lets you access the life you want now, then you’re doing fantastic. If your current career track is also looking like it will lead to the life you want ten years from now, then you really are winning at capitalism, to whatever degree that’s possible.

      1. TechWorker*

        This was exactly my reaction! Sure I get a sense of accomplishment out of doing well at work, but *really* the thing that drives me is earning good money so I can not worry about paying bills, live somewhere nice, feed my cats expensive food, spend money on hobbies and travel and hopefully not be working full time at 65. If I could get that same level of safety from a part time job that was relatively stress free… I would quit my job tomorrow.

      2. Allonge*

        Thank you! Have to say I read OP’s letter three times and still did not get what the issue is here – what she describes (working part time!) sounds like a dream job for pretty much everyone I know.

        1. Sloanicota*

          To be fair, I was confused – most part time jobs aren’t going to pay you enough to live on, thinking of the cost of benefits too? Maybe some do. But I kind of assume OP has a spouse who is at least providing benefits and maybe a retirement plan. That’s a lucky spot to be in, all right.

      3. no clever username*

        This 100%. Unless OP plans to take a lot of staycations (or is independently wealthy) work is kind of a requirement.

    13. MEH Squared*

      While I think this is true in general, I will also say that sometimes, you can stumble upon a choice that makes such perfect sense for you (even if or maybe especially when it goes against the grain of society), you are certain that it’s the right choice for you. I was 22 when I realized that despite what my two cultures said, I did not have to have children. As an AFAB person who had assumed I would have to have children when I grew up, this was such a relief. I am an indecisive person by nature, but I have never had any doubt about this decision. At 51, I still don’t and have no regrets. I LOVE not having children and don’t think about it at all except in discussions like this one.

      A little over a year ago, I was in a coma for a week and not expected to live. My brother was told diplomatically that he should think about planning my funeral. By some miracle, not only did I wake up, but I am now better than I was before the medical trauma. I consider every additional day I have a blessing, which means that I am focused on what I want to do with them, rather than some nebulous idea of what I should be doing with them.

      I am enormously privileged to be in this position, which I do not take for granted. But it’s a perspective on life that is much different than the one I had before I ended up in the hospital. Life is too short to be focused on what other people want you to do. So, to the original poster, I say to really think about what would be enough job-wise to make you feel secure and then focus on the other things you want to do in life.

    14. Jonquil*

      thank you for this comment – you helped me clarify something in my (non-work) life that i hadn’t seen before :)

    15. Mallory Janis Ian*

      When I’m wistful about alternate paths my life might have taken, I always think of the Dear Sugar post #71, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us”.

      “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

    16. KM*

      This is so true and I try to remind myself of this a lot. Especially when I envy the freedom of friends and others who work part time or have creative work, but then that often comes with the cost of constant hustling for more work, or not being able to buy a home etc. While my full time work although draining sometimes, has allowed me to buy my own home, which was the choice and the trade off I made.
      It is hard to avoid the pressure of moving up sometimes, for sure, I’m trying to focus on the idea that maybe if I reach a level with enough pay, I could drop down to part time and still make enough money to pay all my bills, and have more free time for personal fulfilments and hobbies. But then there is a strong emphasis in many cultures of you work full time unless there is a compelling reason not to, like parenting or caring for someone. So I don’t know how easy it would be to get or keep a part time job at that pay level, but we’ll see.

  5. Web Crawler*

    I’ve been spending increasingly more time in spaces that are focused on disability and neurodivergence. And I realized that, basically, society isn’t built for somebody like me to thrive, so I have to create my own path. I’m pretty sure that putting me in charge of a whole project, which is the next step in my default career path, will be disastrous for both me and the project. I’m not making these claims lightly. They’re a result of a lot of time spent figuring out what my strengths and limitations are, and which parts are changeable and which parts I actually want to change.

    So now I’ve got to figure out what the next step in my career will actually be. I think I’m leaning towards specializing in a single area so that I become a very specific kind of expert and won’t be called upon to lead a group.

    Related to this- I’m in an unusual kind of relationship too, so this isn’t my first step away from mainstream societal norms. I live with my long term platonic partner and we both date other people. The queer communities that I’m part of are also friendly to different definitions of “success”.

    1. Web Crawler*

      Some context that I left out. My partner doesn’t work right now (for other disability reasons) and I’d like for us to live in a slightly bigger space so that we have a table to work on craft projects. That’s also been part of the calculations- exactly how much I’d like to be making so that there’s a point when I can stop caring about climbing upwards. And for me, that number is more than I’m making which means, unfortunately, I’ve gotta go up another rung.

      I trust myself to know when I want something for its own sake, and when I want something for competitive reasons. (I’ve had a lot of time for introspection in These Difficult Times.) And this is something I want for its own sake.

      1. Watry*

        I am entirely with you on this one. I am also disabled and neurodivergent, and that has meant deciding what my actual goals are work-wise (currently, financial stability and a place of my own, but as a single person that’s easier said than done), what I want out of my job, and what I want out of life.

        I think OP should really consider where that internal pressure is coming from, and what they value that might help them overcome it. Is it a society that tells us that wealth=worth? Then maybe you value your ability to make choices above your desire to be seen as worthy by strangers, or something.

      2. Linda Evangelista*

        Chiming in because I 100% relate to the Neurodivergent Introspection! Having to understand my strengths and limitations (and importantly make peace with them) is something I’m definitely still working through, but I am so fascinated by it because there are so many *flavors* of neurodivergence. Like project management is one of my strengths, but I can’t deal with numbers without a ton of time, total silence, and someone to check things over 10 times.

    2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Nod. There should be more paths where you can be a niche expert. Then again there should also be paths where you don’t have to be detail oriented lol.

    3. Cherry Ames*

      Web Crawler wrote:”Related to this- I’m in an unusual kind of relationship too, so this isn’t my first step away from mainstream societal norms. I live with my long term platonic partner and we both date other people.”

      Thank you for sharing this along with your other insights. I love to hear what other people are doing because it really expands my own horizon as to “what is possible.” (i.e. helps me move out of the “in the box” thinking and more about what is possible on an individual level)

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I’m also living with a platonic partner, but thus far neither of us have wanted to date other people. It doesn’t make sense to marry because of the disability benefits cliff, and having children isn’t in the cards.

        I sometimes think that I should take the “next step”. Then I remember that I’m so far off the beaten path that there is no “next step” defined, unless it’s adopting enough cats to be considered a crazy cat lady.

    4. Tau*

      Another person chiming in on neurodivergent introspection! My form of neurodivergence did not play nicely with university at all, to the point where around the time I was finishing my degree I was actually, legitimately unsure whether I’d be capable of holding a full-time job. That was… really scary and difficult to contemplate and I spent a lot of time crying! But it managed to completely reset my expectations of myself and pretty much blasted away a ton of cultural conditioning around what success should look like. Nowadays I basically sit here going… I am capable of working 40 hours a week! I am capable of actually doing a good job in those 40 hours and getting good reviews! This is great, this is fantastic, this is way more than I thought I’d achieve at various points at my life! I am just gonna bask in my success here and completely ignore the phrase “next step in your career”.

    5. Mimmy*

      I also identify as (invisibly) disabled and possibly neurodivergent, so I can commiserate with a lot of what you said. I’m trying to figure out where I’ll thrive. I’m doing well in my current job, but I’ve been stagnant for a while. I’ve been working directly with blind and visually impaired adults for about 5.5 years. I’m teaching them a very specific skill, but I have bigger dreams. I’m with the poster below who wishes there were paths for becoming a niche expert. Sure, I could be an expert in what I currently teach, but I’m not interested in that. I’ve always wanted to be a subject matter expert in a disability-related area but then I’d probably be called on to lead a group, the idea of which scares me a little.

    6. Not So Little My*

      Another ND chiming in. The pandemic, working from home, and coming out to myself about my Autism really positioned me to pay attention to intrinsic rather than external measures of what I want.

  6. remote42*

    Oh, I feel this letter: I spent my twenties burning myself out trying to be ambitious and Prove Myself at work for what turned out to be absolutely no benefit. Then I had a whirlwind few years that included quitting my job and moving to a different state for grad school, then the pandemic hit, then I dropped out of grad school and moved back to my college town, which I’ve always loved. Now I’m back in my original industry, but remote, and I decided that this time around, I simply don’t care about proving myself or about continually trying to strive for “more.” Work is the thing I do to fund the life I live outside of work. It’s no longer my whole life. I don’t care about a career, or advancement, or any of it. I’m in a good department with a good boss and a good work-life balance. My industry is notorious for bad pay and bad raises, and sometimes it feels like, on principle, I should find a new job and not tolerate the 2% raise I know I’m going to get this year . . . but then I remind myself that some days I only have, like, an hour of work to do and I can spend the rest of that time puttering around my apartment doing things that enrich me personally rather than enriching my corporate overlords.

    1. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      I think a lot of us in our late 20s and 30s (if I’m reading you right) have similar stories. I killed myself for my job–got hospitalized, returned to work before I was even cleared to do so because “there’s work to be done.” Got laid off on my birthday right before a scheduled surgery, with only two weeks’ severance. Next company got bought out, next one lost funding. After three in a row, you couldn’t pay me enough to dedicate myself to a job at the same level. Not for all the money in the world.

      1. remote42*

        Yep: and I think a lot of us also watched our parents go through similar things. My dad was deeply loyal to his company for twenty years, and what did it get him? Laid off in his sixties, when no one would touch him for another job, with nowhere near enough money to be able to retire.

        1. Cj*

          When I read stuff like this, I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to find jobs as I’ve gotten older. I’m 61, and recently started a job that came with you 44% raise and is fully remote.

        2. The Original K.*

          My friend’s mom has a similar story except her husband’s income allowed her to retire. But she was in her early 60s, had worked at her employer for like 30 years, and was just dropped. Part of a group of layoffs, no goodbye, nothing. Escorted out with her stuff in a box 15 minutes after the start of the work day.

        3. Look Back In Ingres*

          My father was largely absent from my childhood due to work, and then passed away the year before he was due to retire. It’s just not worth it.

    2. Renee Remains the Same*

      I’m all in this too! Totally not relegated to the 20 – 30s set. I’m in my 40s, been stuck in a career that I have been mediocre at for the past 20 years and have been trying to find a way out of the rat race. I know what I can live comfortably on, don’t have a family to support, and have a little bit of savings and recently vested into a pension. So I feel pretty confident I can ratchet down my level of career responsibility and hope to find something that allows me to use my skills on a lower level but gives me more freedom to pursue myself outside of my job (which I have never done because work always took priority).

      Good luck to you OP and everyone here who is seeking the same!

    3. Imakesigns*

      I am in the same boat (late 30s). I killed myself at jobs in my 20s and early 30s and I’m just not willing to do that anymore – which definitely came to light for me during the pandemic. I constantly wanted to move up, more money, be seen as a leader, capable, smart, etc. but now I honestly just want to not hate my work, get paid and be done so I can enjoy my actual life. I sometimes feel very guilty for just “coasting” and not going above and beyond since that was my norm, but I just don’t have the energy for that right now. Something in my brain just switched off in the past couple of years when it comes to work – in the scheme of life it is just not as important as I thought it was.

      1. Lunachick*

        This is me 100%! Busted my ass in my 20s and 30s and now that I’m in my 40s my priorities have shifted, like many folks. Glad I’m not alone!

        1. Anon4This*

          I’m in the same boat – I actually have a management/leadership role, but I have no desire to be an executive or in charge of more things. I like a good amount of the work that I do, but I’m also not personally invested in it anymore. I have other things in life that I care about, and it turns out that I can put in much less effort and get the same results. Post-pandemic, I also have zero interest in commuting or doing all the unpaid ancillary work around my career.

    4. Junior Dev*

      I’m 31 and destroyed my health by not taking care of myself in order to work. I wasn’t even working that many hours but the mental demands were so high and I didn’t have energy at the end of the day to cook or exercise or maintain good sleep habits. It’s so hard to get away from and everything basically had to crash and burn around me to force me to make a change.

      1. TechWorker*

        I hope you’re doing better now!
        I also had a period of being intensely stressed at work despite not working *that* many hours (probably only like 40-45 which I know is ‘baseline’ for a lot of folks) and I am very glad to be through it. It was clearly unhealthy (I used to cry on the way to work thinking about the day ahead, and it occupied way too much of my brain); but I only worked the occasional late night so was maybe easier to justify as ‘ok’?
        In my case I had a bad team setup and an inexperienced manager… I complained to a higher up and problems were fixed so fast I wished I’d done it earlier.

        1. Junior Dev*

          I am, thank you! Still figuring out how best to care for myself but I eat much healthier, exercise and sleep better, and generally have been avoiding stress more effectively. I also got diagnosed with and treated for sleep apnea which has made a huge difference. I’ve lost a lot of weight by cooking for myself and working with a dietician—there were other issues with my health too but sleep apnea is definitely exacerbated by higher body fat. I still have this fear of work screwing everything up now that I’m working again, so right now my struggle is learning to trust myself and be flexible when I don’t have time or energy to do everything perfectly.

          I’m really glad saying something worked out for you!

      2. remote42*

        Yes! I never cooked when I was at my old job because I was just so TIRED when I got home. Now I can start cooking immediately after I finish my non-exhausting work day, and also I don’t have to wake up at 6AM to commute every day, so, for the first time in my life, I am actually getting regular, good sleep. It’s absolutely incredible how much difference that has made to my well-being and energy levels.

        1. Junior Dev*

          I’m so glad it’s working out for you!

          Honestly a big part for me too is planning and getting groceries that enable meals with a range of difficulties. Sometimes that’s a meal from scratch and sometimes it’s reheated rotisserie chicken and steam-in-bag veggies. I don’t know what exactly but something about the level of exhaustion and burnout I spent years at prevented me from even doing stuff like that because I just couldn’t think straight so much of the time.

    5. Just Enough*

      I also spent my early career trying to move up and be a dedicated employee. I managed a team of 12, and I was proud of the team and what we were able to do for the company. After lots of blood, sweat and tears, it got me the choice of two envelopes – one with layoff paperwork and one with demotion paperwork. That hit me in the face. I decided I didn’t want to hustle so much because who’s to say the same thing wouldn’t happen in my next job. So I’ve decided to be happy doing enough – enough to feel good about myself and enough to get my employer what it needs from me. I’m lucky that I’m in a very stable job with a good salary and a manager who pretty much leaves me alone to do my work, working 100% remote. I think it now might be my dream job. My husband occasionally asks me about moving up, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to work more, or harder, or deal with the politics. I do sometimes look at younger people who’ve made it further and feel like I should be there, but I also know they work crazy hours and have to deal with a lot. I’ve mostly managed to make my peace with staying where I am and retiring from this place, knowing I did my part without killing myself for it and also managed to have a life.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        My “benefit” turned out to be another 5 years of killing myself for the company before they fired me anyway. My greatest career move was getting fired from that place; my greatest career regret is not getting fired sooner.

  7. TimeTravlR*

    I found real contentment in a job I took about 10 years ago. There were more achievements to be had, but I found that where I was fit perfectly with my skills and gave me the work-life balance I wanted and needed. When offered advancement and development opportunities, I was just clear that I was happy doing what I’m doing and that I only wanted to do trainings that would complement that. As long as I was doing something, they stayed off me.
    As far as the Keeping up with the Joneses… I learned not to do that long ago. I credit the eye opening moment as the time we got a new car. Less than a week later, the neighbors had a new car. In talking, I shared that our new car was a company vehicle. Her face fell so hard. She thought we’d gotten a new car and run out and gotten one too… without knowing all the facts. My lesson: things aren’t always as they appear (also I hate debt so that helps!).
    Just be clear what you want, continue to learn (about the job you have), and be at peace with it!

    1. PsychNurse*

      Yes to opting out of “keeping up!” My husband earns a great living as a lawyer. We live in a very modest home in an inexpensive town, whereas most of his colleagues have mansions in the exclusive suburb. But it means that we can decide at the drop of a hat to travel to Europe, to send our son to expensive summer camp, to take a month off to care for an aging relative. With ZERO financial stress. I don’t know what his colleagues think about our old cars and our small home, and I 100% don’t care!

      1. Laureta*

        Yes to this. It helps to have a partner with a great income. My husband is the same, he makes the money and I do everything else. We live in an old house, we could move, get the pool, drive the newest cars.. but we don’t. Instead we travel, take the kids to Europe every summer and we are both planning an leave of absence for next summer. No money stress!

    2. MigraineMonth*

      Keeping up with the Joneses is so insidious. My brother-in-law seems constantly dissatisfied with his pay (not that he’ll job search for better) and the fact that he can’t afford to get a truck (even though the family already has two cars).

      Worse, it’s seeping into the next generation. I’m used to kids wanting toys/trampolines/etc that their friends have, but my nephew has started complaining about how small his house is. My sister took him to visit some old family friends in the gorgeous house they built for themselves, and his first reaction was, “Oh, they must be poor.”

      1. Chauncy Gardener*

        It is SO insidious. And really sad. I remember my kids friends coming over when they were little and asking why our house was so small. I would just say that this was our choice and a big garden and yard was important to us. And guess whose house/yard they always played in? And whose home grown tomatoes they loved to eat?
        Our house was (and still is!) a fixer upper, but we won’t have to downsize, we’ve lived within our means and don’t have any debt. That feels like freedom to me!

        1. TimeTravlR*

          “don’t have any debt”
          And therein lies the real reward. By buying well within our means, we have been able to pay off our house and pay cash for cars. Zero debt on the way into retirement is a great feeling.

          1. MigraineMonth*

            I have a weird relationship with money where I’d rather have it in savings as a safety net than buying me things I don’t really need.

            I also figured out the hedonic treadmill effect pretty early, so every time I think about moving to a nicer apartment or buying a car I try to remember that it’s not going to make me significantly happier long-term, and downsizing in the future will make me significantly unhappier (at least in the short term). I confused the heck out of my financial planner by saying I wanted to spend more money in retirement than I spend now.

        2. Despachito*

          Oh, that’s great! I bet that what the kids would remember is the fun they had in your house, not how big and shiny your house was.

          And I can so much relate to this! Both my husband’s and my childhood was pretty modest or even poor, and when I started earning money, I suddenly felt VERY rich by comparison. The ability to replace a broken fridge/ripped coat at a whim without having to save for it for months was amazing. But I think the fear of not being able to do that again is sitting somewhere in the back of my head and prevents me from stretching thin financially. We could probably have bought a bigger home but why if this one is sufficient? It was the only debt we ever had, and we set it so that even with the installments, we would have enough for us to live comfortably and to be able to afford some little pleasures.

          And exactly as you say, there IS freedom in the fact you do not have any debt and that your lifestyle is within your means. And it is so much true what was said about the “packages” above. Let the Joneses live their life, there is no need to “keep up” with anyone.

  8. Junior Dev*

    I’m very interested in this as well. I’m a programmer and I started a contract gig a month ago after the better part of a year spent unable to work due to health problems. At this point I’ve gotten people trying to interview me for senior roles that pay 6 figures but I decided to turn down the most recent one because it seemed like the place was chaotic and would require a lot more initiative than I want to have just to navigate what was going on, let alone potentially taking on a team lead type role.

    I got fired last year when my health got worse and worse and the high powered startup I was so excited to work at told me they didn’t offer unpaid medical leave.

    I’m now making about 80k and I don’t mind that, it’s very good money in the scheme of things, although the lack of technical standards at this place do make my job harder, I’m working on saying my piece once and letting it go. I think one characteristic of these easier roles for technical people is a lot of the people around you won’t want to write clean code or do unit tests or provide thorough code reviews, and you have to sort of accept that as the baseline level of things and not rock the boat too much about it.

    1. L*

      I’m a dev too and yeah. I don’t like badly paid jobs because they never have good technical standards.

      There are definitely many jobs that pay well, have good technical standards, AND have good work-life balance.

      Interview around if you can and ask a lot of questions. Good luck

      1. Junior Dev*

        Any tips on finding jobs with good technical standards where you don’t have to work very hard? Work-life balance feels like a euphemism at this point, I’d work 20 hours a week for half pay if i could, but what feels a little more realistic as a programmer is one where you basically are working about 30 hours a week. Not having a lot of meetings seems central to this.

        1. Web Crawler*

          From personal and anecdotal experience, large financial companies are good for this. The tradeoff is that the technology is old. By the time my employer lets us use “new” stuff, it’s already been out for 8 years, and I’m supposedly on the “cutting edge” of my company.

          Regulations mean that the code has to be clean, safe, and compliant, it pays well, and they’re always hiring because most folks don’t want to work with the older stuff.

          1. Junior Dev*

            I don’t mind using frameworks or languages or tools that have been around for a while. But are things like continuous integration, git, linters, and unit tests considered newfangled stuff they don’t bother with in this context?

      2. TechWorker*

        There’s also jobs that pay really well and have terrible technical standards because management doesn’t really understand software. My partner has one of those and he is really struggling with it (in theory the hours aren’t bad but also because no-one knows wtf he is doing, which doesn’t inspire enthusiasm)

  9. Chairman of the Bored*

    I’ve gone as far as I want in my career.

    I’m an expert in my technical field, I enjoy what I do, I make a good living, and I supervise a small team of skilled and motivated people. I need more titles and more responsibility like I need a hole in my head.

    I find it helpful to actively budget such that my material lifestyle is sustainable indefinitely on my present income, while also allowing for a financial safety reserve in case of a job loss or other setback.

    If you prevent your expenses from growing with your income you eliminate the fiscal pressure to climb to the next level in order to afford your current lifestyle.

    Does this mean I drive a Fiesta instead of a BMW? It sure does, and I’m OK with that. I remind myself that to 16-year-old me a running Fiesta with working AC would have been an unimaginable luxury; and getting something fancier isn’t worth getting back on the income/lifestyle/debt treadmill.

    1. CG*

      This is such a wonderful place to be! After many years of restlessness and triangulating on what I want in life, I am now encountering two competing feelings: 1) I’m starting to develop a healthy concept of “enough” and feel like I have it, and 2) I’m so used to shuffling that I can’t always knock my brain out of “what’s next?” mode. You’re where I aspire to be in the next few years, and I completely agree that it takes being proactive to get into that mindset – society wants to push us so hard to grow and expand our work hours, job titles, spending, etc. That’s not always what’s good for us or what we want.

      1. SINE*

        Yes! This is exactly where I’m at and it has been such a challenge. Earlier this year, I took a job that was a step down because decided I was done chasing higher positions and wanted something with more work life balance. But now that I have more balance and the work is easy, I’m feeling restless. Is it because I don’t know how to chill? Is it because this isn’t the right company/job for me? No idea. It’s like I don’t want more but I do.

    2. Hydrangea*

      “I’m an expert in my technical field … I supervise a small team”

      So you’ve already moved up the traditional career path, and your advice is that it’s great.

      1. Chairman of the Bored*

        Only one step, that that was just because I was concerned about the goon they were going to give the job to if I didn’t take it.

        I have people after me to actually switch to management and move up much further, and I want no part of it.

      2. Eeyore's Missing Tale*

        I didn’t take Chairmen of the Bored’s advice that way. How far to move up the traditional career path depends on what that individual wants. It sounds like Chairmen found a good spot for them and is fine not to keep going further.

        I’m in a similar position. I’m the expert in my area in my department and supervise 1 person. I wouldn’t mind adding 1 more to my team, but that’s it. I have no desire to manage anything beyond a very small unit.

      3. Lana Kane*

        There is always higher to go. I became a supervisor and decided that moving to a higher role wasn’t worth it for me. I eventually switched to an individual contributor role where I will be for the foreseeable future. Had I stayed as a supervisor I would have been making the same call Chairman did – this is how far I am willing to go and the extra pay isn’t worth giving up more of my own life.

      4. Hydrangea*

        @everyone who replied:

        I think you are all too close to traditional career path to notice that you are following the traditional career path. You all achieved a conventional career goal. Your messages can all be summed up with, “Yep, moved up. Love it.”

        You are like people who drive an Acura and scoff at BMWs as status symbols.

        1. Chairman of the Bored*

          I don’t think the traditional career path is to respond to an offered promotion to VP with “No thanks, I’m good right here”.

          The message is “Move up only as far as you want.”

          There’s no obligation to keep after that next brass ring if you’re happy where you’re at.

        2. KN*

          This is an oddly angry-sounding comment! Are you criticizing the relevance of these comments to the conversation, or criticizing the career choices themselves?

          I thought Chairman of the Bored’s example was highly relevant to a discussion about learning how to make peace with the goals that *you* want rather than constantly trying to achieve more for the sake of achievement. You don’t have to have abandoned the ladder of a career path entirely for that to be a difficult question.

        3. Irish Teacher*

          I think the point is more “there’s no right or wrong path. Get as far as you want to go (and can go) whether that be entry level or the highest position you can get to or anywhere in between,” not “follow a traditional career path and aim to move up” or “never take a promotion.” I don’t think most of the commenters are talking about whether or not they followed a traditional career path (and honestly, taking a job and sticking at it for 40 years WITHOUT moving up is pretty traditional, really) but whether or not they moved on from a position they were happy with just to say they got a promotion.

    3. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Yup. There’s even a phrase for expenses growing with income – lifestyle creep. Consciously avoiding it and budgeting is a big help in avoiding the ambition press that you mention.

  10. Amber T*

    I’ve been raised with the idea that, if you’re not moving up, you’re not succeeding, and that’s a hard mindset to break. I don’t think I’ve fully broken it either! Over the years I definitely started questioning “what do I want? Do I want more responsibility and stress? Do I want more money? Do I really want a higher title?”

    One thing that helps me is taking stock of what I have now.
    – I am comfortable financially with the salary I make on my own and my combined income with my partner.
    – I am comfortable with my title and how “successful” it sounds. I’d love to tell you that I don’t care about my title, but I do. It was just changed to a higher level to reflect the work I’ve been doing (long story…), and now that I’m at a higher title, I don’t care about getting a “better” one. Are there higher ones? Yep. But if I end up retiring (in many decades) with this title, I think I’d be happy with that (compared to my earlier one that really sounded close to entry level).
    – I am comfortable with my job. I like what I do – there’s a decent enough mix (for me!) of new stuff and repeated tasks. What would my responsibilities be like at a higher level? I don’t know, and I don’t care – I like what I do.
    – I am comfortable with my coworkers, my boss, etc. I don’t dread interactions with most coworkers. I like catching up about the weekend or people’s kids or pets or their holidays. I like how many are at my “peer” level. My boss is supportive and a good manager. If I were to move higher, who would my team be? Who would my boss be? If I were to leave (to get a higher position), would I like new coworkers? What if my boss sucks?

    There’s a lot of pressure to “not settle” and not just get comfortable. But… I like being comfortable, and I am at my job. So when those urges or that pressure to “be more successful” or “do better” come up, I ask myself “why?” and remind myself of the above.

    1. Not Today*

      Yes – you have to figure out what the most important things to you are. For me I want a job that is stable (after being in one where meeting payroll each week was a roll of the dice, I really LOVE knowing my paycheck will for sure be coming), I want work I enjoy with coworkers I dont hate, and decent work life balance. My job has amazing benefits, I love the work I do, the pay is good. There is not much room to move up. And thats fine with me. My manager asked if I want him to start pushing to get me supervisory responsibilities. In the end I said, if it makes sense for my work flow then ok, but otherwise, not really. I dont need a title bump just for more responsibilities that frankly sound like a drag. I have been here nearly ten years and had one promotion, and may not ever get another. I’ve realized that’s fine – I get paid enough to enjoy my life outside of work, a lot of flexibility, and can retire from here comfortably some day. That’s the goal.

  11. Sunny days are better*

    For me: I work to live, I don’t live to work.
    Years ago I managed people, but for many years now, I have become more technically skilled and am more interested in doing the actual work and avoiding the drama of managing people.

    This is often what “moving up” means – it becomes a job that involves managing people as opposed to “doing the work.” Maybe this is true for you?

    If your boss starts discussing “moving up in the company,” it’s reasonable to have a conversation with them to determine what that work actually entails. Perhaps you can also advance by becoming more of a work specialist as opposed to being a manager – but that depends on what field you work in.

    1. EmmaPoet*

      Same here. I decided years ago that I never want to be promoted to library manager, because you don’t get to do the fun stuff anymore, like running programs and doing reference work.* Instead, you spend a majority of your time in meetings, and you also get called when stuff goes wrong, even on your day off. Right now I work an 8 hour day, and I am not permitted to work when I’m not at work (and we rarely telework at my level anyway, except during lockdowns or when we’re closed for weather.) We’re not even supposed to check email when we’re off. It really helps with that work-life balance.

      *Sure, I get a lot of, “How do I use the copier?” and “Where’s the restroom?” However, I also get fun questions, or challenging ones. I would be willing to go up maybe one level from where I am, which still keeps me below management status and still lets me do what I like doing. But I’m in no hurry to apply.

    2. Office Gumby*

      Agreed. If my career were to have a trajectory, it would to become a specialist in the field, rather than a manager. Just because the pay scale of a supervisor or manager is higher because they’re “in charge” of the chocolate teapot team, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the natural, logical step in a career progression.

      I shall always make chocolate teapots. But if I can get paid more to specialise in dark chocolate (85% or above), I will do that. Do not make me supervise the chocolate teapot team.

    3. Despachito*

      Yes, I can relate to that!

      I would not want to manage people because it would mean less of the actual work. And I am a bit of a control freak so I am best off managing my own outputs because I can control them.

  12. Loulie*

    For me, it was accepting that having all those things OP listed as wants were not achievable simultaneously. I had a job that was on an upward trajectory, but what I valued more was staying home with my now adult/older teen children. Women at my former job were very blunt in their assessment that my career would never recover. You know what, they were kind of right about that too. I’ll never go as far career wise as I would have had I not stayed home for over a decade during those critical early career years. However, I did get exactly what I decided I valued more: time with my children. But I won’t pretend that didn’t come at a career cost, I just decided I liked the price. Having tons of time off may not go with amazing and fulfilling career progress and financial security. You make the best choice with the info you have. I’m from the generation that got sold the idea that you could “have it all”, and that’s a lie. At least, I don’t think you can have it all simultaneously.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      But I won’t pretend that didn’t come at a career cost, I just decided I liked the price.

      This is a great way to think about these decisions! For the LW, taking lots of time off and working part time come at the career cost of not moving up in your company/field. Is that a good price for you?

      1. LW/OP*

        Yes! Agreed, that’s a great way to think about it – what’s a good price for you? Loulie, I appreciate how clear-eyed you’ve looked at the benefits and costs of your decisions. Thanks, Loulie and Hlao-roo.

    2. A Girl Named Fred*

      I’m doing a lot of soul searching on this topic right now and just wanted to say thanks for the phrase, “I won’t pretend it didn’t come with a cost, I just decided I liked the price.” I think that’s going to be hugely valuable for me to put things in perspective, so I wanted to let you know I appreciated it!

    3. The Original K.*

      A family friend once told me that you can have it all (if “it all” is career and family) but not at the same time. I’ve never forgotten that.

    4. Rocks are neat*

      My friend and I were taking about this yesterday, and trying to figure out how to express that exact sentiment without it seeming like a negative. ‘I like the cost’ expresses the element of choice.

    5. Warrior Princess Xena*

      My mom made the same choice as you. She was on the same career track as a bunch of other very ambitious, skilled people, and chose to focus on staying home with family a little more than her career. She still does well for herself, learning new skills etc, but she didn’t push for herself to be in the highest possible place. And she says something similar – she made a choice and has been happy with the career cost because for her the value of spending more time with family is much higher.

  13. PsychNurse*

    I am a nurse, which of course is a “conventional” field. However— it doesn’t involve climbing a ladder, typically. Many nurses get a floor nursing job when they graduate and continue doing it to retirement. The pay increases with longevity but the responsibilities really don’t.

    I. Love. This. System. Because I can earn a comfortable living, but there is no culture of people saying, “Oh are you going to apply for the XYZ promotion?” “Oh you’re still an ABC? I’d have thought you’d have moved up by now.”

    It isn’t direct advice (I know you’re not a nurse). But I wanted to draw your attention to the fact that there are many professional fields where ambition and climbing the ladder are not part of the culture. (Teaching is another field like that!) So if you want to work full time, earn a good living, but just sort of clock in, work hard for your shift, and then clock out, you can absolutely find a field like that!

    1. AMT*

      Healthcare is a great field for that. I’m a therapist and in a similar situation. Teeeeccccchnically, I could hire other therapists and expand my practice, but I could also do exactly what I’m doing forever and gradually make more money as my experience and reputation increases without increasing my workload. There’s no obligation to move “up” for its own sake.

    2. InfantaM*

      I’m in a related health field in school-based services, I feel this. And I wanted to want that stability and be happy with the perks that come with working in a school (guaranteed holidays off, eight weeks in the summer (unpaid, but I’m childfree by choice, I save adequately for that), steady pay raises). And I’m bored, so bored. The pandemic broke me in ways I never thought possible, and I’m burnt out and bored to tears of working in the same gig after 15+ years.

      The issue with a very specific Master’s degree is that I feel pigeonholed into staying in this career. I know this is not true (thanks AAM community!), but I don’t have the mental energy to do anything about it right now. I’m looking into changing jobs next summer, due to my contract. And there are other areas to work in with my degree/expertise, but, again, I just can’t feasibly take that on.

      I didn’t really intend to be a debbie downer on your post, really! This works for you and that’s great! But I do also think that while it sounds good to have the sort of position you’ve described, it can also feel limiting and lead to a rut/burnout.

    3. Smithy*

      I am not a nurse, and also not in a field that traditionally rewards length of time in the field/a position in the same way it does growth. Therefore, typically to get genuine raises you need to be promoted vs show you now have 10+ years of experience as opposed to 5+ years.


      I have found it possible to pursue jobs, teams, and employers that genuinely value individual contributors with depth of experience as opposed to ladder climbing. That there is a true case to be made of an increased value in what can be brought to the employer and the position not only with increased experience but also a willingness to stay in the role for 4+ years as opposed to when staff are itching and irritating if no promotion comes after 2-3 years.

      Now sure, it does mean I’m not going to be looking at the VP salaries – but I’ve a lot more success in making that case of depth and breadth, and the need to compensate it similarly than I would have thought ten years ago.

    4. Irish Teacher.*

      I’m a teacher and yup, same for us. In Ireland at least, there ARE middle management roles but…they aren’t prestigious. In some schools, you might not even know who has one and who doesn’t. There are generally things like exam coordinator or responsibility for enrollment. Occasionally, somebody will ask if you are planning on applying for one, but “no’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.

      I have colleagues who have worked in the school for 20+ years and never applied for one. And schools usually have a lot of difficulty getting principals. That just isn’t a role that appeals to many people, for a whole host of reasons.

      (I will say just clocking in, doing your job and clocking out is not true of teaching though!)

      I love teaching and have zero interest in anything that removes me from the classroom.

      1. Cascadia*

        Yes, I was coming here to say the same thing! Most teachers just stay teachers. There is no obvious path for advancement and no expectations that you pursue more. Many people teach for 30-40 years at the same school. It’s an ever-changing job because you get new students every year, but in someways it’s also the same every year. It’s definitely not a job that you can clock in and clock out of at the end of the day and there’s frequent night and weekend work, but it’s also extremely predictable and there’s lots of time off in the form of school breaks. You get regular raises based on union contracts and it’s pretty stable. I was trying to describe to my husband that not every teacher wants to be the principal and there’s really not a culture of trying to move up amongst the staff. I’ve reached the point where I could literally keep doing this until I retire in 30 years. Whether I’ll keep with it or not, who knows? But for now, I love the balance that teacher life brings.

    5. Loulou*

      great comment. I was going to say that I’m in a very different situation for OP but see some funny similarities — I actually DO want to advance professionally, but I’m now in an org where the setup you describe is a lot more common. for me, making my peace with this has really been about priorities and reminding myself what I value, both about my work at this particular place and the life it allows me to have.

    6. LW/OP*

      That’s a great way to look at nursing and similar fields! (I actually did consider going back to school to become a nurse several years ago, and I’ve also considered teaching…)

      1. AnonRN*

        It’s probably not too late to be a nurse if you’re still interested! I’m a 2nd career nurse & know plenty of others. I came from the arts, so even my starting salary (43K, in 2013) was an improvement! I’m still at the bedside in a slightly-fancier-title, eligible for OT, and make around 110K working nights (every hospital & locale is different, of course).

        I won’t tell you bedside nursing is low-stress, though. It can be amazingly rewarding but there are a lot of frustrations too. I work 12-hour shifts which usually means I work 7 days out of 14 but it’s usually 2 or 3 on, 2 or 3 off. Planning travel still takes more work, but routinely having a couple of weekdays off most weeks is pretty great.

    7. Me ... Just Me*

      I’ve been a nurse who moved into management early in my nursing career — been in various management positions for 20 years, now. I’m glad that I’ve moved in that direction, as I have had some physical setbacks that really would make it difficult to be a floor nurse now. But, I absolutely agree — no one looks down on or thinks twice about the 40/50 year old nurse still working the floor. And due to the nature of nursing rewarding years of experience, this comes with a pretty good paycheck.

      Right now, I’m just trying to coast into retirement in my late 50’s (about another 10 years). Of course, I wouldn’t be as “fine” with coasting if I weren’t making the pretty decent money that I’m currently making.

  14. Hmmm*

    Op I’m the same as you…. I work hard but would prefer financial stability and more time off. I’ve actually written a business plan for a company I want to start. I won’t have much help in the beginning and I know having my own business will be 5x as hard….. but I crave the massive flexibility to my schedule

    Yes I know I might be naive but according to those I have spoken to in the industry my own business is a lot more work but more flexibility/ time off.

    Now if I could just get the nerve to go for it

    1. PassThePeasPlease*

      Oooh this is where I hope to be in 5-8 years! Still building up skills (and need a business idea!) but I’d love to work for myself one day. Hope whatever you decide brings you happiness! I know the loss of stability/guaranteed time off is hard to part with.

      A family friend had a small business for a number of years that ultimately ended (a brick and mortar store that wasn’t generating enough income to cover rent + expenses) and while by all accounts they “failed” they said that the alternative, to never to have tried their idea, would’ve been much worse for them.

  15. ILoveLlamas*

    Oh boy, I like this question. I spent 30 years working primarily in a 100% sales role (very entrepreneurial). I aspired to management/leadership multiple times — didn’t get it. I wasn’t a great sales person, but was well liked. I had my own company – it failed. Within the same narrow profession, I tried very hard to have similiar success as others, but always fell short (in my eyes). I raised my kids and felt like I sacrificed my career to give them the upbringing they deserved. I was very hard on myself. I had to learn to give myself grace.

    Now, after my business failed, I am in my late 50’s in a corporate job that I absolutely love. I have plenty of time off, great colleagues, a steady paycheck and solid benefits for the first time in decades. I leave work at work, don’t stress about much of anything. I no longer live to work, but work to live. All this to say, you do you. Screw the conventional — make your life your own.

  16. ZSD*

    “But I’ve realized that what I really want is to have lots of time off, do work that I’m passionate about but that doesn’t overtake my life or stress me out, work part-time, have enough financial security to not feel stressed about money and still be able to travel and pursue my interests, take classes, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends.”

    I’ve definitely had jobs that checked all of these boxes except for being part-time. (I think it’s hard to work part-time and still be financially secure except in a very few select industries.) For example, when I worked at universities, I was able to help students directly, but my work day really end at COB, and I wasn’t expected to log in in the evenings. Evenings and weekends were my own. And while it was frustrating to me that there was no obvious promotion path in those jobs, for you, that might actually be an advantage! If you can find a job that interests you but that *doesn’t* lend itself easily to promotion, then that could help direct you away from focusing on climbing the ladder.

    1. kendall^2*

      I work part time at a university, and not at a very high level, either. I’m lucky because I managed to pay off my mortgage already, don’t have a car, and have a financial safety net, but I do save money every month from my income.

      The advantage of working at this employer is that I get full benefits at 50% of the usual work week, which is what makes this work

    2. Anon today*

      I just started my new job which is just 4 days a week. I pushed my career for a long time – I needed to due to financial issues, but my last role was extremely stressful and I felt a lot of the negative effects of that (currently I feel like a wreck). I was looking to get out in a way that didn’t tank all the work I had done to push my career forward. I also had worked to get into a position of leadership in the field and was doing important and tough work making the field fairer – I didn’t want to let all that go either. I interviewed for about a year before finding this role and asking if they’d consider me working less… I’m still on a relatively high rate of pay, but I’m cheaper for them because of working less hours. And I can swallow the difference in pay at this point without it affecting me too much… and every weekend is a long weekend!!

      I’m really hoping to get back a bit of the spark I had before, but so far I’m just using the extra time to rest, because I am so very tired. I think this is giving me the best of all worlds – I’m earning enough and I enjoy the work, but I am taking proper time for myself.

      When I get doubt about this I remember that modeling good behaviour around boundaries in work makes it easier for other people to also do that.

      1. LW/OP*

        I love that you negotiated for fewer hours – what a great way to leverage your value to them.

        “When I get doubt about this I remember that modeling good behaviour around boundaries in work makes it easier for other people to also do that.”

        This is also great – when someone asks me how I’m doing I’ve been working on no longer replying “busy!” and instead highlighting how I’ve been enjoying my free time.

  17. calvin blick*

    When I started my career (I’m in my early thirties now), I was pretty ambitious and hit the hustle really hard. But now…I don’t really care as much. Part of it was I worked extremely hard in my previous jobs. I was generally able to avoid super long hours (no 60 hour weeks or crazy travel), but I worked very hard during regular business hours, took on a ton of stress, and was literally constantly available. (Send me an email at 10 pm while I’m on vacation? I might not answer every single one, but I will definitely see it and respond if it’s at all important. Same with calls). I got a bit of reward, but not really in proportion to the work I did.

    I’ve also realized a lot of higher-ups are not there totally because of merit. Some are, but a lot aren’t particularly competent and just coast off the hard work of the front line workers underneath them. The ability to rise up the corporate ladder is a skill, and a lot of these folks are nice guys, but it’s not exactly something my life feels empty if I don’t achieve.

    On the other hand, I think you generally have to work pretty hard to “have enough financial security to not feel stressed about money and still be able to travel and pursue my interests”, as the LW wants, unless you are independently wealthy or such a crazy high performer you’re debating between being a VP working 60 hour weeks or a senior director working 40 hours, which doesn’t apply to most of us.

    One final note: I am not a super woke social justice warrior, but I think my demographic advantage can’t really be overemphasized. For me, as a healthy, educated, white guy, if I do a reasonably good job and come across as pleasant and competent I have a pretty good chance of getting promotions just on the assumptions that a guy like me probably deserves it and will fit it. I don’t consciously try to leverage my privileges (and I’m certainly not as privileged as some white guys), but it is definitely there and definitely helps me.

  18. Troublemaker*

    I’ve ended up as a senior engineer at a startup. My technical expertise effectively guides an entire group, but I’m not a manager. I plan to continue to refuse managerial paths and instead forge a path of technical excellence so that our organization can boast of an engineer-driven culture.

    I recognize that this is only viable because I have lots of experience, startups are malleable when young, and we happen to make secondary goods (in the primary/secondary/tertiary sense) rather than tertiary services.

  19. NYWeasel*

    I’ve had a very non-traditional career, and I would say first, pursuing a different goal than others doesn’t mean your not ambitious. Your ambitions are just different than others. Second, I don’t think there’s a magic way to avoid feeling jealousy occasionally towards people who choose a traditional path of say, corporate ladder climbing. Like I look at people who’ve worked steady for 30+ years in their field and never had to deal with the uncertainty of income or carving out a new reputation, and it makes me realize things I’ve sacrificed to follow my dreams—for example, my home would have been fully paid for years ago and I would be able to afford the small vacation cottage we want to get up north. But then I remember the good stuff I chose to pursue—adventures I’ve had, exciting jobs people still ask me about, and the pride I take in the work I’ve accomplished doing what I do—and it feels 100% worth it. I don’t think you can stop yourself from occasionally wondering what it would have been like if you focused on $$ over satisfaction, but hopefully the benefits of the choices you make will help you shake off that envy and be happy about your choices in a different way.

    1. Westsidestory*

      Thank you for this. I’m late stage in my career (and life) after having a very non traditional path in media. I continually get pushback from my family for not having maxed out a 401k for decades- I will be entering the retirement phase perfectly happy to live within my means. I’ve had awesome work experiences and that always meant more than $$$. So yes I will probably never the vacation beach house I’ve always wanted (why I feel you) but have made peace with keeping it a dream.

  20. Caramel and Cheddar*

    The question I usually ask myself is: is my work enabling me or hindering my ability to do the things I want to do in my actual life? You’ve identified the things you want outside of work; would moving up at work negatively impact those things? Would the benefits of moving up offset the things you lose in your personal life?

    The other thing is that I think a lot of “keeping up with the Joneses” stuff is perfectly natural in human beings that can be jealous and covetous of what we see other people have. It’s worth thinking about what we can’t see in their lives; Fergus may have the corner office, but if his kids never see him, is that something you’d be willing to sacrifice yourself to be in his position? Maybe, maybe not.

    The other thing that has helped me deal with this on a personal level is that I’m not very ambitious and the tastes I’ve had of management were not ones I enjoyed, so finding my place or level in the workplace was probably easier for me than it is for a lot of people.

  21. AMT*

    I’m a self-employed professional and it helped me enormously to start thinking about maximizing time off work as a lofty ambition in itself. Much of the reason wealthier people are happier and healthier is that they have a lot of time to waste. Time is a rare and luxurious commodity and if you haven’t inherited a fortune, you sometimes have to buy it by giving up money or prestige to some degree. Sure, I also want nice stuff and good food and new challenges so I don’t feel I’m stagnating in my career, but after satisfying those needs, I just want to be like one of those cartoon rich people who loaf around drinking sherry all afternoon and jet off somewhere on a whim without thinking about work obligations. That’s my definition of ambition!

  22. Writerboy*

    For me, it happened around the time my son was born and it became clear I wanted to spend time with my family more than I wanted to spend time at work. Along the way, my wife developed some chronic health problems and supporting her health was also more important than anything related to my career.

    I was often praised by colleagues for putting my family first, but I don’t think my example changed anyone else’s approach to work. On the other hand, I wasn’t trying to be some kind of paragon of enlightened modern maleness; I just wanted to hang out with my wife and son as much as possible while bringing in enough $$ to ensure a decent life for us.

    When promotional opportunities came up that would have entailed more overtime or too much stress, I just didn’t apply. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous seeing younger colleagues getting roles that were more senior to me, but I also built a small freelance business after my son went to university and I had more free time, and now I’m about to retire (at 60), collect a reduced but good enough pension, and work about 15 hours a week on projects that I choose, when I choose. 25 years ago I couldn’t envision being in the position I’m in now, but here I am. And I didn’t have to coninue climbing the ladder, I just kept doing the best job I could at what I was good at and enjoyed.

  23. BlueWolf*

    I’m in a type of role where there may be a path to move up, but it would be a shift from an individual contributor role to management. I don’t think I would particularly like managing. I like having my predictable work, predictable M-F 9-5 type schedule, and not worrying about work when I log off. I am fortunate that my job pays a pretty decent salary and I do get cost of living and merit raises pretty consistently. Management would probably be a decent pay bump, but I don’t think the trade off would be worth it to me. I am just fine with feeling comfortable.

    1. londonedit*

      Same. In book publishing there are two streams, really – you either become a commissioning editor and then a publisher or an editorial director, or you stick with the hands-on desk editing, which means project-managing books through the actual editorial process from manuscript to press. The latter is what I’m good at. I tried the former in my twenties, because the received wisdom is that everyone wants to commission, everyone wants to run their own list, etc etc. But I don’t. I hated the people management and the budgets and meetings and stresses about targets to bring in so many books and whatnot. I’m quite happy to oversee a nice list of books that someone else has commissioned. That means my earning potential is less and I’m sort of stuck where I am, because there are no very senior roles for desk editors, but the trade-off is that I’m doing something I actually enjoy and I’m actually good at, and I’m excelling at it without too much stress. I can fit all my work into my usual work week, I don’t have to have my work email on my phone, and ultimately the success or otherwise of the books is not down to me – I just need to make sure they go to press on time. Would I like to earn more money? Yes, but I can just about get by on my salary and I’ve found a company that’s generally decent to work for and that tries to look after its staff, and that’s important to me as well.

      1. anon for this one*

        Desk editing has always been my fantasy alternate job (I’m an editor in media), and it honestly never occurred to me that if you had that job there would be status pressure to do more. (In journalism, writing a book is a prestige thing to do, so editing books seems similar!)

        (I know it’s a hard field to break into and very different from what I do now; that’s why it’s a fantasy job and not a real alternate life plan. But what you do sounds really cool and your work-life balance sounds ideal.)

        1. londonedit*

          Oh yeah, there’s definitely less prestige in desk editing within the industry! I get a lot of ‘so don’t you want to commission?’ and, where I work at least, the only way to get a proper promotion and pay rise beyond where I am now would be either to start commissioning or to start managing people. Neither of which I want to do, because it would come with more stress and it would take me away from the work I actually enjoy. There’s definitely a perception that desk editing is what you do in your twenties/thirties before you move into a ‘proper’ commissioning role. I’ve been having conversations with people higher up in the company I work for, though, and trying to put forward the idea that there’s just as much value in people becoming highly skilled desk editors. I think it’s vastly unfair that people with a ton of skills and experience get stuck at the same level as someone who’s been in the role a couple of years – there should be some sort of track where desk editors are recognised for the experience they can bring to the role, without having to go into management. They say they’re listening, but we’ll see!

    2. LW/OP*

      I’ve been managing for a few years now and I would much prefer to go back to just being an individual contributor (I still do all the individual contributor things I was doing, but I’m also managing a staff member on top of that). The person I manage is awesome, I just don’t love the type of work it requires.

      1. Hydrangea*

        At many of my employers, management was a path senior individual contributors were generally expected to spend a little time in and then leave. It was almost like a rotational program for senior people. A few liked it and even continued on to higher levels of management, but most people only did it for a few years. But there was no consequence to moving back to the IC role.

        Of course, becoming a senior IC is its own form of climbing the career ladder, which comes with costs and perks.

  24. SomebodyElse*

    It’s a good question and can answer it as someone who will be stepping back from a traditionally successful career path in the next 5 years.

    I’ve always believed in keeping my options open. My priorities have definitely changed over the past 25 or so years, so I like to have options that can accommodate those shifts. (that does sound rather vague and not helpful, doesn’t it!) Here’s my example… I have been in a fast paced somewhat grueling (but fun) role for the last 8 years or so. I’m currently looking to side step into a project that will ride out my expected last 5 years at my company. Once that time is up I plan to move into a much scaled back career doing something I did early on as a consultant or full time as an IC. (currently in Snr Mgmt role). This will be the start to my retirement.

    If my plans go pear shaped because of (waves vaguely) life. I’ll have the option of continuing with my current career, changing careers but going in a different direction/focus, or plugging away as a contractor.

    It doesn’t sound like our situations are the same as I got the impression you are earlier in your professional life than I am, but I have used this same principal of having options (Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C) all along. For me, I’m extremely risk adverse when it comes to employment, so this is my comfort level.

    I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that it’s very rarely an either/or decision. Most times it can, and should be, somewhere in the middle.

    1. LW/OP*

      I’m also very risk-averse! And like you I’m drawn to having multiple options. Thank you for sharing; I’m going to think more about the different levers I can pull to adjust the type and amount of work I’m doing.

  25. dwilsonpa*

    For me I’m happy at the level I’m at. I’m lucky that I work for a large agency so if I’m bored with this job, I can move to other lateral level jobs if I want. But I’ve decided (at least for now) that I don’t want to move up to the next level because of the type of work that they do, mostly dealing with administrative and budget stuff that really doesn’t interest me.

  26. Happily unambitious*

    I was part of the mass re-evaluation of work that happened during COVID. I have almost 25 years invested in a small, competitive field that typically requires A LOT of hustle or the willingness to move to move up the ladder. And I finally realized just moving up the ladder would not make me happy – I reached a point where the jobs I “should” be targeting next would involve a lot of in-person work and a lot of politics and public scrutiny that I just wasn’t interested in, and I had no desire to move. Once I made my peace with that (and it was hard!) it took me well over a year to find my next position. Fortunately my network was strong enough that I was finally able to negotiate a position that involves a number of things that I excel at and enjoy with a small nonprofit very closely related to my field. Hybrid, 4 days a week, making the same salary I made last year working 5 days a week. I started in August and I am not looking back. There is no path upwards here, and I am never going to make significantly more than I am now, and I am OK with that. It was a game changer for me – so much happier now that I have downgraded ambition! I even took up boxing on my day off.

  27. ferrina*

    I’ve accidentally had custom jobs created for me at several companies. For me, it wasn’t really an option to be conform to expectations- I have ADHD and expectations are, um, not my forte.

    What I did is understand my priorities and my company’s priorities, and pursue priorities that speak to my interest and skill set. I get my main job done, then suggest improvement projects that are things I’d be interested pursuing. I create networks at my company and love using other people’s expertise (it’s amazing how many people hate deferring to the Expert- most Experts are just thrilled that I want to listen to them). I see opportunities for collaborations, and I get results. I never pursue projects that the company isn’t interested; I always assure mutual benefit in line with the company’s priorities.

    I understand the desire to keep up with the Jones. One thing that helped me was getting good a niche skills. Folks are always impressed with this, and it reminds me that having people be good at different things makes us all stronger- a diversified skillset is good both in the workplace and in social settings, and if everyone tries to do the same thing, it creates unnecessary competition which ends up with resource scarcity (aka debt) and everyone’s unhappy. Think of any great team movie/TV show- whether it’s Leverage or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the magic is the way characters complement each other’s skills/personalities.

    1. cubone*

      for the record, “custom jobs” sounds a lot like the concept of “job crafting” (the ways in which employees adjust, direct, and change the responsibilities of their jobs). It’s considered a great thing for retention and engagement, and usually a sign of a good company with trust, flexibility, and willingness to listen to employees.

      As a fellow ADHD-er, I think it’s worth pointing out that the ability to engage in job crafting your own work is a great skill in and of itself :) not everyone has that self-awareness

      1. ferrina*

        I’d never heard the term “job crafting”, but yes, that’s exactly it! And a couple times my crafting turned the job into an entirely new role.
        Can attest- it is a fabulous way to increase engagement, and it can end up being really good for the business when you let smart people take your priorities and run with them.

  28. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

    I have a very medium life. My job is average, my home is average, my car is basic. I don’t have designer things or take lavish vacations. But I’m blissfully happy. I’m not stressed, I have a fantastic marriage and a core group of friends that I spend time with. Those things are priceless. I let go anyone who made me feel badly for not reaching my full career potential. Those people suck and have no place in my life.

    I do wish society in general placed more of a value on people who just show up every day and do the work. Companies need their worker bees! There’s value there, and it’s ok to want that and only that. Be happy. If that means being a medium career, then so be it.

  29. Jane*

    Consider developing the, ummm, “identity markers” you have outside of work: what are you interested in? What are you proud of?

    I spent so many years with my only identity being based around my work.

    I’m successful, earn enough money etc.

    I recently changed jobs and I don’t want to go higher. Not at this stage of my life. But it’s hard to let go of that identity.

    So I have focused on and developed “the other stuff”: I have prioritized non work accomplishments (in my case, athletics is one of them. Don’t get me wrong I’m middle aged and not going to the Olympics, but I’m proud of being strong, developing new skills, and sometimes throwing down with ppl half my age ).

    I also identified areas for growth: I’m spending a lot of time focusing on my values and how I can express/live them in my daily life.

    I also remember that when I think about the people I care about and why they are special to me, it never has to do with their job or income, and try to give myself that same grace.

    1. Web Crawler*

      That’s a good point about identity markers. Also, the more I focus on my life outside of work, the more I notice how often people try to identify me by my job. The first question I usually get asked by strangers is “what do you do for work?”. It doesn’t usually lead to interesting discussion in my case, and I’ve been consciously asking different questions when meeting other people. So far I’m a fan of “what do you do for fun?” or “have you learned anything interesting recently?”. Favorite location in town, or favorite movie, has produced some fun discussions too.

      I also realized while writing this, that I don’t know what a full half of my friends do for work. I can tell you all about their fandoms and special interests, though.

  30. Mothman’s Uber*

    I feel exactly the same way. I recently changed companies and a family member was excited because there are more opportunities for me to move up. I said that there might be one move I would consider that wouldn’t require me to oversee people but I don’t have a desire to move up. My family member was shocked but, other than increasing my paycheck with the cost of living, I have no desire to move up.

    This is a job I can leave at the office every day, I get a full four weeks of vacation (separate from holidays and sick leave) once I’m here for 10 years, a pension on top of a retirement funds, significant discounts on classes, and a guaranteed pay increase every year for a certain number of steps. Maybe the work isn’t the most interesting in the world but I love the perks. This works very well for me when I want time to travel and be with my loved ones. Others might find it odd but I like this path that allows me to prioritize other things.

    For how I figured it out, it’s mainly that I don’t have a specified career path. Several of my friends have known for years what they wanted to do but I’ve flounder for a long time. I fell into office administrative work and it suits me for the reliable hours and workload. I could move up for being office manager or other such positions but I look at how stressed those people are and know that it’s not for me.

  31. Nerto*

    The social pressure to climb a ladder and gain status is intense but it is also imaginary. Do your work and live your life.

    1. cubone*

      so succinct and perfect. Pressure to follow a specific life path can be a way for people WHO CHOSE THAT LIFE PATH to validate their own decisions.

      I don’t mean that every ambitious person pursuing a CEO job is a fake and trying to convince you that you want it too. But if your whole identity and values in life hinge on achieving a certain marker of success in life, and someone comes along who doesn’t value that marker the way you do, it can feel extremely threatening. See also: all the subtle and explicit ways society undermines and judges people who don’t want to get married, have kids, own cars, etc.

      We’re all making it up because everything is made up, but if some of us are so invested in the thing that’s made up that we don’t want everyone to admit it’s actually made up because then we have to find a different way to prove to ourselves that our life is meaningful, valuable, and worthwhile.

  32. Miss Cranky Pants*

    Your Money or Your Life book rec. I read it the first time back in the 90s, and yeah, the premise of living off 9%+ interest rates for decades no longer applies, but the overall premise of “figure out how you want to spend your life energy” definitely applies.

    Fortunately, I figured out pretty early on by age 25 that I could either have a house OR a horse, but not both. :) Either the fancy sports car OR designer clothes. For working-class or even middle class folks, especially singles, we just don’t have the financial resources to keep up in that capitalistic competition. So I long ago gave up “competing” in that way and it de-stressed my life.

    The name of the game isn’t who has the most toys; the name of the game is enjoying the toys (and time) you choose to have. Yeah, you can “have it all”, just not at the same time.


    1. Anon today*

      speaking to the single thing – I have really felt the need to be my own safety net, but I think a lot of people are under enormous financial pressure without having any luxuries!

      When I bought my place just a few years ago I kept a solid upper limit on what I would borrow (it was more based on how I would cope if I lost my job rather than what I could borrow on the current salary) I’ve been through too much financial instability to not consider it … I got a little place in a cheaper area – its cute though! When my big job became so stressful I reminded myself it was exactly for this scenario that I kept that so low, so that I wouldn’t be trapped in a high paying job because of the mortgage. It made it possible to take my new reduced hours job (mentioned somewhere upthread).

  33. Toodle*

    I got laid off a year ago, realized I wanted to spend more time with my kids anyway, and began doing PT contract work that gave me that flexibility. We cut back on expenses and rejiggered our circumstances so our family came out even. It’s working out better for everyone,

  34. LCS*

    Do you have good lateral options? After quite a few years of role escalations coupled with ridiculous hours and non-existent work life balance, I flipped to a role that per the or chart is a lateral move from a money/title perspective. It’s in a totally different department however and expectations are very different in terms of expectations. I feel like I have my life back. It’s definitely not part time but hours are closer to 40-45 on a regular basis vs. 60-90+.
    I’m able to go to the gym, coach my kids sports, realistically plan dinner parties on Friday evenings, take vacation time without working through it, etc. If you can make this sort of switch it still gives you options down the road for promotions (you will come to any future opportunities with a much broader base of knowledge if you can flip around between various departments) but in the meantime you gain time back without losing title/status.

  35. Prospect Gone Bad*

    Get skills. There is still a misconception that if you don’t want a huge career, you can sort of float between low end jobs and help out and answer the phone and do paperwork. Those jobs have increasingly ceased to exist. You still need skills to get a job. So learn Tableau, SQL, or online marketing and SEO – anything specific. Or learn about building permits in your area and how to coordinate renovations and new home builds. Just throwing out examples of specific skills.

    You will be miserable applying to generalist roles that get 300 resumes and TBH have some room for ageism since many companies use those to groom employees that want to grow.

  36. Emi*

    Part of that high power career seems to be at a certain point, it involves managing people. Some people (me included) should not be managers of people. When I figured that out, about myself, it took a lot of options off the table, but they were job paths that would make me miserable.

    My degree is in philosophy, so the idea of “how to live” or “what is a good life” have been rattling around my brain for a lot of years. I want a good life far more than I want a good career, or a lot of money.

  37. Green*

    As a manager, I would be fine to hear that someone was happy in role and just wanted to keep doing what they’re doing. To avoid framing it as a lack of ambition (“I’m quiet quitting”), I would frame it as *an ambition to be the best at what you are doing now.*
    Ways you could frame that in “corporate speak” —

    “I’ve found that on any team there are lots of roles to play. A lot of times everyone wants to be the star, but I don’t need to be the pitcher. I just want to be a really good left fielder and solid contributor that people can count on. So I’d like to continue to focus on becoming an even stronger partner with the team and continue building relationships with our cross-functional partners.”

    If they ask you for development goals: “I’m more interested in lateral growth and skill-building, and I’d like to work on things like becoming more efficient, soft skills, and proficiency in XXXX. I think I’ve found work that I really enjoy and I would be happy remaining in this role for the foreseeable future.”

    “I think it would be helpful in my current role to learn more about Y department and how their work impacts our workstreams. I love my current role, but maybe some insight into the bigger picture would help me become a better partner for the team. I’d be happy continuing to build my skills in this role for the foreseeable future.”

    “I’d like to work on my emotional intelligence so that I could better help the team in my current role.”

    1. Dinwar*

      A potential way to frame this is institutional knowledge. Every company needs people in each role that know how to do things, and that means someone who’s been there a while and not moved up the ranks. If they move up the ranks without sharing that knowledge the company suffers as people try to re-invent the wheel.

      A potential way to word this is:

      “I want to impart my institutional knowledge to junior staff. I believe that at my current role I’m in the best place to do this.”

  38. Marion*

    “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

    I think people get stuck on career goals over personal ones because career goals are more ‘visible’ and ‘countable’. My personal happiness and fulfillment cannot necessarily been seen by anyone else, but make my life infinitely better. I think by letting go of the ‘what do other people think’ methodology and only focusing on your inner journey can really help shed the pressure around hitting material career-based goals.

  39. Dinwar*

    I’m not a fan of using “capitalist” to mean “anything bad in the world of work”. Free trade is, after all, all about both parties getting what they want out of the agreement. And a major part of the issue is that the LW is allowing other people to be involved in this decision, people who have no business there.

    Fundamentally the problem isn’t that you’re not getting what you want when you take a non-traditional path. It’s that you’re not getting what other people want you to want. Or worse, what you think other people think you should want. What you want ends up getting buried in the noise.

    When I went to school for paleontology no one thought it was a good idea. Half the people I knew couldn’t pronounce the word, and the other half thought there was no career to be had in it. I had to be firm in every conversation, and to be committed to the path I was walking. There are inevitably times when you wonder if it’s worth it, or if you’re making the right choice; even people in traditional have those doubts. Unfortunately there are a lot of people who, when you take a non-traditional route, will prey on those moments of doubt to try to push you into what they consider the “proper” career path. You have to treat such people as the threats they are.

    A key thing is to surround yourself with people who support you. It’s REALLY hard to stand alone, and impossible to do it for a career. Having people who support you is essential.

  40. Spearmint*

    What you describe sounds like the dream! But unfortunately I don’t think it’s likely that you’ll find a job that checks all these boxes. You’re asking for a lot: a job with lots of PTO AND work you’re passionate about AND that pays enough that you’re financially secure while still funding travel and hobbies AND isn’t stressful AND is part-time AND (if in the US) provides health insurance.

    I would recommend asking yourself what you’re willing to compromise on to get closer to this dream, while recognizing that fully realizing it is unlikely. Are you willing to move to a low CoL location and travel less than is ideal so that you can live on relatively low part-time pay? Are you willing to retrain into a career you’re not passionate about but allows you to make lots of money even part-time (like doing contract programming work)? Are you willing to work full-time in a job that is a bit stressful but has great pay, PTO, and work-life balance? Those seem much more realistic to me.

    I hate to be a debbie downer here, but as someone who has had similar dreams, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s usually not realistic to expect to lead such a life, and the people who do live that kind of lifestyle are either incredibly lucky or privileged (or both).

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I agree. I missed the part about “part time.”

      I am comfortable monetarily and benefits-wise, but I have a couple of friends who aren’t / weren’t. They are / were so always stressed about money and being on the edge. One little problem becomes a catastrophe because they don’t have money to fix it. One friend has structured her life to live at the poverty line (to get medical insurance), but she’s always so stressed and always having an emergency. I can’t imagine that it’s worth it.

      So I would say decide how much money you realistically need to live comfortably, pursue your hobbies, travel and have an emergency fund (safety net). Prioritize the more important stuff, but I’m betting that part time wouldn’t support that because then medical insurance usually becomes your responsibility with no employer help.

      You may have to work full time but you can prioritize places and jobs that you can leave it at the office and provide lots of leave/flexibility so you can enjoy as much non-work pursuits as possible.

    2. I'm currently in higher ed*

      This is basically where I fall. I’m finishing up a grad program this year (knock on wood) and while I plan to take a run at academic jobs, I also know that — as a single woman — there’s a possibility I may need to move away from higher education, away from work I am passionate about, in order to adequately support myself. Quite frankly, even the ability to work part-time, with the exception of a few high earning fields (somebody mentioned contract programming in the thread), is a sign of a certain amount of privilege, having either family or spousal/partner supports that make housing/benefits/etc less of a worry.

      I prefer thinking of “self-care” less in terms of “doing a lot of fun stuff, taking bubble baths” and more in terms of doing the things that will lead to my long-term well-being, like taxes and getting my oil changed. Jobs I think are similar — it’s not possible to always have what’s fun and relaxing and chill; but if we put our own financial and personal needs first (without necessarily overworking to climb the ladder) we’ll still end up in an okay spot.

  41. Bananagrams*

    My personal strategy is to nod and smile and then read pieces about all the ways employers have screwed over employees so that I remember the system is rigged, that the idea of “hard work” = “good person” was established to keep capitalism running so that those in power could continue to suck out blood, sweat, and tears from the average worker without having to expend any themselves, and that by living a life I find fulfilling, and holding hard boundaries against changing that, I am setting a powerful example for others. I’m midlevel in my company but very visible, and I’ve found that having at least one high-impact project or task a year keeps me visible and perceived as high performing, and gives me the political capital internally to be able to say no to additional requests for my time without being perceived as “not committed”.

    1. Dinwar*

      “…that the idea of “hard work” = “good person” was established to keep capitalism running so that those in power could continue to suck out blood, sweat, and tears from the average worker without having to expend any themselves…”

      That’s not true.

      First, the idea that hard work=good person was established WAY before capitalism. Capitalism is pretty vague, but a good starting place is Adam Smith. The idea of hard work being a moral requirement started a few millennia prior. The reason is pretty simple: prior to the Industrial Revolution 90%+ of humanity was subsistence farmers, and if they didn’t work hard they starved. Not only that, but the rest of civilization (which rested on that 10% surplus such farming methods were capable of) starved as well. I know this was the attitude under manorialism, the economic framework of the Middle Ages. Prior to that it gets harder to map onto modern terminology–Rome relied HEAVILY on slave labor on farms (and had extremely strict laws and customs governing treatment of those slaves), for example, and slavery of any type isn’t comparable to modern work.

      (Before anyone says it, nobles in a manorialistic system were not lazy. They were the military, and their job was to keep the farmers safe. The two really did need each other. The idea that nobles were killing peasants without a second thought is pure fantasy; it would be a quick way to starve yourself.)

      Second, in a well-run company the hierarchy is a division of labor. There are tasks that need done, and people need a certain amount of authority to do them. Sure, I sit in an office most days instead of being out in the hot sun, but on the flip side if something goes sideways it won’t be the guys doing the physical work that go to jail, it’ll be me. For my part, I’m no good at international law and I have zero interest in accounting; I’m quite happy to let someone else deal with those, and to roll out policies as they are developed.

      1. coffee*

        This description of a “manorialistic system” is an overly simplistic view of how people lived, since it’s spanning a lot of different countries over many centuries. (And there were still slaves in the medieval period!) Interestingly, there is a growing school of thought that there was actually no such thing as feudalism.

        In any case, the lives of people centuries in the past are irrelevant to the point that you are trading your labour for something in return, and “working hard makes you a good person” is worth interrogating as to whether you’re REALLY getting something in return or if you’re mostly benefiting someone else.

  42. Person from the Resume*

    I am very happy with middle management. I don’t know how I got here, though. Perhaps I’ve always been here. I don’t particularly like being the center of attention so I have never been drawn to being the big boss. But I like the level of guidance I get to give. I’m a natural planner and organizer do PM work suits me and a PM role in inherently some sort of management.

    I guess I’ve also been resistant to peer pressure too so the everyone is encouraging me to move up has limited influence too. Try to view this encouragement as a compliment on your current performance, but not necessarily something you need to yes to. If you are a people pleaser you may need to fight that tendency because you don’t want other people making decisions about your career path.

  43. Starlet OHara*

    This is where I have been for years. I have college kids (for age perspective) and figured out years ago thst I was content doing my same job at the same place. It paid well, had unbeatable benefits, I was challenged enough by the work, and I loved the people I worked with. I had lots of time for volunteering with kid activities and anything else I wanted to do outside work. I don’t regret not advancing or changing jobs along the way at all.

    That said, everything changed a year ago and I’m wondering if another unicorn job is out there.

  44. Lacey*

    Well, what you want is what a lot of us want, but I don’t know that it’s super easy to acquire.

    I work a very chill job that is usually pretty slow. I never work more than 40 hours a week and I work from home. We have decent, not amazing, benefits and “unlimited” PTO.

    But, I’m not making market rate at this job. I don’t have a ton of extra money. It can be stressful. I don’t get to travel a lot.

    1. Spearmint*

      This is similar to where I’m at. I work in state government, so I get great benefits, PTO, and work-balance. But, it’s still a full-time job and so I’m chained to my laptop 40 hours a week, and because I’m paid below market rate (especially for my city which has had rapidly rising rents over the past 5 years) I don’t have a ton of savings built up even though I’m self-sufficient, and the only travel I do is to visit family (because they’ll generously pay for it so they can see me).

  45. Harried HR*

    Industry makes a difference

    Let me elaborate…I do HR/Payroll/Benefits & Recruiting I have been doing this for job for over 20 years.

    However the difference between doing this job in Corporate/Dockyards/Construction/Medical and creative industries are HUGE.

    Now I’m doing the same job nut in a Creative environment and I NEVER want to leave

    1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

      YES! I think that this idea is overlooked by loads of people looking for a change. For my current role, they were looking for someone with marketing experience, call center experience, and healthcare experience. I had two of the three, and they were elated to find me. I learned the healthcare part, and while it was definitely a learning curve at times, I love my job.

  46. bamcheeks*

    I am not actually sure there is a “a more traditionally ambitious career path”. I mean, I am not doubting that you feel that pressure, OP, but you’re suggesting that that’s something the majority of people do, and actually that’s not my experience at all. Just by the maths of it, I would say the majority of the population is actually doing what you’ve described as the “non-traditional career path” and finding their life satisfaction outside work in family, friends, social relationships, community and so on. The sense that “everyone” is expected to climb a ladder and strive towards more responsibility and higher pay is probably something created by your particular demographic, career path, social group etc.

    That’s not a criticism of you, at all– it’s a suggestion for how you reframe thinking about this. What’s been sold to you as a norm is not actually a norm, and there are far more people doing what you consider “not normal” than you have probably noticed. Once you start looking for them, you’ll see them and you’ll feel less like The Only One.

    I think the second thing I would say is that you need to get comfortable with the fact that making choices means missing out on stuff. You take Path A, you give up on Path B. That sounds trite, but it is genuinely one of those things where if you feel like you’re on the Big Path with everyone else, you don’t notice all the other paths branching off and feeling the loss of them: if this feels to you like stepping off the Obvious Big Path, you are less used to having those moments of regret flash by your eyes and not getting too caught up in them. I think it really helps to spend some time consciously thinking about what you’re giving up. Visualise the stuff that you’ll get if you keep climbing: the power to make decisions, the glossy hair, the smiley picture next to the biography of the Keynote Speaker, the swimming pool in the basement, whatever that next level of success represents to you. And then put next to it the things you’re actually choosing — the things you’ll be giving up if you choose that — and visualise them in detail. There’s a point where the, “Oooh, but SHINY” still flashes in front of your eyes, but then is immediately eclipsed by, “twelve-hour days though, all very well having a fancy house but not if you spend no time there” and you can appreciate stuff for your friends and still feel happy and contented with the stuff you chose.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I agree that the math doesn’t work out. Everyone who starts out at the bottom as an assistant or coordinator can’t become a director or SVP. Some of the people may want to but aren’t good enough, but lots of people choose not to pursue the top spots for personal reasons. Those folks are all around you too.

      1. bamcheeks*

        There are also all the people doing the jobs that don’t offer advancement even if you wanted it. Every day the person whose main identity is “lawyer” or “doctor” passes service workers or uses items made by people on production lines or inhabits buildings cleaned by people for whom a job is just a job! Which isn’t to say people can’t find satisfaction in their work or in their relationships with their colleagues, of course, but a lot of people just put in the hours and then go home and care for their families or laugh with their friends or look after their communities or make beautiful things or whatever. Defining yourself by your work and your professional role is IMO very much a minority sport, just one that is way more visible than all the other ways of living.

        1. Irish Teacher*

          And even roles where it IS common for people to define themselves by their role may not necessarily focus on upward advancement. Teachers, priests, nurses are all roles that are very much things people are identified by but are not roles where there tends to be “where are you going next?” pressure.

          (In fact, I know some teachers who would be quite cynical about those who want upward advancement, assuming that it means they are struggling with say discipline and want to get out of the classroom because they aren’t succeeding there. Not that that would be a great idea, as roles like principal are likely to be MORE stressful, but the idea is out there. So yeah, even within “career” typed jobs, the idea that being promoted is the epitome of success isn’t universal. Of course, there ARE teachers who see being a principal as achieving success. And many who just see it as a matter of choice.)

  47. Llama Llover*

    By any conventional standard, I have a very successful career. I’m in charge of marketing and creative for one of the nation’s largest health plans. And you know what? I don’t care. I’m fortunate to have a really supportive boss, but I tell her every year during development time that I have no desire and will not accept a promotion. As soon as that happens, I have to stop creating campaigns and making pretty graphics and start doing budget and admin and HR stuff. No thanks!

    I’m successful because I have a fully launched adult daughter who is healthy and happy; I have an amazing hobby that has helped me make friends around the world; my fiancé is way more patient and loving with me than any man should have to be; and I am excellent about establishing and maintaining boundaries at work and in life. Everything in this paragraph is what I’ve worked the hardest to achieve. Work stuff just pays for it. This is what makes me successful.

    Your goals are your goals. Don’t compare your progress in your goals against someone else’s progress to their goals that aren’t relevant to you. That’s success.

  48. CatF*

    I think that a firm internal sense of what is “enough” for you is critical of you want to change the way you approach work. That means knowing what’s important to you and figuring out how much career success, how much money, etc is enough. When you are at enough, resist the interior or exterior pressure to do or have more. Divert excess work opportunities, recognition, & money to others who want it need it. You’ll still have enough.

  49. Eireann*

    I don’t quite know how to respond to this, although this is indeed the path I chose many years ago. I was one of those underachievers in high school, told so many times “You’re so smart, you could be anything you want, why won’t you do the assignments, you could be making straight A’s,” etc. I was never interested in college as preparation for a career – was one of those anachronisms who just wanted to learn and get educated. When I entered the workforce, I chose clerical type jobs: first low level stuff – receptionist, etc. – moving gradually to admin assistant and then fancy jobs like “secretary to the president” of a couple of local firms and a local community college. But my ambition has never been to climb the career ladder. I saw way too often what happens to people who do that – the sacrifices they must often make – and with considerable thought and second-guessing, I finally accepted that in order to be myself and do what was really valuable to me, I would have to be at peace with the reality that even with my “you could be anything” history, all I wanted was to do reasonably fulfilling work, get a paycheck, and head home to my real life and self. I don’t regret those choices. I don’t think I was ever settling for less. I have instead lived a pretty satisfying life, have learned many things from my various support staff jobs, have gotten good at being a support person to executives, but in the end my real life and my work “life” don’t intersect much at all. Now I’m reaching retirement age and I am hearing “you’ll miss the work relationships, the structure, etc.” but I know that I’m well prepared for this third chapter: life after work is over. I’ve been preparing for retirement my whole “career” by being valuable, but replaceable.

  50. Clawfoot*

    I learned a while ago that I wasn’t traditionally ambitious, either. I had no interest in becoming team lead, manager, director, VP, etc.. I *am* ambitious with my skills and interests, though — I want to continually improve my skills, I want to stay on top of modern trends and relevant tech, I want to keep up with my industry, and I just want to be the best damn teapot designer I can be. I would like a “Senior Teapot Designer” title in a few years, maybe, with the accompanying bump in salary and more complex projects, but I don’t ever want to stop being a teapot designer. And moving to “Teapot Design Manager” means my work would shift towards being ABOUT teapot design and away from ACTUAL teapot design.

    The key, for me, is knowing what I want and why I want it. Sometimes that means also knowing what I don’t want and why I don’t want it. Knowing myself in that way gives me the security I need to resist outside pressure and the confidence I need to go for/build/ask for what I actually want.

  51. A Pound of Obscure*

    My husband and I both overcame this, although his change was more dramatic than mine. He had dreams of being a doctor and ended up specializing in another health profession (not M.D. but another field requiring a doctorate and with high earning potential). And he hated it. Like, full-blown panic-attack level of discomfort. We were newly married and with my emotional support he sold his practice and answered a classified ad for another job, one that might have required a bachelor’s degree at most. It paid a training wage. (We had no children and he was in his late 30s at the time.) He continued seeking a field that suited him for another 5 or 6 years. Fast forward to his mid-60s (a few years ago): He retired from a well-paying managerial position with an impressive amount in his retirement account. (By that I mean, the dramatic career change involved some lean years but, in the end, it worked out really well, financially.) It didn’t take him long to get over the feeling of loss regarding all the schooling and the so-called “prestige” of his first profession. It was the best decision he ever made.

    As for me, I never had big dreams as a youth, but I loved learning. I studied liberal arts in college with no idea where I would land, careerwise. I worked in publishing first, then health insurance, then I.T., then back and forth between those three industries for 35 years. About 20 years into that cycle, while working for a large IT firm and climbing the ladder, I realized I hated that rat-race. I wanted to do something for the greater good. I’ve been in government communications for about 9 years now and it wraps all the skills I learned in those seemingly disparate industries into one interesting and challenging role. I’ll retire in the next five years or so and I, too, have a healthy retirement account. I also truly value everything I gained in all those jobs; they all stretched my experience and knowledge tremendously, and I was in high demand because of the unusual set of skills I brought to each one.

    So I’d say the way to get over that competitiveness and envy is to realize your title won’t matter in the end. Only your happiness will. And save every extra dollar you can. Also: Read the book “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s about how overspecialization can be a bad thing. My husband and I are living proof that you can branch out, even in unexpected and sometimes non-lucrative ways, and end up farther than you ever could have if you had stayed in your lane, so to speak. Good luck!

  52. Bucky Barnes*

    The stress of trying to advance got to me and I started dreading work. My manager was talking to me one day and said it was OK if I didn’t want to and just wanted to do the work I enjoy and was trained for. Him telling me that really helped a lot and though it’s still settling down, I’m now doing mostly what I like to do.

    Would I have liked to have been a manager or further up a few years ago? Yes. But after the last few years, I just want to earn a living, work my hours and then go home. (I’m hybrid now though I was in office the first two years of the pandemic.)

  53. SongbirdT*

    One thing that really helped me is working for an organization that has well-defined paths for both leadership promotions (Lego Engineer – LE Manager – LE Director…) and lateral promotions (Lego Engineer – Senior LE – Super LE – SuperDuper LE…). The company acknowledges and respects that sometimes people are most fulfilled and satisfied by being an individual contributor and made a growth path for those folks.

    The other thing that helped is reading a lot of AAM and realizing that I really really don’t want to deal with the mess that people leaders have to be prepared for. Lol!

    1. Hydrangea*

      Yes, that is the case for most of my employers as well. However, climbing the IC ladder also comes with a price and with perks. So, there is still the decision of whether you want to do the extra work associated with being a SuperDuper LE.

  54. Beans*

    For me, I need my job to be a base level of interesting so that I don’t hate my time there, and this has corresponded to “moving up the ladder” and seeking promotions periodically – but ONLY once I’m so bored that my previous role was dragging on my spirit.

    I make enough money and I have a work/life balance that leaves me time to do the arts & crafts that make me happy. I think of my work as “thing that allows me to do the other things that make me happy,” not “the measure of my success as a human”. It does help that my job category (marketing….. commercial industrial equipment) isn’t really sexy or particularly competitive, so I don’t feel a lot of external pressure within my industry.

  55. irritable vowel*

    For me, it took dealing with my spouse’s terminal illness in the final year of my previous career to realize that continuing to stay in that field was just not for me. The seriousness with which people in my work addressed things became honestly laughable in the face of real, life-altering problems. I realized that if I was going to offer my labor in exchange for money, it had to be in that context, not in the context of vocational awe and all the other b.s. that makes you feel like you need to keep striving up the ladder. The pandemic delayed my ability to pivot as quickly as I expected, but I’m now in an adjacent field where my 20+ years of experience are valuable, and I can close my computer at the end of my shift and not think about work a moment more than I have to.

    I will readily point out that I now make less than half of what I was earning in my previous career, and not everyone will have the privilege of being able to do that – I had no debt and substantial savings. But if you’re on sound financial footing and are otherwise willing to give up the trappings of what “success” looks like, go for it.

    1. LW/OP*

      I’m so sorry for you and your spouse <3

      Thank you for sharing what you learned from that experience, and I'm so glad and impressed you were able to make that pivot.

  56. thee epidemiologist*

    For me, the pandemic triggered a major existential crisis and made me realize that I hadn’t really built a life I like outside of work. Not sure why but maybe the fear and anxiety of those early months made me want to create a life I could be proud of at the end, where I’d spent enough time with family, made plenty of friends, traveled enough, and tried lots of new things.

    I like my job and feel it contributes something important to the world. But these days work, for me, is now a way to fund my personal goals and I think it’s really empowering to just let it be! I’m happier getting my work done and letting my career develop slowly if it means I get to spend more time chatting with my husband, holding my nieces and nephews, or gossiping with friends!

  57. Pink Marbles*

    For me, I think it was a combination of few things. First, I realized that it’s okay to feel like you’re mourning the life you once envisioned – it can be hard to accept that you don’t want that dream anymore after working toward it for a long time. Second, I met my SO: suddenly, I realized how much spending time with him and our future children meant to me. And third, I realized that I don’t have to let go of my former VP dreams entirely. I don’t think I’ll ever be working in a high-rise in a crowded big city, but I do own my own small business and I use my management skills every single day. It’s very different from my friends shooting for c-suite or partner, but I feel that I still get to be in the business world – just at my own leisure. I hope that helps!

  58. coffee_Coffee*

    The time that we put into work is time that we need to take away from some other part of our life.

    I worked hard (multiple degrees, top 10 university, 70 hour weeks, sleeping in the office-rarely, but I did). I don’t regret it at all. It was a great time of my life.

    Now I have a decent job and I don’t want to wait till I’m retired to have leisure. I haven’t applied for any promotions*. I take all vacations. I have taken unpaid leave for travel.

    Every choice now is how I want to spend the rest of my precious life.

    I would like to say this was because I had kids and re-evaluated my priorities. But it’s really because I had kids that didn’t sleep and was so damn tired all the time I dropped everything for survival mode and then added things back in.

    *I did work with my 2 co-workers for us all to be re-evaluated and bumped two levels in recognition of the work we already do.

  59. Lightning McQueen*

    I have become more and more broken lately about caring. The work I have is a total dumpster fire. Think that I charge for race events. It cost $5M. We only charged $4M. The report I get for the costs is 5.2M and the report I get for the charging is $4.7M. So I cannot even tell what is wrong. People very high up know it’s a problem and agree that it needs to be fixed but nothing is fixed.

    So why should I care and bust it if it’s still millions of dollars off. I do what needs to be done but I will not work late or weekends unless it’s extremely necessary.

  60. Generic Username (UK)*

    I’m enjoying reading these so far – I feel somewhat vindicated in the fact that I’ve practically given up on having a career; I’m paid well enough (even if I’m mostly bored) and have a great boss – I use all my PTO and I’m saving up to buy a shack in the sun. Luckily I’ve always bee frugal!
    I would love to have a career as opposed to a job, but I stand by 20 year-old me’s decision to stay in my small town and, despite being intelligent and hyper-efficient, I know I can’t compete with the people I’ve seen promoted purely for their social skills.

  61. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

    Reading over some other threads here, I just want to expand that there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t want to work for a living.” You (everyone*) deserve to have a good life where your needs are met simply because you exist! It’s not like you asked to be born. Sure, people still have to grow and harvest the food, build the houses, make the clothes, etc., but there are many who’d do this just to do their part for their society, not for a paycheck. And they’re not doing it now, because they’re stuck in unrelated jobs they hate or tolerate or even enjoy, to earn that paycheck to buy all the basic-need things that should be a given for everyone in a functional society. (Yes, I view all societies that don’t provide basic need fulfillment for their people to be inherently dysfunctional. So I pretty much despise 99% of human societies, I guess. They’re about all f*cking corrupt to me.)

    That said, when most people say they don’t want to work, they mean they don’t want work that has no fulfillment or deeper meaning for them. I’d love to spend my days growing food and flowers for people’s health and happiness, catching feral cats for trap-neuter-release to reduce the human-made problem of cats struggling out in the wild, and helping to build homes and keep our roads maintained. Instead, I’m stuck in a dead-end receptionist job for barely over minimum wage, making rich corrupt corporate d*cks richer. I don’t have the time or energy to do all the things I want to do for my society and planet. I don’t want to work (this job). My work has no meaning for me, and I have no loyalty to it. I want to do work that actually makes a positive difference to someone other than rich dudes’ wallets. It’s totally okay to not want to take part in the dysfunction of society (while perhaps also acknowledging that sometimes you have to, in order to not die).

    Of course, all this means asking yourself what you really want out of life! And then being able to find it and pursue it. And succeed at that, however you measure success. I guess my advice really boils down to, “Figure out who you are and do your best to become that person if you want to be happy.” But that’s advice that applies to literally everyone, not just workplace thoughts, so it might not be particularly helpful here. But who knows? Maybe it helps to see it in writing again.

    (I’m also swamped with random bouts of work right now. That’s making it very difficult to keep my thoughts in order long enough to type this, between people interrupting because they need something from me.)

    *Except the people I hate, and with good reason, like my violent stalker. THEY deserve to work themselves to death in jobs they hate. ;)

    1. LW/OP*

      Yes, love this! I currently have a feral cat that I got spayed and her kittens in my garage. For some reason no one is paying me for this (and I’m basically having to pay people to adopt the kittens :P ).

    2. Aggretsuko*

      “Instead, I’m stuck in a dead-end receptionist job for barely over minimum wage, making rich corrupt corporate d*cks richer. I don’t have the time or energy to do all the things I want to do for my society and planet. I don’t want to work (this job). My work has no meaning for me, and I have no loyalty to it.”

      Totally agreed. My job helps people and has a mission, but it’s not MY mission and I find it draining as hell. I hate that I have to waste so much of my life fixing broken things in a computer and being yelled at so I can have the privilege to stay alive. I’m really resentful of that.

    3. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

      Look, having your needs met IS WORK! Food and roofs and internet and medical care are all somebody else’s work, and a lot of it is unpleasant work.

      Nobody is nailing shingles on a roof in the summer for the joy of the thing. But if you want to have your roof not leak, it has to have shingles and if you want shingles on your roof, somebody has to nail them there. Why should the shingles guy have to while everybody else has their needs met? And don’t tell me he ought to do it for the good of society, unless you are also willing to do an unpleasant and difficult task for the good of society.

      (Anyway, we already have a lot of people who do their work largely “for the good of society”. Teachers, for instance. A lot of them feel very, very much exploited.)

      1. Zweisatz*

        ? Not Your Admin Ass(t)* said right there in her comment that she would love to do meaningful work that sustains society.

  62. Eat My Squirrel*

    You defined what you really want and what would make you happy. That is your measure of success. What other people/society thinks is “success” doesn’t mean squat if it makes you miserable.
    I wanted to climb the corporate ladder until my company laid me off in a reorg. It gave me a massive reset to my view on work and work-life balance to realize that when it comes down to it, the company doesn’t give a crap about me no matter how great my work is.
    Now I make career decisions based on what will allow me to live the lifestyle I want to live, while ideally not being bored out of my mind in the meantime. I’m still trying to find that sweet spot, my current job is very easy and I get very bored, but it pays what I was making before I got laid off. I’m hoping to get my boss’s job when he retires and then spend the next 20 years to retirement being middle management. Taking care of my people, solving procedural problems, teaching people stuff, the stuff I LIKE about my job, without any extreme program related stress, and being able to disconnect at 5:00 and go putter in the yard with the chickens and the garden.
    Occasionally people encourage me to go for a higher stress upward move, and I’m just like “why? So I can be on call 24/7 and work weekends whenever my boss wants? No thanks, I’m good.”

  63. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    It was very difficult. I stepped off the hamster wheel and went back to school, thinking that would help if I were in a different field. But the pressure to move up was just as much. I ended up being a SAHM for awhile because everywhere I worked was 60 hour weeks or extremely boring jobs for terrible pay.

    It took a long time to accept the pay difference. I make less than half of my old salary. And it is still shocking sometimes how low the pay is.

    But, I now work 40.000000 hours a week at a job that has an extremely short commute (I do not want to work remotely), great people and mostly interesting work that I hardly ever wake up in the middle of the night stressing about. I still get a lot of pressure to move up, I was offered a 20% pay increase to move to a different department, but I know the culture in that department is not 8-5 and leave me alone at night.

    I still have to fight the increasing pressure to move up, but in some ways it is easier because the pay is so low. If I am going to put in that kind of time and stress then I would go back to my former career. Moving up at THIS career for a teeny tiny raise and a shift from hourly to salaried? No thank you. I haven’t been an hourly employee since I was 18 years old and I love it because overtime is not authorized except in extreme cases, so home at 5 I go.

  64. Laureta*

    I have done this for the past 10 years or so of my professional life. I made a conscious choice to not work more than 30 hours a week (my company knows and pays me accordingly, obviously) and to resist the urge to move up. It comes up at every yearly review where my manager invariably asks if I am ready to go full time and if I can move up to a managerial position. My field is small and highly technical so there aren’t a lot of people that can fulfill this role. Also my pay and bonuses would be highly increased and to be honest it is very very tempting but at the end of the day I also remind myself that I don’t need the extra income. I think the secret is just to be happy with your choices, understand why you made those choices and stay away from shiny objects!! LOL
    Nothing makes me happier than to turn my computer off at 2 pm on a Friday and completely forget what I do for work, I don’t think about it, I don’t talk about it… it is just something I do to make a living and nothing more. They pay me and I work, it is simple trade. It takes 30 hours of my week and the rest is for me and for me only.

  65. Isben Takes Tea*

    For me, it was taking a long time to accurately and intentionally differentiate between the vision of myself I wanted to fulfill and the reality of who I am and what actually makes me happy.

    I spent almost years researching and working and really trying hard to open a bookstore, because I loved the vision of myself as a bookstore owner, and what it would look like, and feel like, and what an amazing life that would be.

    But I also investigated my hesitations and finally, right at the time to put the money down, I made the decision that I would, day-to-day, be miserable. I’m not designed to single-handedly run a retail establishment. I could do it, but I would be miserable.

    I made the choice to let go of my dream, and I grieved for it, but over the years I can soundly say it was the right decision. I’ve paid more attention to who I really am, what it is I truly enjoy, how I best interact with people, and then I’ve pursued roles where I can live into those qualities.

    The best suggestion I can offer is to investigate the visions you have of yourself that you’re working towards, and really understand why you’re desiring that version of yourself. What part of yourself are you trying to satisfy? Is it a sad or lonely or disappointed part trying to feel better? Or is it a joyful, peaceful, fulfilled part that wants more of what it has? That’s when you can reevaluate whether your path will actually take you to what you desire.

  66. TG*

    I mostly gave up the career I got a masters degree in because advancement would put me behind a desk and I wasn’t ready to leave the field. I’ve been trying out different types of jobs since then and now have my sights on something that will combine my old career with my new work.

    It’s been a very non-linear path so far and I’ve had to resist feeling like a failure for not following the standard formula. But in the end what matters is that I have the type of work and schedule that fits my needs, not how I got there.

    Never compare your path to the one that others are following. What works for them might not be the right one for you. And who knows, they might be inwardly miserable with their choices and are just keeping up with appearances because they think they have to!

  67. MagentaPanda*

    I found a saying that has been so helpful to me when I get trapped in that “should” spiral — “Comparison is the thief of joy.” “Should” is such a toxic place to be.

    In my own career path, I landed at a position where I developed my skills and abilities that could take me up the management ladder with my current employer or another, but I didn’t want to. I am very content where I am, doing what I love. I make enough to meet my needs and wants, and I have a very good work/life balance. I am simply not that ambitious, and I’m very good with it. Besides, my identity is not tied to my work

  68. WFH mom in NY*

    The pandemic is probably the best thing that happened to my career. I was laid off the summer before the pandemic. I took a little time, spent the summer with my child, then started looking for work late summer/early fall. I had some interviews but nothing materialized right away. I was working at HR Block for the season (completely unrelated to my field, btw) when the pandemic hit and all the schools closed. I quit working and, as things stretched on, decided to pick up freelance editing and writing. I’d always wanted to freelance but never had the guts to leave behind the traditional 9-5/benefits, etc. Two years later, I am now blissfully still freelancing. I love the work I do, love my clients, and I love the flexibility to pick the child up after school and take them to participate in activities. Some weeks I am slammed with projects, other weeks I have a ton of free time. I am not working anywhere close to 40 hours a week but am making close to what I did before I was laid off. It’s hard to imagine ever going back to full-time 9-5 work. Caveat: We have benefits through my husband’s job, which makes things a lot easier.

  69. cactus lady*

    I was recently offered a C-level position (I’m currently a director) and turned it down purely for lifestyle reasons. I feel like some people have a hard time saying no to a big salary increase and fancy title – I used to be one of those people – but in the past few years I’ve started to value my lifestyle more and now I think of my job as the investor in my dream life. It’s a means to an end. I’d also like to be able to travel more, work part time, be financially secure, have freedom, etc., and I’ve realized that it’s going to take some work to get to that point. For me part of it was figuring out how much money I actually NEED to have the life that I want. Highly recommend Ramit Sethi for that.

  70. WheresMyPen*

    I could have written this letter. I don’t want to climb the ladder beyond a couple of rungs higher than I am now. I don’t want the stress and responsibility of managing huge complex projects or dozens of people. And while I’d love to earn 5x what I do now, it’s not going to happen without some serious training, probably a change of industry and a lot more responsibility. My best friend earns probably 3x what I do, is on her second house purchase and no doubt has a lot of savings, whereas I’m still living with my parents. But would I want her job, in a highly corporate industry that’s male dominated and comes with masses of responsibility? Nope.

  71. craftz*

    The best trick is to not make it a “work thing” – make it a “life thing.” Just trying to change how you think about work but keeping other ways of thinking and value structures in place will trip you up. I work in the arts in a field where “success” is a weird, nebulous thing (is it money? number of people attending? impact on people?). The trick is to completely reframe how you think about happiness and success. It takes a lot of work, but it makes your life so much better. Deeply, deeply internalize that just because society tells you something, doesn’t mean it’s right (model it off how we confront sexism – if someone tells you women aren’t smart, it’s not that they’re right, it’s that they’re a jerk). That disconnect can be hard but it’s so worth it. In terms of concrete actions, you should try things like focusing on intangible elements of the job (having work friends, being the person who remembers everyone’s birthday, wearing cool clothes), shifting conversations in general and in your inner monologue to value other things (i.e., “yeah the project isn’t done but I’m so cool it will make my friends sad if I’m late for dinner so I’ve got to go bring joy to their lives”), and make a point to read/engage with content that shares these values. Socialist and anti-capitalist materials are great for this. Intentionally doing small things that go against the mainstream (wearing a tacky shirt you love, making a meal the “wrong” way, etc.) is also a great way to build up a tolerance for sticking out/disobeying social pressure.

  72. Hen in a Windstorm*

    Start reading FIRE blogs. Seriously, part of the problem is you need to hear the narrative of the other side. You’re constantly getting the pressure of “fitting in” to the culture you’re already in – you need to be getting input from the culture you want to be part of. Find blogs/podcasts/forums that are full of people doing the other stuff. Slow travel is a movement, financial independence is a movement, downshifting is a movement.

    The classic book is Your Money or Your Life (from the 80s, but recently updated), but there’s also Vagabonding; Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life; and Work Optional. Blogs I like are Millennial Revolution, Afford Anything, Our Next Life, Mad Fientist, Go Curry Cracker, and Mr. Money Mustache, which also has a large forum.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Reading Work Optional and the Mr. Money Mustache blog made a huge difference in how I think about work and money in my life. I don’t plan to retire early but reading FIRE books/blogs gave me a perspective I’m very happy to have.

    2. betsyohs*

      I was coming to say this exactly! Many of the FIRE bloggers come from enormous privilege, and not all of them talk about that. But I think their underlying message of “figure out what YOU want, then figure out how much money you need to have that, and spend as little as you can on everything else” is really spot on.

  73. another Hero*

    I work half time. it means I get plenty of time to rest *and* plenty of time to use, for lack of a better word. people ask me frequently what I do with all that free time, and honestly, for plenty of the pandemic the answer has mostly been “knit,” but still, the lack of pressure in a stressful time has been something I appreciate. I have at other times made intentional decisions about how to use my time when work didn’t fill it, and I’m sure I will again, but even now when I’m pretty quiet, I certainly don’t go around wishing I worked more. I do things in my free time that are useful to other people (including a limited amount of work-related advocacy) and things that are interesting to me, and I get satisfaction from those. plus, since I spend enough time away from work, my brain usually isn’t in work mode; I’m (mostly) only thinking about work goals and work frustrations and such when I’m there. so when I’m not at work, my attention is on non-work goals, you know, and growing the rest of my life. that is, the fact that I work less means fewer of my thoughts and priorities are about work. if I were adjusting from a lot of work to less, I might plan a project or two to help provide some structure in that transition time – creative, practical in your life, service, whatever appeals to you. if you find yourself bored, you can always go out for a walk or sit down with a notebook and think of some things you’d like to do.

    in some practical terms, I save enough not to stress me out (obviously that’s partly about having a job that’s livable at half-time), and I keep the overhead low. I’d rather have the free time than a car, for instance, in my case. (not a tradeoff everyone can make. but for me the free time means I can enjoy the occasional long-bike-ride-based errand.) and to be frank, I’m in the US, and I’ll have to do some serious reconfiguring when I eventually become a person who gets sick. but it is good for now. I don’t need to give paid labor more than I need to give it, you know?

    1. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

      The health insurance piece is what I can’t figure out! I have some health issues so I need good insurance, and I can’t figure out how to
      do that on a part time income. The ACA plans that I could afford are all pretty high deductible, and that won’t work with my autoimmune issues. I hate it here.

      1. Hydrangea*

        omgosh, ACA plans are so expensive! The only thing keeping me from retiring early and working part time is health insurance. I would lean all the way out were it not for that.

      2. another Hero*

        yeah, ACA plans can be very expensive if they offer much of anything. it’s deeply bizarre to couple health insurance with employment, and it sucks that we do

      3. word nerd*

        It does depend on city/state. I’ve been pretty pleased with the options in Michigan. At an AGI in the 40Ks (which we sometimes bring down deliberately by contributing to retirement accounts), my husband and I pay $0 a month for a bronze plan with the subsidies. We would pay $150 a month total for a nice silver plan for the two of us.

        But yeah, the health insurance system in the U.S. overall is definitely broken and ridiculously overpriced.

  74. Snow Globe*

    For me, three things have made a difference in my outlook towards career progression.
    1-working remotely. I tend to be competitive, and working in the office, I always felt the need to compete with colleagues, even if it is just in my head. I started working remotely about 6 years ago, and that has made it easier to stop keeping score in my head.
    2-getting older. As I hit my mid-fifties, I started thinking about retirement, rather than the next job.
    3-getting a job that has really good work life balance. I don’t want to give that up! But first you’ve got to find the job that will let you see how freeing it can be.

  75. Princesa*

    Your life is your life– no one else’s. Remind yourself that it doesn’t matter what they think. You don’t have to conform to the tendency to overwork that society presses upon you. Time is short.

    I’m 26 and pursuing a degree that people raise eyebrows at (English). I just keep reminding myself that I don’t have to make my choices based on the approval of others, and it’s okay to take a different path.

  76. Goof Trooper*

    I worked for many years in journalism and pulled out all the stops to advance my career… long hours, all-nighters, working over weekends, sacrificing lots of personal goals for the sake of professional gain. Eventually all my work dried up because of an industry-wide collapse and that was a big wake-up call. I realized that I shouldn’t put more into a job than what it gives back, and that most jobs aren’t worth driving yourself into the ground for. At the end of the day I found that it’s better to focus on personal growth and longterm sustainability because businesses, economics, trends or whatever can change but you’ll always have the same body and brain. That also taught me the importance of finding a workplace that values me as a person and avoiding exploitative industries that treat employees like garbage.

  77. Anon anon so anon*

    I don’t recommend what I did. I got really, really, really sick with a physical problem that is exacerbated by stress. I tried to make it work with my OldJob, and I probably would have, but I ended up with a manager who, while she said she understood, made it very clear that three hospitalizations for sepsis over the course of 3 and a half months was a major inconvenience to her (she was also unwilling to make any ADA accommodations for me and invoked a shadoe HR process intended to get rid of me). This essentially burned all the ambition from me–I had been extraordinarily good at my job before I got sick, was seen as a corporate expert in my particular niche, and was in a good position to move up.

    So when I was laid off, it was a huge relief. I was planning on applying for SSDI, but I also decided to learn to code in a more formal way than I previously had, and now I work part time at a tiny company as a web developer where they actually *do* understand that I need to take time off to go to the doctor or go lie down if I’m not feeling the thing, and so on and so forth. It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve been hospitalized for anything.

    That’s not to say it’s been easy: I spent a lot of time last year grieving for my lost health and my lost career. But I’m in a much better place now than I would ever be at OldJob, even if I’m not being paid the way I used to be. But it’s enough.

    1. Me ... Just Me*

      I feel you on this. In 2019, I finished a grueling master’s program that was supposed to launch me into a new area of my field. Graduated June 2019 and immediately became severely ill. This culminated in major surgery, life-threatening complications, and a couple years of recovery. I’m working in a management role and have yet to use that shiny master’s I took out $80k of student loans to obtain. I’m just not as driven. I’m tired and never really feel well. And, I have to mentally acknowledge that I won’t have the career I always thought I would — because, physically, it really isn’t feasible.

  78. Paula*

    I’ve never been one who is interested in climbing the corporate ladder. I want (and have) a good job. I’ve been in the same role, in different companies for pretty much my whole working life. And I’m completely fine with that – I’m very good at it. I don’t bring work home with me. When my work day ends, I don’t have to think about it again until the next day. My weekends are always my own. So many of my colleagues are working hours after I leave, plus on weekends.

    I am extremely possessive of my private time, and to have climbed the corporate ladder would have infringed on that in a way that I could not tolerate.

    I picture myself sitting on my little front porch when I’m old and withered, reflecting back on my life; the places I’ve been, the books I’ve read, the adventures I’ve been on, the people I’ve visited with, the days I’ve wiled away blissfully. I wouldn’t want to be sitting there thinking about all the weekends I worked or times I’ve missed living life because I was strapped down working.

    For me, I work to live, not live to work. Life is too short for any other way.

  79. TeenieBopper*

    It’s a pretty glib answer, but I’m just like “Eff the Joneses.” Like, am I happy? Am I doing the things I want to do? What are my goals and am I achieving them? What are my values and am I loving up to them? Basically I worry about internal validation rather than external. Granted, I also surround myself with people who have similar values so I don’t have to worry too much about external validation (or lack thereof) being in conflict with my own desires and happiness.

    1. cubone*

      also, not that this is really the key argument, but it’s worth noting a lot (A LOT) of the Joneses are not happy (what is happy anyways). My most ambitious friends and my friends who are struggling the most with insecurity, self-confidence, mental health are a Venn diagram. How about that.

      in other words: don’t compare your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel, etc.

  80. Equinox*

    This is funny, but this morning I am attending a seminar presented through work by our Women+ and BiPOC ERGs called “Climbing the Career Ladder” and I am attending for the exact same reasons as those mentioned here. Hopefully I will come away with some thoughtful guidance!

  81. cardigarden*

    Related: has anyone who lives in a high cost of living area (think Greater NYC, Seattle, LA, DC, etc) found a low-stress job that actually pays a decent wage?

    1. Katie Impact*

      I think what I’ve mostly seen is that people who are really committed to living in a high-COL area with an unconventional career tend to find ways to adjust the definition of a “decent wage” downwards. I hang around a fair number of low-paid creative types who live in big cities, and the way I’ve seen people make ends meet is generally to have very low expenses, particularly on housing. Couch-surf. Be lucky enough to have family who will let you live with them for free. Live in a punk house where you share expenses with 12 other irregularly employed artists. All of these options have significant downsides; the reason everyone doesn’t do them isn’t *just* because they’re unconventional. But they are options.

  82. Anne Elliot*

    This may sound weird, but what was ultimately very helpful for me was that I was involuntarily knocked off that track of advancement. In my field, as is common, the higher up the chain you go, the fewer opportunities for advancement exist. There’s only so many VPs, fewer Senior VPs, and only one CEO. I was well placed for a once in a lifetime promotion and then . . . I was passed over. The job went to someone else. There’s no prospect that job will be open for me again.

    So I was forced to reevaluate what my job meant in my life if I could NOT advance, and while it was initially very hard (because much of my identity was caught up in my career), it ended up to be very positive. I have far fewer effs to give. I have nothing left that I think I need to prove. I have confidence in my own performance, which I know is excellent, and if this is the job I hold until retirement, that’s fine: I like it most days, I’m good at it, and I make a nice salary. Letting go of the need to “shine” and “compete” has been extremely freeing. I have been able to turn my attention to other areas of interest that feed my soul in other ways, because I no longer have the specter of some work-related brass ring I could grab if I only work hard enough. My work-life balance is better and I am happier.

    Ironically, I’m now up for promotion to the position that supervises the position I did not get. Since I’ve reduced the value I personally place on advancement, I now will be thinking about whether I actually WANT that job (if ultimately I’m offered it) and not just of COURSE I’ll take it! It’s the top of the mountain! I’ve seen the top of the mountain and it looks like a lot of work. I genuinely don’t know any longer if I’m interested in that. This in turn will empower me in negotiations (if we get that far), because I’ve already learned that I’m fine where I’m at and I am not defined by this job or any job.

  83. H.Regalis*

    CW: Brief mentions of suicidal ideation and death.

    Long before the pandemic, I went through a really rough time personally, and realized that if all I had in life was work, I was deeply unhappy. Like jump-off-a-building unhappy. For me, coming that close to death was enough to wear the shine off of “work all the time.” I do not recommend going this route for self-realizations. There are easier ways.

    Think about what makes you happy, and if you don’t know, try a bunch of things out. What makes you feel good? What do you actually enjoy? What do you want your legacy to be? When you’re dying, what would you want to look back on and be proud that you did?

    It can be hard to strike a balance between “things you need to do to survive” and “this is your life happening right now; not some day, NOW.” Don’t put everything fun off for a nebulous future that there is no guarantee you’ll ever get. Hearing that can be really frustrating when you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off trying to get everything done; but it’s still true.

    My life now, I have a job that I like well enough, that pays decently so I don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck, is stuff I don’t hate (solving puzzles all day!), isn’t too stressful, and has good benefits. It’s not hypercompetitive and I work 1 FTE. I don’t think about work when I go home unless I have a coding puzzle that I haven’t figured out yet, and then it’s by choice to some degree.

    The important things to me in my life are all the living beings around me: my partners, my friends, my family, and my pets. I enjoy helping my friends when they need help. I like the weekly game nights I have where we all tell a story together. I like watching my friends’ kids grow and learn. I spend time out in nature. I learned how to use an AED and how to do CPR so I can help people in an emergency. I’m teaching myself contortions and like seeing how I can stretch a little further every day. That kind of stuff.

    The last thing I would say is if you’ve ever seen interviews with very elderly people, no one says, “I wish I had worked more.” A lot of people even say that they wish they had worked less.

  84. Just Another Zebra*

    The timing of this letter is really great for me. I was recently offered a position outside of my company. I had taken the interview just to see what I might be worth elsewhere. The figure they gave me was a bit startling, in that I hadn’t expected my labor to be worth that much. But the cost of taking the job was different hours that meant less time with my daughter, taking on tasks I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, and a reduction in flexibility. For me, it wasn’t worth it. Part of me will always wonder what could have been. Most of me is content to stick it out here.

  85. Goldenrod*

    “But I’ve realized that what I really want is to have lots of time off, do work that I’m passionate about but that doesn’t overtake my life or stress me out”

    I would add to this that you don’t even need to be “passionate” about work to enjoy it. The work just needs to suit your personality (i.e. don’t do sales if you hate interacting with people), and you can feel good about using your skills and being helpful to others without it being a huge passion. It’s more like a quiet sense of satisfaction.

    I never felt like a careerist, so I naturally just took low-key jobs after college – I was a barista, then a bookseller, then temped in an office. I moved up the office ladder (but in a low-key way) and I’m now an executive assistant, which pays very well and which I really like.

    Also, I recommend working at a university, like I do! Although working at a university pays less than working in private industry, it’s totally worth it for the benefits and work/life balance.

    A friend once said to me, “There are many ways of making a life.” Some people are driven by career or by a “calling.” But many of us are not. Work can be a satisfying part of life without taking over your whole life or defining who you are. It’s your life, so live it the way that YOU want.

    1. Daisy Wooton*

      Late reply to say that I had a very similar work trajectory (bookseller, barista, office temp, now an EA at a college) and I agree with everything you said! It is a job that I never planned to end up in, that I thought was simply a stopgap while I figured out my “calling.” But over time I realized that I find my job satisfying, decently compensated, and not all-consuming, and that is what is most important to me, at this moment.

  86. HufferWare*

    Unless you have a partner with a high income and/or you are willing to drastically change up your lifestyle and/or have investment income, this is unfortunately a bit of a fantasy. Working for yourself requires FAR more hours of labor than working for a company and often for no pay at all. Gig jobs, assembling a series of PT jobs, freelancing all require an enormous amount of labor unrelated to the work you’re doing, primarily various forms of marketing and finding clients. My advice is to try to set up a side gig while you’re still employed and see how it goes. Ask yourself if you want to do all that work for free (or at a loss) for a long time and also without getting insurance benefits or a matching 401k. Self-employment is very rarely about free time, vacations, or financial security. But it can be very rewarding depending on the work you want to do and the life you want to lead.

  87. word nerd*

    I went to fancy Ivy Leagues for undergrad and med school. I did residency and worked as a physician for a few years and then decided it was not for me. I was also interested in FIRE, and my husband and I became financially independent 6 years ago when I was 34. It’s been wonderful to do lots of long, slow travel, raise my now 7 year-old son (I only worked 1.5 days a week when he was a baby), and just have plenty of time to do what I want. I did realize that I like doing some sort of part-time work to feel productive and have dabbled in all sorts of odd things for fun without the pressure of *having* to work. Through that process, I discovered I love proofreading and editing and have picked up part-time work in that field because I find it fun. I also have plenty of time to volunteer, read a lot, exercise, play piano, etc. Our family is planning a 5-week vacation in Europe starting in December. I don’t think I could ever go back to traditional full-time work. I have way too many other things I’m interested in! Yeah, sometimes I feel a twinge of envy when I read what my classmates are up to on Facebook or in my alumni magazines, but not enough to actually go back to a traditional path. I love the freedom I have in my life right now way more than keeping up a certain image. I would also recommend reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and How to Find Fulfillng Work by Roman Krznaric as a starting point for thinking about what sort of experiences bring you meaning in your life.

    1. Hydrangea*

      “I discovered I love proofreading and editing and have picked up part-time work in that field because I find it fun. ”

      Would you be willing to expand on that? I was a contract editor for Cactus Communications for a while. It was fun reading all the papers, but I got to a point where I didn’t like the way work was allocated. I’m interested in other paths to part-time proofreading and editing.

      1. I like hound dogs*

        Not word nerd, but I’m a proofreader and I love it. I’m full-time right now, but I’ve also done part-time and freelance. In my experience, it does take time to build up a client base or find the right position, so you just have to keep applying to stuff you see on the job sites (or put it out there to your network that you’re looking). Some of these positions will require you to do an editing test or a sample edit of something, which is helpful if you’re a good editor/proofreader but don’t have a ton of experience (but it sounds like you do have some experience).

        I also do copywriting and those gigs are way easier to find, because tons of companies need content. But not as enjoyable, imo.

        I’m not sure I have much more specific advice other than being able to say you know AP style (not always necessary, but can be helpful since many house styles are adaptations of AP) and keep applying to stuff until you have your plate as full as you want it with gigs/clients you like. In my experience it is also easier to find proofreading work in marketing than in publishing, but ymmv.

        1. Hydrangea*

          Yes, Cactus required a test for me to be hired, but I didn’t need to know any particular style guide as the papers all follow a given journal’s style guide.

          When you say “job sites,” are there specific ones geared toward editing/proofreading? Or are we talking about Indeed and the like?

      2. word nerd*

        So I don’t know that my experience would be helpful for anyone else, but I started off volunteer proofreading for Project Gutenberg. I became addicted to it and mentioned my addiction to one of my friends, who happened to be a consultant for an accounting firm that needed a copyeditor (copyediting is very different from proofreading for PG, but it helped that I had majored in English I think). I’ve been working there part-time for the past 1.5 years. I did do a sample edit first before I got hired.

        I also have a profile on Upwork. I got lucky early on by landing a very lucrative gig on there not related to writing/editing, which meant my profile and ratings look pretty good now. Since then I occasionally get offers from people looking for writing/editing help, usually for something related to medicine, and I pick and choose what I’m interested in. But I think my experience on Upwork is very unusual–I haven’t had to compete for the more generic gigs that get a million bids thanks to my medical experience, and I’m extremely lucky that I just get people asking me for help with stuff without me having to do any work to look for those gigs. I usually just repond to the ones that interest me/pay very well since I already have my other work with the accounting firm.

        1. Hydrangea*

          I used to proofread for PG, too! I liked it for the same reasons I liked Cactus–I enjoyed reading the things I was proofreading/editing.

        2. Hydrangea*

          By the way, if you are looking for other editing gigs, check out Cactus. They provide native English speaker editing services to non-native English speaking authors of academic journal papers, mostly from Asia. They look for people with technical backgrounds, and your medical background could be an asset. There are aspects that I didn’t like. The deadlines are sometimes really tight, but you can choose what to accept and avoid the ones with tight deadlines. You rarely to never have contact with an author, even when you have questions about their intent. The only time an author contacted me was when I made an embarrassing editing mistake, and they contacted me to ask if it was right (it was not). You have to write an ass-kissing letter to the author for each paper that you edit. Coming up with content for that letter was always painful for me.

          1. word nerd*

            Good to know, thanks! I may check it out at some point if I stop working for the accounting firm, although the letter part doesn’t sound that fun :P. I’m still active at Distributed Proofreaders and post frequently in their forums if you ever decide to pick it up again! I’m a project manager there now too, and I’m planning to run a beautiful illustrated version of Pride and Prejudice soon that I’m very excited about.

            1. Hydrangeas*

              Thanks for the tip about Distributed Proofreaders! I’ll check that out.
              Part time proofreading is sort of a retirement plan for me, but it is far in the future. Places like Distributed Proofreaders and Cactus Communication might not still be around!

  88. cubone*

    I feel like I am going to become annoying with this comment, but apparently my life’s mission now is to encourage people to go to career counselling. Get thee to a career specific counsellor, OP*. I think people think career counsellors are just fancier resume writers, but a good career counsellor helps you explore your life values, beliefs, and perceptions about careers, and discuss exactly this kind of question.

    A friend of mine was a total rat-race hustler, years of reiterating the same “I’m going to be a CEO” dream. Burnt out in a really toxic job, a friend suggested a career counsellor, she went regularly and came out with a completely different perspective on life and her career and now has a job she loved. She told me that it really helped her see where her definitions of success came from, and helped her realize that non-traditional paths aren’t a failure of hard work.

    *if it is an option for you cost wise. I know “go to therapy” is never simple. But there are most cost-effective/affordable options than people think (eg. student therapists, affordable therapy networks). And living in a job/life you hate can be pretty expensive too.

  89. Whoo, me?*

    I always wanted to be a novelist. By the time I finally sold my first novel to a major publisher, I was, instead, an academic. Then I sold my 2nd novel. At that point I was taking in maybe $3000 a year from my novels… no, I didn’t leave a zero out.

    And I was supposed to be doing all these academic things, and they were taking up the same part of my brain that novel-writing did. I realized it was going to have to be one or the other. So, on the basis of my $3k a year from books and $40k in savings, I quit my job.

    Everyone told me I was a fool except this one elderly professor who said “You know, I always wanted to sing on Broadway. And I still wonder if I could have made a living at it, and I wish I’d tried. Even if you don’t make ever make much money from your books, you might make enough to live on.”

    As it turned out, he was right. I now have about a dozen books out and I earn about $40k a year, which is enough for me, and best of all, I don’t have to look back and wonder if I could have made a living at it.

    1. I like hound dogs*

      That’s great!

      I have a doctorate in English (creative dissertation) and I published one book (story collection) with a university press and made 1,000 bucks. Total. Lol. Decided that academia looked miserable (if I could have even gotten a job) and became a proofreader instead. My second book is still, um, in progress. Haha.

  90. learnedthehardway*

    15 years ago, I made the move from a corporate career to being self-employed. This entailed a LOT of trade-offs – from higher income vs lower stability; specializing in what I do best vs career progression into corporate leadership; better work/life flexibility vs. benefits and pension – etc. etc. etc.

    That’s one way to move away from simply moving up the corporate ladder, especially if you particularly like being in a functional specialization, vs managing people.

    I do an evaluation of the trade-offs every once in awhile, and they continue to work for me. There are times I think that I could be at Director level or higher in a big company, but then again, I’m really good at what I do, less good at managing people, and I make more money than I would unless I was at VP or higher level in my function/industry (in a good year, anyway. Bad years – well, they’d be bad whether I was in a corporate role or on my own).

  91. Tethered to the phone*

    For 23 years I worked in a call center for a major airline-on the phones. There were multiple opportunities to advance to supervisory positions. Then-I discovered that part of a supervisor’s evaluation is how many people on their team had advanced up ladder. If you were good at your job, you were pushed to advance. Two issues: being good at a job doesn’t mean you’re good at leading a team (I would’ve sucked at it) and 2) if you were failing as a team leader, the company would not permit you to step down and go back on the phones. Then what do you do? In the end, I was damn good at my job, loved talking to people, when I logged off I was OFF. There was a huge comfort knowing that 1000 people were doing the same job so if I took time off there wouldn’t be any “catching up” to do when I got back. It was perfect for me.

  92. Holycookiesbatman*

    I have a bit of an unusual job in that I cover a physical region in a certain sales/support type position for a high end research equipment company. There are people at my company that have comfortably been doing my job for 15+ years so there isn’t a ton of push to move up the ladder. For me, I would say success would be being established enough in my region that I am the go-to contact and get good and consistent sales opportunities (yay commissions). To move up for me would definitely involve much much more overnight travel which I wouldn’t want!

  93. ecnaseener*

    Lots of great advice here. One thing I try to do is get really clear and specific on my goals as they relate to work. It’s not enough to say “career advancement is a goal of mine” or “career advancement is not a goal of mine.” How much do I want to earn a raise? How much do I want to take on new challenges? How much do I want to be viewed as competent or talented or powerful or etc.? How much do I want to be liked by colleagues? How much do I want to have more ownership over my time and projects and decisions? How much do I want to keep my stress levels low and save my energy for hobbies and personal life? How much do I want to avoid overtime?
    And then I can weigh those against each other instead of the vague “I know I don’t have to be a Career Person but I don’t want to hate my job either” feeling.

    1. cubone*

      I love this. The idea that advancement is a straight, upwards line is just .. wrong. It’s part of the reason we have so many bad managers (in my opinion), because culturally we view career “progression” as “move up, manage people, take on larger scopes”. What if career progression meant “refine my skills” or learn new ones? Teach other people those skills? Create templates and resources and best practices for aspects of my job? If we viewed those as advancement or progression too, I think we’d have a lot of happier people/workplaces.

  94. Beth*

    I certainly appreciate feeling the need to opt out of hustle culture and that’s an important point, but working part time, being financially stable AND traveling aren’t really compatible?

    If anyone has been able to accomplish this, please share your secrets.

    1. word nerd*

      I did! See my comment above. Saved 90% of a comfortable dual income for several years while living in Chicago (in a $700/month apartment) before having a kid allowed my husband and I to be financially independent in our 30s and travel a ton. I now work part-time, mostly for fun, but my husband has not worked at all for 6 years. See other comments about FIRE above.

  95. Anna Badger*

    I think one of the ways I am lucky is that I grew up in an area where very rich, very successful people retire (the golden triangle of beautiful scenery, other rich people, and good transport links) and I can tell you that many those mf-ers are UNHAPPY. they are unhappy in big ways, small ways, ways that they are completely unable to articulate but that eat at the core of them. they live in nice houses and go for beautiful walks and scream at their spouses (if they have managed to retain them), and at their children (when said children can be guilted into visiting), and at random customer service representatives (who were me).

    I looked at that as a young person and I thought, no thank you, very rich and very successful does not look like a good place to end up, I would like to pitch for enough money to have nice things and juuust enough success to facilitate that money. so that’s what I’m doing.

  96. RNL*

    I am a lawyer by training and hit 10 years of practice and was MISERABLE. I had made partner, built my own book of business while having fertility problems and then two kids, and all the shine had come off and I was dying. I had undiagnosed ADHD which made the practice extremely challenging and made me constantly feel like a secret failure event while I was succeeding.

    By a series of opportune events that were both fortuitous and engineered by me, I’ve transitioned into legal talent management and I’m 100% happier. It turns out that my particular traits, including my ADHD symptoms, are also my superpowers in this role and just cutting boring stressful zero-sum work out of my life is an enormous win.

    The transition is seriously comp limiting. I now made a very healthy salary but will never make what I was on track to make as a partner. And I just don’t care. My family is happier, I am happier, everybody is happier. But it is facilitated by my husband having a career change that increased his comp significantly so so our extremely high COL area with two kids doesn’t feel insane which it would if I were still the primary breadwinner.

  97. Mieki*

    The way I’ve always looked at it is that my job pays for my real life. I do it well, have no desire to move up the food chain and am perfectly content with what I do. I’ve been truly lucky in that both of my long term jobs have been with fantastic people, many of whom have become lifelong friends. I’m getting close to retirement now and am very much looking forward to it.

  98. Just here for the cats*

    If you find something you’re good at and enjoy, you don’t need to move on just because that’s the next step. I have a great example:

    There was a lady I worked with, Jane, who had been in the same role for over 15 years. We did over-the-phone student and client support for an online school’s professional development branch. She made it clear that she didn’t want to move on. Most people would have moved to another department or become an assistant manager or department manager. She didn’t want that. She did a lot of other things, like mentoring new hires, working on different committees, and helped with training. But she never wanted to do anything more. And management was ok with that. Her annual goal was “I want to keep being successful in my role.”

    The thing to say to your manager would be, “I’m fine with my role. I really enjoy doing X and do not feel at this time I would want to do Y.” One thing you should do is find out ways to be successful at your job. So if there are professional development things you can do to brush up on skills you can mention that to your boss.

    If other people besides your boss say something, then you can just brush them off. “Thanks I’m in my ideal job making teapots.”

  99. Hana*

    One thing to keep in mind is that killing yourself over your job won’t necessarily make you better at your job. A lot of companies are moving to a 4-day work week these days, because experiments have proven that you can’t really get more than 4 days of productivity out of people each week, whether you get it all out of the way in 4 days or stretch it out over 7.

    Ask yourself, “If I spend 10 more hours at work this week, will I actually accomplish 10 more hours of useful work? Or will I be stressing myself out and missing out on life for no net increase in productivity? Should I go home, spend time with my family, get an extra hour’s sleep, and come back in the morning refreshed and ready to do quality work?”

    The other issue is that you might feel pressure to put in the extra hours to impress the higher-ups, and I don’t know a good way around that. Unfortunately, the people who have their butts in their seats the most hours often win the big promotions, even though the data shows they aren’t necessarily the people who accomplish the most for the company. So you might need to make the conscious decision to put in unnecessary hours just for the optics.

    1. Dinwar*

      ““If I spend 10 more hours at work this week, will I actually accomplish 10 more hours of useful work? Or will I be stressing myself out and missing out on life for no net increase in productivity?”

      Or worse, a loss of productivity. The DOT has long recognized that increased hours increases the probability of disaster; that’s why truck drivers have had to keep logs since forever, and why they moved to electronic logs (less possibility of keeping two sets of books). OSHA is getting in on the game as well. They are increasingly pushing fatigue management plans specifically because on a lot of jobs increased hours get people hurt or killed.

      If anything, I’d say office workers are more susceptible to this. People underestimate the amount of effort that goes into mental work. I’ve read that on average your brain uses 20% of your calories; when you’re doing a lot of thinking that number goes up dramatically. You’re tired after a mentally hard day because you’ve burned through your body’s resources, same as with exercise. And there’s not really another organ you can use to take up the load. If my right arm gets tired I can use my left one, but I’ve only got one brain.

      The company I work for does dangerous stuff. We do cleanup of nuclear waste sites, the pure active ingredients in pesticides (originally designed for chemical warfare), MEC cleanup, etc. 50% of our recordables are office workers. I make fun of them in our safety meetings because it’s a bit of good-natured rivalry, but ultimately that mental strain is responsible for a lot of it. Thinking is HARD, physiologically speaking.

  100. Twix*

    This makes me think of a Dialectical Behavior Therapy technique called “radical acceptance”. RA is essentially the idea that no matter how you want things to be or think things should be, you have to make decisions based on how things are. An example of this would be having a job that you like, except that your boss is awful. Instead of getting stuck in the mindset of “I wish my boss would stop being a jerk/My boss should realize they’re being a jerk and stop, and otherwise I like this job, so I’m going to wait for that to happen”, RA would have you say “My boss is a jerk and that’s not likely to change. How do I want to deal with that?”

    So what I’m hearing in the OP is that LW has had the hard conversation with themself about what they do want and how that differs from what they feel like they should want, but is still struggling with letting go of the things in the “should want” category. That’s okay! The things we feel like we should want come from a lifetime of conditioning. It’s normal to have a hard time making a conscious decision to reject those things. It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s okay to want conflicting things. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I do want X, but not as much as I want Y.”

    My advice would be to make a conscious commitment to pursue the life you want, and accept that that’s going to feel uncomfortable sometimes. When it does, make a conscious effort to remind yourself that the discomfort is a knee-jerk reaction, while the goals you’re pursuing are a deliberate decision based on what will make you happy. In short, don’t try to squash the feelings you have around being ambitious, but consciously acknowledge then and reframe them as emotions that aren’t necessarily rational rather than healthy instincts.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “This makes me think of a Dialectical Behavior Therapy technique called “radical acceptance”. RA is essentially the idea that no matter how you want things to be or think things should be, you have to make decisions based on how things are. ”

      This is genius! I feel like this really gets at the heart of how we make ourselves unhappy.

      It’s also totally the way Alison tends to answer questions! (i.e. in a perfect world X, but the reality is that Y….”

      It’s so easy to get stuck in wishing things were different instead of dealing with things as they are. Another way to think about this is that the pain we feel is often not arising from the situation itself, but from our resistance to it. Resistance = suffering.

  101. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I so relate to what you’re saying!
    I’m a translator and I worked at an agency before. On the organisation chart, I was officially right at the bottom, taking orders from the project managers.
    The only way “up” was to become a project manager or move into sales, neither of which were at all appealing. Project management at translation agencies is not much more than being a letterbox: a client sends in a text to be translated, the PM sends it to a translator. The translator sends back the translation, the PM forwards it to the client. And sales is obviously not for me, I’m too much of an introvert!
    The only way to move forward, to a place where I could choose my own hours, choose the kind of translation I work on, and choose how much money to charge, was to start freelancing.
    I love my work and I love the fact that nobody can make me do it unless I choose to. When I want time off, I tell my clients I’m too busy to take on any more work. I turn down work that I know will bore me to tears. I wrote on my profile on LinkedIn that I was specialised in art and music, and so people needing translations in those fields find and contact me. That was a bit of an exaggeration when I wrote it, but it is now very true.
    I get the impression that I work much less, and earn more, and work only on very interesting things, and I have plenty of free time to do other stuff I like. Yesterday I shut my laptop early to go swimming, today I’ve been cooking all afternoon because we have guests coming tonight, and tomorrow I’ll be off to an art exhibition.
    So if there’s any chance you could do your job as a freelancer, that’s what I’d suggest!

  102. Twix*

    Missed an HTML tag. That section in the middle should read:

    “what they do want and how that differs from what they feel like they should want”

  103. MigraineMonth*

    A few years ago I landed a job at my dream company, and I hated it. All the prestige, perqs and ridiculous salary couldn’t cover for the fact that I was in over my head and genuinely didn’t enjoy or care about what I was doing for 40+ hours a week. I quit a year in with nothing else lined up and couldn’t imagine staying in my field; I literally applied for dog-grooming and escape room jobs.

    Turns out that time does heal. I revised my salary needs way lower, landed a much lower-stress job in my field, and I’ve rediscovered the joy in my work. My new org is nowhere near as prestigious as my previous company, but the work I’m doing is personally fulfilling. Now, when people ask what I do, I talk about my favorite hobbies; when they ask about work, I talk about the people I’ve helped.

    1. Sometimes you have to choose it.*

      I love this MigraineMonth – I’d love it if we all stopped talking about work all the time and when people ask you what you do, you felt compelled to talk about hobbies or passions rather than employment.

      I’m going to start doing this too.
      Thanks for the idea.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        yeah, it’s hard for those who are SAHP or disabled or between jobs, not to mention the very many people who just don’t care that much about their work even if they do it properly.
        It actually makes more sense to talk about hobbies: something you do without expecting payment for it obviously says much more about you as a person than whatever you do to pay for your home and fill your fridge.
        Of course, asking about people’s hobbies at dinner parties makes you far more likely to get stuck with someone who just won’t shut up about their weird pastime.

  104. Sometimes you have to choose it.*

    Because of a number of life changes, I stepped off the hamster wheel a few years ago. I have always been a very go-getter kind of person and found that even though I took a more junior, non-management position I quickly worked my way back up the ladder without even realizing it. It’s HARD to slow down when you’ve been conditioned that a good career is one where you wield power and influence.
    The stress led to more health problems and a lot of self reflection and I’m making another try at stepping back.
    I think it is a wonderful goal to prioritize your life differently, and to look at the things that bring you peace – but know that it’s tough to unlearn what you’ve always been taught and it’s important to give yourself space to define what that means.
    Good Luck To You!

  105. Jules the 3rd*

    I am a geek with an MBA, and if I’d gone for mgmt or company hopped, could easily be in the six-figure salary range by now. I am the main breadwinner. I do have some friends in that range (and some who are much higher due to winning the start-up lottery), and yeah, those trips to dragon*con or NYC are envy-making.

    I deal with it by identifying and then appreciating what matters most to me:
    1) My family: My husband and kid are ok, my parents are in good health. I can go see my parents every month or two.
    2) Financial safety / stability: my job makes almost enough – I have some retirement worries, but current costs are fine.
    3) Doing something to help the world: I was supporting computer repair, upgrades and resell until it was totally outsourced. I am now working on environmental reporting. It’s not as actively ‘save the world’ as the repair, but it’s stable, fits my current health situation, and as I learn more and if my health improves, I may be able to use what I know in volunteer positions.
    4) Travel: I want to show my son some cool places. I’ve been able to do that because this employer is flexible (eg, work remotely in Europe for a month? ok!) and pays well enough.

    Our relatively low costs help a lot, and I recognize that privilege. Much of it is due to timing (house purchase), some to choices (only purchasing used cars, rarely eating out), some to spending time (eg, my husband installed our last water heater), some to generational wealth (my parents paid for my undergrad). This gives me the stability to prioritize other things.

    For me, it’s all about focusing on what I want, and appreciating what I have.

  106. LPUK*

    I left the pressured corporate world ten years ago now, when I was made redundant from my European role and came back to the Uk. I started interviewing for similar roles in UK, which would have meant moving, or at least commuting to, London area. It was only when I reached final interview stage with one and was faced with the question – why do you want this role? That I realised I actually didn’t. I sort of fell into consultancy work, and now work almost exclusively for one company, doing short-term work for different departments in my specialist area. I work part time with 100% autonomy on when/where/how and although I’m not earning as much as I was in corporate world, my reduced COL means I’m actually much better off. It’s given me the flexibility to care for my Dad through his declining years, spend more time with extended family, make local friends instead of ones who live in different countries and even take up gardening and DIY. By all standards it’s a good life – my health is better, my stress is way down, my lifestyle is not as frenetic…. And yet, when I look at former colleagues on LinkedIn, many of them have made it to CEO of smaller companies, or Board level on larger ones, and I wonder should I have kept going?which is to say, I know I made the right choice for me, but there will always be little niggles.

  107. Silicon Valley Girl*

    There’s something about the big-name Silicon Valley companies I’ve worked at for the past 20+ years where they want to “grow” their employees along that typical career path, as you say, from assistant to coordinator to manager to director. Annual reviews tend to include some component of ‘where would you like to be?’ in that path. I’ve always told my managers that I want to be the best individual contributor possible. I want to go deep in my subject matter & ‘do the work’ instead of manage ppl who do the work. Maybe I talk w/my manager about training to improve on specific areas, but as long as she gets my commitment to the job at hand, there’s no more pressure to move up.

    So what I’d suggest to the OP is to find a way to be excel at the job at the level you feel comfortable with, no higher or lower. If you’re doing that one job in a solid manner & letting your manager know that you intend to stay where you are & contributing everything required, then that should be enough. It can benefit the company to have dependable independent contributors, ppl who aren’t moving around & angling for more & more.

  108. Alex (they/them)*

    I’ve barely started my career and I’m already worried about this! I don’t want to manage people- I would much rather continue my technical work. But becoming a manager is considered a true sigh of success :/

  109. Darkangel*

    I was conditionned by my mother that I was worthy of love only if I was the best or perfect. It tooke years of therapy to understand that I cannot be the best in everything I do, and this is not what I crave anymore. I am still a perfectionist overachierver tho. But I have dropped my ambition of raising in the ranks a couple of years ago to focus on learning new aspect of my job, while battling depression. Sure I am still a bit envious to see a past subordonate overank me. But all of this prepared me to my next step, which is to start my own company with my fiancé. Not with the goal to make millions, but to at least live off from it comfortably, and having the lifestyle we want, and be our own boss.

  110. Ann Lister’s Wife*

    I don’t know if I have any “here’s what to do” advice, but something I’ve realized in my own life that seems applicable.

    Here’s a vulgar thought: what is it about the higher role that attracted me? Money. Higher salary. Respect. I don’t care about the work or the mission statement at my for-profit or any of that. I want(ed) the raise.

    So I started thinking what was it about the raise that I wanted so bad? And realized I don’t even want the money but the things that come with it: security. Stability. Leisure time. Satisfaction.

    So now my ambition is more focused on achieving those things and less on the advancement in my current career path. I’m seeking opportunities for me to keep paying my bills while finding the security /stability/ leisure time that I know I really want.

    That probably doesn’t answer your question, OP, but I understand where you’re coming from.

  111. Candy*

    >>But I’ve realized that what I really want is to have lots of time off, do work that I’m passionate about but that doesn’t overtake my life or stress me out, work part-time, have enough financial security to not feel stressed about money and still be able to travel and pursue my interests, take classes, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends.

    None of this is impossible. I work for a unionized university (in Canada) and I still stress about money of course, but I feel like I have all the rest — I love working in academia, I sincerely enjoy the sense of renewal and excited energy that new students bring to campus every Fall, plus my collective agreement offers plenty of time off (I currently have 25 days vacation/year + 12 stat holidays/year + the university closes between Christmas Day and New Years so add 5 days = min 42 paid days off/year ) not to mention benefits like unpaid personal leave, which I’ve taken advantage of. A couple years ago I took one year off to travel and still had my job waiting for me when I returned. All the while I’ve steadily been promoted to higher positions and my pay scale has increased every year. I’m not at Exec level, but I’ve moved up at a pace that suits my lifestyle and midlevel ambitions.

    There is definitely room to find fulfillment in between “quiet quitting” and “hustle culture,” it’s not one or the other. If your manager is encouraging you to move up in your company, then find out what benefits that offers that align with your desires like more time off, Learning Opportunities Funds to take classes (I’ve used my university’s LOF to take German and Arabic and French classes, for eg)

    1. H*

      I was reading your post and saw you are in Cananda. I think one issue is that many employers in the US do not offer pay and benefits that allow employees to actually take time and breaks like this.

  112. Gigi*

    For me, it took going through a couple of knocks before I could really let go of any dayjob ambitions. My final straw was being fired so my grandboss’ daughter could step into my role after having gone above and beyond to prove myself. (No more 10-hour days for me!)

    Now I have a chill day job that funds my slowly growing side hustle. My dayjob is just that, my job during the day so I can do what I really care about.

  113. Zan+Shin*

    “Not keeping up with the Joneses” is easy IF you have your own internalized values. My mom was a public school teacher, my dad was a furniture salesman at Sears. He was a lifer there, but early on he knew his priority was his family and he turned down being a manager so often they finally stopped asking!
    I found my way to a BSN and found that working as an RN I could easily finance a modest lifestyle by working part time (just enough to get insurance) and enjoy volunteering and painting.

  114. Pescadero*

    I never wanted a “career” or to “move up” – and never really felt that pressure.

    My problem is that even though I like my job – I hate anything that is an obligation. I’ve been working on retiring since the first day I worked at 12.

    Different jobs don’t help – because they’re still a job.

    The only career I’m interested in is “idle rich”.

  115. Queen Bee*

    The biggest struggle for me is deciding when I have worked FT long enough. I have been an at the same company for 23 years and only want to work for another 2-5 depending on when my youngest graduates college. I started in this industry young so I would be around 50 when I left. Its not an issue that I don’t want to work at all, I just don’t want to work 40 hours a week. I want to have more control over my time and life. If next Tuesday is sunny and warm out, I want to take my dog to the park. If someone in my family has a medical issue I don’t want to stress about having to take time off to help. My job has good pay and benefits which makes it hard to leave in some ways. When I talk with family about potentially leaving my job they question why would I want to do that when its a great job. But from the pandemic, I do feel a change inside of me…I am quietly strategizing my escape with the hopes of being able to leave and not worry about the “what ifs”.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Commenter Hen in a Windstorm mentioned some FIRE (financially independent/retire early) books and blogs upthread, and these could be a good resource for you.

      The only FIRE book I’ve read is Work Optional but I recommend it for someone in your situation. The three main sections of the book are roughly:

      1) Figure out how you want to live your best life (could be retiring, could be switching to part-time work, could be pursuing your childhood ‘dream’ career, etc.)
      2) Figure out how to use money as a tool to help you achieve (1) (could be not spending money on things that aren’t important to you, could be saving and investing money, figuring how you will get health insurance without a full-time job, etc.)
      3) Put it into practice!

      Sounds to me like you’ve already got a good idea of how you want to live your best life, so the book will mostly be helpful in giving you some ideas for how to discuss your plans with your family and also getting over the hump of good pay and benefits in your current job.

  116. Star Struck*

    As others have posted, its not an either-or situation. Do you truly not want to advance (is the next role something that you would hate) ? In that case, be very clear to your manager about that, and come up with ways that you can grow your contribution (training/mentoring, becoming a SME, etc)

    Or is it a situation where you dont want to give up those things that are important to you, even if it means you don’t advance ? Do you know what the next levels demands would be ? At many organizations, its okay to want and work towards professional advancement while still keeping your other priorities at the forefront.

    Good luck and congrats on knowing what is important to you.

  117. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    I am in this boat. I am an attorney, but I am in a comfortable job at a state agency with great leave, healthcare coverage, and benefits. I would be paid more in the private sector, but I would not have all the flexibility I get here and I would likely end up having a lot more stress and working much longer hours.

    At one point, I thought that I should consider applying for a role at our Office of the Attorney General. However, after looking into it, it looks like the pay would not be much better, the commute would be far worse to downtown, I would have to pay for parking, and I would need to go back to wearing suits regularly (dry cleaning expenses). Due to the hours and extra commute time, I would need a new doggy daycare and I would need to use it more days of the week, because they have less flexibility for working from home. And I would almost certainly need to pay over twice the daily rate I pay my current doggy daycare provider or leave him home alone all day sometimes. Honestly, with the extra expenses, I would probably end out with less disposable income. Not to mention, since my agency is self-funded, we have more money for technology and have much better equipment.

    And then there is the fact that I love my current job and the cases I work on. It’s usually interesting and engaging, and I genuinely get to help people who need it. Not to mention, because the Attorney General is elected, there are often a lot of politics affecting things over there.

    So, yeah, I decided it just was not worth all the sacrifices just to technically have a fancier job title!

  118. teensyslews*

    For me there’s 2 parts to managing this.
    1. Manage your career expectations with yourself and your manager. I don’t mean go so far as “I just want to make enough money to be good, generally enjoy my work, and not much else” but to really think of how achieving that sentiment looks like. So when I think on what I want to achieve in 1/3/5 years and I talk to my manager, I say things like “I’m not interested in managing direct reports, but I would be interested in [X big project that’s highly visible/taking additional training to be able to support X/doing a lateral move into a new role]”. This is a good exercise for me to think about what I need to remain engaged at work and also a good way for me to communicate to my manager that I’m interested and engaged but also clear that I don’t want to move up.
    2. Really, carefully think about salary stagnation and how to manage that. So much of salary structures rely on moving into management to make more money. It might mean switching companies more often than you would, it might mean moving into a union job or a job with good salary reviews, or it might mean moving into an industry where you don’t need to progress in level to keep being recognized for good work. Alternately, get very very comfortable with doing your own market research and advocating for raises.

  119. kilo*

    I made this switch about 5 years ago, when I moved away from a big city where I had a very prestigious job. I still have the same job title, but at a much less well regarded place (think a professor moving from the ivy league to a middle of the road state university). I moved entirely for location reasons, as the cost / commute / distance from family just weren’t worth the job. I have zero regrets about moving, but it was really hard at first. I realized how much of my self worth was tied to my fancy-sounding job, and I’ve had to work really hard to broaden my definition of success. Now though, I’m much happier. I love where I live, I enjoy my life outside of work much more, and I’m way less anxious about life in general. I work 40 hours a week, then walk out the door (or way from the kitchen table … thanks Covid) and completely forget about work, until I’m back the next day. I spend a lot more time exercizing, and now volunteer one day a week with an organization that is really important to me, which are both things I didn’t have time for before. Oddly enough, the actual work I’m doing is much more interesting, even if my employer is astoundingly dysfunctional at times.

    One thing I wasn’t prepared for: I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. I hadn’t realized the extent to which my fancy employer was shielding me from sexism. I’d assumed that I was finally being treated with respect as I was older / more established, but nope — I’m back to fairly regularly being treated like I know nothing about my own work when I present outside my institution.

  120. Sauron*

    Just want to say thank you to the commenters here for all the helpful thoughts. I’ll be coming back periodically to read and absorb everything more thoroughly, but this whole topic has been very on the brain recently. I just changed careers from Marketing to Software Engineering, and have been struggling to ensure I maintain my time-off boundaries in the new role. I understand that in doing so I will probably advance more slowly, but this role pays quite well and gave me a salary increase that I was DEFINITELY not going to get in the prior role.

    Something I’d love to hear from commenters is – if you have a side hustle that you LOVE – how did you get started in it? Is it something you’ve been passionate about for a while or did you pick it up to fill your off hours? I’m toying with the idea of taking some classes in order to have something more productive to do in my free time, and would love to hear from those of you who’ve found that something.

    1. raincoaster*

      I guess right now journalism is my side hustle. In order to have time for that along with the day job, I’ve had to avoid joining clubs, declined personal invitations and public events i really wanted to attend, and dropped my plan to run a marathon next year. If it matters enough to you, that’s what you’ll do. It’s not easy on any family members who live with you, but eventually either you’ll see that it should stay a side hustle or you’ll be earning enough that you can quit the day job.

  121. Gigi*

    I’m in a government job with a capital M mission, so there’s the brutal combo of feeling a responsibility to give all with an ambitious culture where it’s assumed that everyone wants the Big Fancy Title. I never wanted the BFT and always felt kinda weird about it. But the Mission has always been a thing for me. That is, until the breakdown I had after one assignment that left me wondering if I could do this anymore. Honestly, if it weren’t for being locked into a pension, I’d probably be gone. But I’ve come to a place of peace now where I’ve realized that serving doesn’t equal putting myself last. The conversation with my therapist regarding my next assignment was, what would it look like to be committed to the mission while committing to yourself as well? I’m still figuring that out, but that’s the new goal.

  122. FortunatePilgrim*

    When it comes to standard capitalist excess/success (or any other socially contrived marker of personal worth), don’t think of yourself as deprived of it, but rather free of it.

    Every mode of being has a payoff and a cost. Ambitious people trade one kind of freedom for another, and unavoidably one kind of prison for another. Sure they get houses and cars and trips to tropic beaches, but that means they have to BE the kind of person who thinks those things are life goals worth sacrificing for.

    More power to them, I say, but I would honestly not trade places with any of my successful A-type acquaintances for anything.

    It’s analogous to how, sure, kids who were popular in High School got to be popular, but the cost is they had to care about being popular.

    This is the same. You’re not deprived of the capitalist treadmill, you’re free from it.

  123. Joanna*

    A while back, I realized that my company does not support managers very well and they don’t give them the tools they need to manage (ie. no one gets fired for poor performance). With that, I decided that there was no way I was ever going to move into management. It’s an impossible job, so no thanks. Being a subject matter expert pays my mortgage and for my sewing supplies, which are the important things, so I’m good.

  124. El+l*

    Answer is so dependent on your personality and what specifically interests you. How much do you need success at work, can you deal with FOMO, and where’s the time commitment at which you become aware of the “opportunity cost” of work time?

    For myself, the answer is: If I don’t have time to travel a few weeks a year, or to read books at night (or lately to spend time with my daughter), that’s when I need to dial work back. By the same token, to live life without having some kind of meaningful work success feels terrible after a while – I sank into a depression (and ended up accepting an offer) after not getting a meaningful promotion for 12 years.

    Do these two observations conflict? Yes, but if it’s just a little, I can live with that. That questioning never goes away, but it never overwhelms either.

    And my guess is that’s a decent answer for you: A small amount of tension between work and play is healthy. It’s when you have too much either way that problems arise.

  125. Qwerty*

    I’ve left management twice to be a individual contributor (IC), going as far as director during one of those stints. While I was good at those roles, not being able to write code felt like losing the functionality of a hand. The pressure I personally feel comes from young women in my field who want to see a woman get to the top and from coworkers who recognize and respect my leadership who don’t get why they are stuck with a bad manager when I’m right there. So now, I’m in a job where I’m more shielded from that pressure so that I don’t let myself get sucked in. I find it easy to turn down ladder-climbing opportunities from higher ups – they are confused why I won’t take it if I’m good at it, but I’m also pretty good at singing and baking but you don’t see me recording an album or opening a bakery. We all get to choose which of our skills we monetize and which ones we keep to ourselves.

    Circumstances also change! I had one job that sounds nice at first – 4weeks vacation (plus sick&personal leave), no overtime, low stress. Which was great at first but after a while the job was so “easy” that I was going crazy because I often wasn’t doing fulfilling work that made my days feel useful. So I hopped back into the grind for a bit.

    Two big things:
    1) Recognize your agency in all of this
    2) Adjust your expectations of the normal end goal for a career. Most people don’t make it past a senior contributor or middle manager. Otherwise the corporate triangle would be rectangle and there would a lot more C-suite positions of major companies in the world.

    I suspect a lot of this pressure you are feeling is coming mostly from within, a bit from family, with a sprinkling of either social media or flashy tv shows. Most managers don’t want a team full of top performers who are itching for a promotion – it means that a lot of them will leave since there aren’t a lot of open management positions. Solid, dependable employees make a wondrous team that reliably do work on a predictable timeline. Ideally they are a mix of experience levels so that there are growth opportunities within the team.

    It’s also ok if you feel flattered when your boss brings up supporting you! I’ve had people tell me how I should have an executive position – I enjoyed the thought for a week before discarding it because the reality didn’t match up to my goals. Recognize that support is not the same as pressure – you can tell your boss that you aren’t looking to move up in the short term and want to focus on how to grow while staying within your role (I recommend not saying “never” so you always have the option to change your mind in the future)

    If you want to avoid the “keeping up with the Jones” issue, then focus on what makes you happy in your life. Your friend is not getting promoted “at” you and their announcement isn’t a statement on anyone else. If you are finding yourself jealous of others, than dig deeper into why that is and what the underlying issue is.

    Finally, the overall compensation from a job is so much more than salary! Time off, work hours, team culture, professional satisfaction are hugely part of it. There’s also a reason that high stress or higher level positions come with more money – the cost of living goes up with them. When I had long hours as a senior manager, basic things like cooking or running errands became luxuries so I had to outsource. Nicer clothes were a necessity because of client meetings. I actually saved less money during that time because my expenses went up. PTO was used more as recovery than relaxing. On the other hand, when I have jobs where I like my coworkers, find the work fulfilling, limit hours to 40-50per week, I don’t need as much money or as much time off to live my life.

  126. FormerProducer*

    I quit a well-paid and stressful creative career recently to become a barista and I have a lot of feelings about this! The biggest thing that helped me reframe has been accepting that I am an ambitious, driven person. But my ambitions are now about my actual life, not about being seen as good at my job or talented or worthy of promotion. My ambitions are to spend time outdoors nearly every day, to save a little money for fun trips and hobbies, and to have the time and energy to be present for my friends and their kids.

    I want SO MUCH for myself. I want to have a good, full, pleasurable life. And for years I believed the only way to get there was to work hard at my office job and someday… I would… have enough time and money to have fun? But that’s never gonna happen, at least not for a Millennial. Free time and relaxation was always going to be just out of reach, after the next deadline. So whenever I feel weird about dropping out of my creative career, I just remind myself that I’m already achieving my goals. It’s just, my goals are no longer “succeed at work so I can enjoy my life.” The goal is now “think about work as little as possible and spend the rest of the time having as much fun as possible.”

  127. judyo*

    I spent my career in external consulting, where I was on the road practically every week. I moved into a role in Human Resources, which is a better balance of life / future growth for me. I hit a point in my life I realize I want to work to live, and spend my time and income on things I enjoy doing and bring me joy. Before, I lived to work. At the time, that’s what worked for me – I made good money, learned a ton, made great networking connections.

    When people around me get promoted, I am happy for them and feel zero jealousy. I know their new title comes with more responsibilities I’m not interested in, travel that doesn’t appeal to me any longer, and stresses I don’t have to carry. I take pride in my work and strive for continuous growth and improvement, but can do an excellent job using work hours that work for me.

  128. Ollie*

    I am an artist. Next week will be the last art festival that I do. Many people don’t know that we set up and break down all of our own displays. I am 67 years old. The first art festival I did in May I was unable to complete break down without help. The second festival in May I arranged for help and we just got the last piece into the van before the sky opened up with rain, lightning, and hail. The next show in September I made $200 for a weekend of work. I’m tired of setup and breakdown. I’m tired of cold rain, lightning, hail, and just plain bad weather. Online and galleries are much easier on my body. So I spend a couple hours a day tweaking advertising. I’m not making as much money but I don’t need to make as much money as I did in the past. I realized that it was an ego thing. I wanted to do the big shows so I could say I did the big shows. I’m looking forward to a lot more relaxing life.

  129. I watered your plants while you had covid*

    I’m working on a job change right now (last day at current job is 10/14!) and that has triggered me to think about what I want.

    I want a safe and comfortable home that my family can afford to maintain. I want a reliable vehicle that I don’t have to think about “will it start today?” when I wake up. I want to make enough money that I can pay my portion of the family expenses and have enough leftover that I don’t feel bad about a reasonable amount of discretionary purchases. I want a job that supports those things. A job where I get to come home every day, and a job where I can drop everything because the school nurse called. I want a job that ends when I leave work.

    I want to work with people who are kind to each other. I want to work at a job where there are consequences for not being kind, or not doing your job. This last item is entirely lacking at my current position and unfortunately for the people I work with, their inability to deal with a bully is meaning they are losing the work that I do. I’m getting a raise, and away from a bully and I am genuinely excited because if I don’t have everything on my list, its going to be darn close.

  130. Roz*

    I LOVE this question.

    It wasn’t until I watched how my Mother-in-Law approached her career and how that influenced how my husband approached his career that I learned there are other ways to work/not-work.

    They both strategically save money and plan their career in blocks of time to allow for regular, repeated time away from work. It’s called self-funded leave. While most workplaces may not have an official leave policy on this (theirs do, which is how I learned the method to follow even though my workplace doesn’t), you can learn to follow the same approach.

    Here’s what we do. We plane to take 6months-1ear off every 4-5 years, so that instead of waiting for retirement to enjoy life, we can leapfrog through our careers and define success as having control over your work time and your away time. We just finished a 1 year “leave” in 2021 where we lived in France! I did the scary thing and made my plans known to my employers, then quit my job and left when the time came. I maintained connection with my network and 4 months before we were set to return I started putting feelers out. I had a better paying, higher-level job waiting for me when I returned.

    The key here is self-,motivation, a commitment to your path regardless of what comes (I had job offers to stay but I held firm. I was living in France in 2021 no matter what!) I took a risk, but it paid off in spades. and it has inspired others I know to look at their careers differently.
    The narrative that putting yourself first will mess up your career is only true if (a) you want to advance in a predictable way on a set timeframe, and (b) you haven’t put the effort in to be and to remain competitive in your field/marketplace.

    But if you can be a solid, reliable, capable, nice person to work with, people will want to hire you. And once you realize you have options, doing the scary thing and saying “No” to work for a time period gets a lot easier.

    The time away helped me clarify what I want out of life and what I need out of work. I’ve learned that getting into a role where my skills are valued and paid-well is possible, but I do not need to do this 5 days a week. I want 3 days a week at a stable role and 2 days to take on independent projects and give back to my community.

    For us, success is having the ability to pause work and be free for regular short periods of time before retirement. This means we may not make the most money possible, but we can make enough and live within our means to make our dreams come true.

    Our plan is to do this every 4-5years. Some people do a few months off here and there. Find what works for you and make and follow a plan to your dream!

  131. HIPAA-Potamus*

    Not trying to be rude, but these desires are simply not rooted in reality. What about those with kids who rely on a steady income and good benefits? What about the cost of living? What about those who were not born privileged or have to live paycheck to paycheck? I’ve never been able to strike that balance.

    1. H*

      I somewhat agree. They should be a reality but reading this I am like “yeah I would love to work like 20-25 hours a week” but it isn’t financially feasible. I am the only income earner in my household right now and my job has benefits.

    2. raincoaster*

      I don’t know too many jobs that allow you to travel the world for six months a year either. Jobs that pay that highly rarely last only half a year. Mind you, I do know a decorator who spends half the year in Bali sourcing items he sells for the rest of the year at pop-up shops. But he built that job himself from scratch once he had enough of a reputation to quit his day job.

    3. word nerd*

      See my comments above for the more detailed story, but basically my approach was work full-time at a well-paying job until I could save up and be financially independent (at 34) and now work however much I feel like in areas that interested me. I certainly wasn’t born privileged and grew up pretty poor with immigrant parents, but I did work hard to get the freedom I have now (with some good luck along the way too). I have a 7-year-old son and have been working either not at all or very part-time since he was born.

    4. Hydrangea*

      I’m not sure which desires specifically you are referring. Lots of people get a steady income and good benefits with climbing a career ladder, though. If being a Llama Groomer comes with a steady paycheck and benefits, then keep being a Llama Groomer. You don’t have to progress from Llama Groomer to Senior LLama Groomer to Llama Grooming Manager. You don’t have to be a Llama Grooming Fellow just because your manager asks you every year where you see yourself in 5 years. You can say, “In 5 years, I see myself being the best Llama Groomer I can be, just like now.”

  132. RJ*

    “This above all: to thine own self be true”

    I always thought that I lived my life according to this quote from Hamlet, but really I only took the phrase to mind at a superficial level. I was never really tested. I never faced the adversity that time, age and prejudice put you directly face to face to, particularly when you get older. Five years ago, I made the decision to leave my second long term workplace (9 years; previous was 13 years) because I felt stuck careerwise. Ever since then, I’ve wandered, never really finding a place where I connected or felt truly engaged in the work. All I felt was the stress of doing something very well, but none of the satisfaction of a job well done. I just felt angry….and still stuck.

    I was laid off a month before the COVID shutdowns began in NY. Around the same time, my longtime yoga teacher died suddenly at age 50. Two former coworkers came down with COVID with one dying a year before retirement and the other (my age) permanently affected by long COVID. Many others in my network were affected either directly or with the loss of family. I grieved. I cried. My life was in limbo.

    That quote was constantly on my mind as I thought about the loss of so many people. I thought of all the ‘what ifs’ they must have pondered and the regrets they must have born. Still, I kept looking for the same type of work within the same type of job in the same industry not seeing that I was just repeating the same behavior in the same cycle. Just because you do a thing well doesn’t mean you like it or need to do it for the rest of your life. And what if the rest of your life was a blink in time? Or forty year of drudgery?

    I decided to pivot slightly, using my technical skills in a more general way (I’m in accounting/finance, project based) but I got more rejections. Job offers and recruiters still came my way offering very high salaries, but all sacrificing the work/life balance I had determined to keep in my life. I refused on-site only work. I refused companies I knew personally to be problematic. I upskilled and filled my time with lectures, seminars and searching. Finally this year, I began to see some progress as I accepted a temp to perm position, but the company was not a good fit. Back to the doldrums and back to search I went. This week, I’m on track for a final interview with a company that provides software support on the ERP I’ve been using on/off for over twenty years. It’s not a position I would have imagined for myself, but it was one of those ‘what the hell’ moments when I saw the listing and figured I had nothing to lose.

    If it works out, I’ll be very happy. If it doesn’t, I know that I tried my best and will continue to search non-conventional roles that fit my abilities, skills and desire. Life throws you many curves, but everyone needs to invest the time in self discovery to get to what they really want and really need in their lives. So long as you have time, you have another day and another chance. Don’t waste a moment.

  133. metadata minion*

    Honestly, I’ve somewhat lucked out that way in my choice of career. Librarianship is not a field anyone goes into to get rich, and while there is a frustrating lack of promotion options that aren’t into management, it’s one of the few fields out there where people still stay in positions for 10+ years because they like it and are good at it (and also the job market sucks…) and this isn’t usually seen as a worrying lack of ambition.

    I would like to find a position that has more of an opportunity for non-management promotion, but that’s more about the fact that I’m increasing my skills and would like to be compensated accordingly. The skill increase just kind of happens as a function of the job provided you actually enjoy it (and if you don’t, why are you a cataloger? the pay and job market are both kind of sad).

  134. OrigCassandra*

    One thing to reflect on: is the voice in your head telling you to climb the ladder actually someone else’s voice? Earlier in my life, I had to root a lot of garbage from my parents out of my head. They wanted to be able to brag on me. I couldn’t let that define my life or career.

    Another thing: Ambition doesn’t have to be “climb the ladder.” A thing I’ve learned about myself is that my ambition is mostly not for myself — it’s for things I want to see happen in the world. I’m more-or-less casually looking to move on from where I am now, and there’s a whole calculus involved in that (that’s been covered well in above comments), but the bedrock of it for me is that I want to use my work time to work toward ends I approve of, and I won’t accept less than that. Do you have any ambitions of this type?

    (When I have had ambitions for myself, they’ve mostly been of the “I’ll show them!” variety, crossed with “living well is the best revenge.” It’s worked out okay, but if this resonates with you, I suggest deciding on a specific goal that will “show them” just enough, a goal that fits with the rest of what you want from life and career. I did, and it helped me put “them” firmly behind me, professionally and personally.)

  135. Sans Serif*

    I started working full time in 1983. And before the 80s were over, I knew I didn’t care about traditional success and becoming an executive, or even a manager. I was a manager once. I was okay at it but hated it. And ever since, I’ve stayed as what I guess is called an “individual contributor”, and have never regretted it. At the age of 61, I plan on retiring in a few years. I make a good salary, was able to pay for my daughter’s college tuition, have taken some nice vacations over the years, and am looking forward to more once I’m retired. Yes, I could have had a bigger house, but who cares? I’ve have always made it a priority to leave any job with a crappy boss or insane workload. I never envied the people I know who made more money but worked long hours and weekends. Not for me.

  136. Zellie*

    I took a job that is similar, but industry adjacent, when I left a job I loved after the organization became too toxic for me to stay. I will admit to a bit of anger at having to leave something I excelled at and enjoyed doing, but at some point your health isn’t worth a job. I’m still in my same industry, but took what amounts to a promotion and a substantial pay increase. I’m not as passionate about this position, but there is no toxic environment and the pay is good. So are the benefits. Do I miss aspects of my old job? Yes. But, the longer I’m here, I realize the value of not being in a toxic environment and I’m starting to see opportunities. So,not exactly what the OP asked, but I am less passionate about my current job and in a better place. Unlike a lot of other commenters, I did take on a management role, but it is still much better than what I left. I also had to move for this job (in a pandemic), but it was the right decision for me.

  137. iamthelola*

    I moved from having a job to being my own boss (freelance graphic designer). I figured CEO was about the most ambitious title possible — so I gave it to myself. The money is better even if I have to pay all the bills of my office in addition to personal expenses and I have more of the time freedom (or at least time flexibility, depending on how deadlines fall). I get to work in my own house, in my jammies, with my cat asleep by the window. If I don’t like a person, I don’t have to work with them. Its been up and down with the money, but generally in an upward direction. I had worked regular jobs for 20 years prior to this choice (Sept 2010, just passed my 12 anniversary). I think ambition is what you make it. I have a LOT of ambition to do the things I want to do, and very little at all to do things that most other people think are important to do. Corporate ladder? Nope, I hate climbing. I think one of the things we are finally learning now is that it is utterly and completely okay for ambition/goals/work hours/etc to be different for every single human. If we all wanted the same thing, it would be really hard to get a job and really boring to hang out with people. I say make your ambitions whatever you want them to be, what brings you to life, what you love and say to heck with what every else says (yep, even me). Find your happy!!!!

  138. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    I live in New York City and I’ve been a lawyer for 34 years. I started in private practice, moved to in-house practice and now I do electronic document review and work from home. Electronic document review is assisting law firms with electronic discovery and, although I love everything about practicing law, I am quite content to do this now. I work on a project basis, which means I can either work or not, it’s up to me. I won’t get rich doing this, but I don’t care.

  139. EngineerGradStudent*

    I just want to say thanks for everyone sharing experiences and strategies, it really gives me hope for my own career. I have been in grad school all through the pandemic and that made me take a major mental health hit that I feel like I I have just now clawed my way out of. As I work on wrapping up grad school and starting a job search I have wanted to be conscious that yes, as a new employee I will need to put the work in wherever I land, but I also need some semblance of balance to allow me to moderate my own life/mental health in a way that makes me a reliable and productive worker. I recently had an interview where when I asked “what’s the average day like in the job?” the reply was the interviewing bragging about how the company had great work/life balance they were because they consistently worked just shy of 12 hour days. But balancing traditional job expectations with being risk averse is a challenge and I’m glad to see so many folks have made it work.

    1. Zweisatz*

      In my opinion in a good company “proving yourself” just means being reliable, communicating proactively and doing your job correctly (or to your abilities – if you’re just starting out there’s always a lot to learn).
      If it means putting in excess hours to the detriment of your own health, I’m not interested. And yes I will balk at anything over 40 hours per week.

  140. Rutherford B. Crazy*

    Millennial here. For me the biggest struggle has been letting go of the hope of ever owning a home, which used to be a normal goal that a regular person could achieve.

    I realized that I’m in the best of circumstances for myself in terms of a job(decent pay, good benefits and PTO, not too stressful work, good life/work balance) but it still won’t be enough for me to ever be able to afford to buy a home. And even if I tried to claw my way up to a higher paying position and sacrificed some of what I want in a job, the line of work I’m in could still never end up at a salary high enough to be able to afford a home.

    I am really struggling to be at peace with my future when my biggest dream has become impossible over the past few years as housing prices in my area and cities all over my country have exploded exponentially.

  141. Dawn*

    Nothing is permanent. You can try, or not try, anything you want, and if it’s not for you, you can change paths.

    Taking a promotion to see how you feel about the work does not mean you’ve now committed to that path forever. Likewise, working part time and doing whatever else it is you want to do.

  142. Lady RealTalk*

    Hey LetterWriter,

    I went through a similar change in 2017. Here is what I wish I’d thought about:
    *Put a budget defined around financial security and live on it while you’re working full-time. How many hours will you work in your passionate life to sustain that lifestyle? Don’t take the money piece for granted. I want more financial security and travel too, but the reality is Some days it’s more fulfilling to go for a long bike ride. That’s a trade off I’m prepared to make.

    *something that landed in my lap that I’m really grateful for is about a year into my freelance life I started walking my neighbors dog. Every morning I’d get up, have a reason to get out of the house, get cheerful exercise and a bit of extra money.

    *will you consider work you care about OR less fulfilling part-time work you can leave at the desk everyday? Sometimes when I’m loving a project I don’t mind taking it home with me. A well paying part-time gig, if you can get one, can bring a lot of calm to the rest of your life.

  143. raincoaster*

    You need to know who you are, in a deep way, before you know if traditional career paths are for you. I knew from birth that they were not (although in retrospect my mother was correct, and I would have been a terrific lawyer, oh well, path not taken).

    I was so detached from schooling, despite being academically gifted, that I nearly flunked out until my parents put me in a hippie school where I excelled. “Oh, raincoaster doesn’t come to English class. She sits in the hall and reads books, but they’re excellent books above her official grade, so she’s getting an A.” That sort of thing. I thrived in that environment.

    Unfortunately had to go back to a public school for final year, where I let a career counsellor talk me out of attempting to become a journalist. This was back in the day where you didn’t need a degree. If I could change a single thing about my past, it would be to prevent myself from paying attention to that moron.

    That sort of thing didn’t fly in higher ed, so I didn’t end up getting a degree (I got 3/4 of a degree, which gives you the least payoff for the most investment). Bounced around doing scut jobs for years until finally landed at *Major Coffee Company* where, say what you will about them, they knock the bigotry and laziness out of you. They taught me to really work! It was the Nineties, and we thought we were Changing The World With Lattes! We weren’t, but that scut job taught me a lot of things including how to work hard and long, things I’d never really respected or needed before.

    Since then I’ve opened my own communications company and thanks to a very daring editor who took a chance on me, become a journalist after all. From starting as a journalist at a very minor news site to being published by one of the most prestigious journalism outlets in the world took me three years. Being published by them was my goal since I was 17 years old. Now, of course, I have the question of: what next? I guess the next phase is to figure out how to make a living at it, and to that end I’ve joined forces with a very radical new media startup, one with a completely untraditional funding model. We’ll see where it goes.

    If you’re motivated by money and security, a traditional path is a natural for you. If you’re not, there is just no amount of money and security they can offer that will change your mind and make you comfortable in that environment. Know who you are and then you’ll feel more secure in whatever path you’ve chosen.

    Oh, and as for scut jobs, restaurant and bar jobs pay the best because, hello, TIPS!

  144. blink14*

    The US has a horrendous work culture, and I think alot of the pressure people feel in the US to move up, do better, earn more, etc comes from that. Work/life balance isn’t built into our culture.

    I’m a work to live, not a live to work, person. Could I have a higher ranking job and make more money? Sure. Would I have the work/life balance I need, in large part to balance having chronic illnesses? Not very likely in my current industry. But I work remotely, make a decent salary, and have really great benefits and PTO. My ultimate goal is to find a project based job that I can do remotely, and on my own schedule.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I, too, am a work-to-live person. It took me many years to accept that, and I finally have. I would always hear people talk about loving their job, how they can’t wait to go to work (who the hell are these people?? LOL), etc., and it made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Now that I’m 47, I’ve realized there’s probably no career or job I could ever have that would make me feel like I live to work.

      1. blink14*

        Absolutely! I worked part time for a relative for a number of years, while working a crappy full time job. That full time job I should’ve only been at for a few years, but 2008 happened and I ended up there for a long time. My relative kept me part time for far longer than expected, because he knew I needed the extra income, but I also would benefit from having that job on my resume (the industry made it far more applicable to moving into the space I’m in now).

        As I was searching and searching for a job, he encouraged me to focus on the environment I was going into as well as the job itself. And he’s completely accurate – for me, as someone working an interesting job but not a passion job, environment is the key. My co-workers, work culture, benefits, etc, are all hugely important.

        I actually was very wary of working from home full time at first, because I didn’t want to get locked into the same routine day after day and become bored in my own home. Fortunately, my job allows me to be in multiple locations, so I’ve been able to rotate my work location and that’s made me see how much I actually love working remotely, I just don’t want to be in one place.

  145. The Other Dawn*

    It’s perfectly fine to not want to move up. A friend of mine loves being able to go to work, do her job, and then promptly forget about it the minute she clocks out. She’s reliable and she gets her works done.

    I’m in banking. For many years I felt like I HAD to move up, and should WANT to move up, as though there was something wrong with me if I didn’t feel that way. I had tons of drive to move up in my 20s. I worked for a de novo startup bank and I learned everything I possibly could, volunteered for all the challenging work, and did anything that was thrown my way whether I knew how to do or not. And it paid off with fast upward movement. I slowed down in my 30s, but still had some upward movement. Now I’m in my 40s and even though I’m a manager (looking to change that soon), I just want to do a good job and go home. I have zero ambition to move up anymore, although I want to change the type of work I do; my plan is to stay at my company or in the same industry, but move to a completely different department.

    During those years when I was moving up fast, I admit I thought it was a bad thing if a person didn’t want to move up. It had been drilled into me for so long that people should want to move up, and someone who didn’t lacked ambition and drive and were therefore less valuable to the team. It has only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of value in the person who is happy where they are, doing the job they’re doing. The other manager in my department feels every team member should want to move up and sometimes pushes people to move up. I’ve been working the last couple years to change her mind and I think it’s finally sinking in. I explain that the person who doesn’t want to move up is usually dependable, they often know their job inside and out (and often have the institutional knowledge), they tend to stick around, and are usually happy and therefore a pleasure to have on the team.

    You need to do what’s best for you. Figure out what’s important to you (though it seems like you already have) and do what you need to do to make that happen. Good luck!

  146. LJ Srolovic*

    I figured out my non-traditional path in life by trying out a bunch of different working situations, seeing what I liked about each, and then looking for work arrangements that would provide those things. In my first “real” job (as a GA in graduate school), I loved that I got really high pay ($30/hr) and could make a living wage for 15-20 hours a week. It let me focus on my studies, have time for hobbies, and still have a comfortable lifestyle. After grad school, the pandemic descended and I ended up having to work part-time for most of 2020 and part of 2021. I had to make a huge amount of sacrifices to be able to make ends meet, but I was working in my field, discovered I loved working with people (I identify as an introvert & am on the spectrum, so this was a big shift for me), and actually realized that I loved having the regularity of a daily 9-5 schedule. (Many people in my field are required to work evenings and weekends as a matter of course and have inconsistent schedules.) I was able to pick up some side freelance work, which was a MAJOR help to my income, but also taught me that I work best when hopping between projects and going in between doing detailed work and other tasks. My current full-time gig taught me a lot of things that I’m NOT willing to put up with at work: micromanage-y bosses & an inconsistent schedule, but also that I love working with people even more than I thought, and I do best in positions that provide a lot of independent, self-directed work and goals.

    But the biggest lesson that all of this taught me was, as long as I’m happy in my daily life, the rest will follow. You can tackle things one piece at a time to change what isn’t working for you, but happiness in your day-to-day is priceless and irreplaceable.

    I really recommend the book “How to Be Everything” by Emilie Wapnick. She’s a huge advocate for treating your working life as an experiment, which I think is a great way to go about this.

  147. NyAnon*

    I am ambitious, but not about my paid work. I am an on-again/off-again fiction writer & I finally feel like I’m in a good place to try to get published. So I have wild dreams of success about that! But have never wanted to be a VP of anything.

    I am currently a part-time consultant & here’s how I did it. I got into nonprofit work via a friend & developed expertise in one particular subject area during an earlier (less financially successful) stint as a freelancer. I eventually got a writing/communications job at a fairly big organization focused on that issue. After a few years, a job on the fundraising side of my org opened up, doing grant writing. I realized this could be a more lucrative way to make freelance money so I worked my way into that job (had to apply twice), spent a few more years, then was able to use connections I’d met through my organization to get freelance work, and I quit. Some of my connections moved into orgs focused on other issues so I have been able to broaden my subject matter expertise too, which helps.

    I’m making it all sound easier than it was but it did work out. I do have a spouse who has health insurance & a good salary—it would have been harder otherwise.

    But I think generally speaking it’s a good thing to develop some solid skills & use those to find work that will meet your needs without being soul crushing. I have a good group of clients now who respect my expertise, and I get a lot more flexibility & freedom to pursue my creative work. I also know that if something happened to my spouse’s job, I could get another full time staff job somewhere because I have kept up my professional network & my skills.

  148. The Person from the Resume*

    Funny story about career trajectory. I was in the Air Force. I was a communications officer (which is a support role) in a communication unit. The pilots are the stars, and the ones who make General. People in the support roles pretty much don’t make General (O-7) and they rarely make Colonel/O-6. The earliest you can retire is after 20 years of service. The other thing to know that many Comm Officers are prior enlisted so they have some years of enlisted experience before becoming an 2nd Lieutenant so they reach their earliest retirement possibility after less than 20 years as an officer.

    Our Wing Commander – an O-6 Pilot – comes to unit to have mentoring career discussion and starts asking us where we picture ourselves in 20 years. Every single officer says retired and he gets super frustrated and switches to asking about 10 years. He was coming from a pilot perspective where the top performers have the possibility of O-6 or higher. We just understood the possibilities of our career path better than he did. He hadn’t considered that we were not pilots and didn’t have the same opportunities they had.

    Maybe we weren’t that ambitious to begin with because if we were we’d have been gunning to get into a different career field. Although I knew a few ambitious support officers, they knew they had to work really hard to make it to O-6.

    This doesn’t directly advise the LW, but it’s an example of a career path where a group of people don’t expect to make it the senior leadership positions. The idea of a good career for us was to retire from the AF as an O-5 and to have been a Squadron Commander at some point. But even then, I have a friend who did that grudgingly for her career with two kids under 5 because being a commander is a job where you’re on 24/7 call for practically the entire 2 years of the assignment and that doesn’t align very well with being an involved mom. She did it to get herself to the point where she could retire at 20 years with all the benefits for her and her family that a military retirement offers.

    I think you need to ask yourself who’s voice in your head is telling you that you must keep advancing? Because it’s not in everyone’s head.

  149. The Person from the Resume*

    The other thing I think of is that I got out of my small, rural town as soon as I could, but people stayed. I imagine those people who stayed value their family and community a lot more than any job beause there’s not a lot of big opportunitues there. Lots of people take the job they can get in the place where they want to live instead of chasing the next step on the ladder.

    Living in a low cost of living area could open up more opportunties to work less or work a less demanding job. I’m not willing to make that tradeoff, but lots of people do.

  150. Mrs. Bee*

    I would have loved to have moved up because I have good ideas that could be implemented here — but I’m now getting close to retirement. I was told for YEARS by people above me that I have good managerial instincts. I don’t want to say too much because this will just turn into a bitter gripe fest :-) So I’m not going to.

    I think you can be happy at your job without moving up. I really like what I do a lot and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. TBH, I like supervising projects and then pulling in the best people to work on them. Then saying bye-bye when the project is done. I don’t know that I would like the people supervision part where you get involved with HR (at my place, that seems to be what happens — nonstop union issues and also a lot of petty gripes).

    I love my time off and at my workplace, it’s fairly generous so I really cannot (and will not) leave voluntarily unless I get the exact same or better. :-) I do not take work home and rarely think about it once I leave for the day. I have no problem doing this either. My time is my own –not anyone else’s.

    I work at a moderately high level as I always have done while at work, but outside of it, nope. I see a lot of simmering unhappiness among the management staff here. I don’t regret not being promoted.

  151. Violet Fox*

    I don’t think I ever had that sort of move up the ladder ambition. For me a lot of it is that I genuinely like what I do and where I work, and I love that I also have time and flexibility for life outside of it. I count myself very lucky and see it as a privilege to be able to get off work at a reasonable time most days and spend time with my friends and hobbies.

    Some of this is the field I’ve ended up in is a bit odd on it’s own so, there isn’t really anywhere I can move up without extreme specialising, which I don’t want to do or becoming management, which I do not have the temperament for.

    Personally I also really dislike the idea that often the only way for people to move up or advance is to become management, instead of becoming senior expert teapot engineer.

    Some of it is training to ask yourself different questions. Start with things like “am I happy?”

    I’m also of the opinion that pressure to have career ambition in only a few select ways has the knock on effect of devaluing jobs that do not have the same sort of climbable ladder, which is truthfully a lot of them outside of some set of more traditional office jobs.

    Granted all of this would help if the question for everyone can be “am I happy?” rather than “how am I going to pay the rent and buy groceries”.

  152. MCMonkeyBean*

    I have always known I did not want to move up very high. My dad finds it baffling and frustrating but I am very much “work to live.” I got one promotion a few years ago that I did push for, and then honestly I didn’t feel a need to go any higher. I actually got an unexpected promotion earlier this year and my boss was so excited to tell me and I was like “oh, yayyy… does this come with any expectations of working more hours?” She assured me they wanted to start giving me higher level work but that it should not mean more hours lol. I am working from home hopefully permanently now and have tried very hard to establish clear boundaries. Some people on my team are always logging on on the weekends even when there is really no need for them to and I just don’t understand them. We have a few months that are *very* busy and I do put in some weekends and overtime during that time, but the rest of the year–heck no I will not be doing that.

  153. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

    What helps me break away from social expectations is approaching them with a critical lens. My two favourite questions are: Where does that expectation come from? Who does it benefit to keep that expectation alive?

    In the case of work ambition, we can trace it back to many places, including puritanism (in North America, at least), and class struggle, and the way that capitalism benefits from both of these. And, it benefits companies and managers to keep you striving for better jobs (work longer hours, harder, accepting worse benefits, and it benefits the invested class e.g. corporate profits, and it benefits the political class through economic outcomes. And f*** all of that! Learning why we’re fed what we’re fed is the best way to fight back, and to work toward dismantling these incentives where they do not benefit us more equally or broadly.

    I have used this approach to understand and hone my own ambitions, and to fight back against body and beauty expectations. I hope it serves you, OP!

  154. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

    I saw my parents forced out of high-pressure, high-paying careers, and it made me feel like job security was a myth.

    Meanwhile I devoted myself to the high-pressure, low-paying pursuit of an arts career. When the pandemic hit and forced me to take stock, I realized that I’d been used and spit out, and that most of what I HAD achieved would’ve been basically impossible without the backing of my parents’ high-paying careers.

    I’m still ambitious in my way and there’s nothing wrong with that. But make sure you’re not sacrificing all your joy and sleep just to climb to the top of some radioactive Jenga tower, yknow?

  155. Rain's Small Hands*

    I had a really nice six figure career that covered a lot of different areas over 25 years. I managed people. I managed $100M projects. I did audit work. I did systems engineering. I – way back at the start – was an administrative assistant.

    About six years ago my brain said “stop” and I ended up in the rubber room wing of my local hospital. My husband had started a business with a friend of his, and they needed someone to do the accounting – I was already doing that (it wasn’t more than a few hours a week). And that became my job. Its still a few hours a week, my husband took a job that required him to divest of the business, I got his share.

    I make about half of what I did when I had a high paid high stress career. It isn’t enough to live on if I needed to live on my own (health insurance! rent!), but I’m covered by my husband’s health insurance and my mortgage was paid off ages ago – my 401k was maxed for all those years, plus we set money aside when we both worked.

  156. Spencer Hastings*

    Yeah, I find this line difficult to walk as well. My hobbies and friends and family are definitely the most important to me, so I see work mainly as my method of funding all that stuff. BUT:

    -I don’t want to stagnate completely — without promotions, I would be left with standard annual raises, which may or may not outpace inflation depending on the year. So even if I’m not interested in being promoted anytime *soon*, I don’t want to rule it out in the future.

    -If I’m responsible for a task, I generally want to do it well — even if it’s work. And given that I’m spending 8+ hours a day doing these things, I might as well do as good a job as I can. Also, I hate to say it, but the knowledge that someone else thinks I’m good at what I do is one helluva drug…

  157. BasketcaseNZ*

    I also feel the mini moments of jealousy when I see job title upgrades from people I studied with on LinkedIn.
    But I have spent years unhappy in nearly every job I have tried, mostly because I get bored to easily.
    So now I’m contracting.
    I have to work hard enough that they are happy to tell my next contract that I’m awesome, but I explicitly don’t go over and above because my contracts don’t allow overtime.
    I take leave when I want, and travel locally a LOT (I’m off for two weeks from Monday).

    Our next step is we are moving to a resort town and I’m moving into seasonal work. Which means that when I decide I am taking some time off, that time off is likely to be up to six months at a time, and then working shifts like 10 on / 3 off (or one job I really want to do is 8 weeks on, 2 weeks off) when I am working.

    Figuring out what it is I have genuinely loved in previous jobs and what future jobs could include more of that (and less of what I am good at but bored by) has stopped the jealousy for the most part.

  158. Quickbeam*

    I changed careers in my 30s which required a whole new degree program. I went from a white collar role in Criminal Justice (salaried) to an hourly profession (RN). People found it a strange zig zag of a career change.

    After 35 years I can now say what the benefits were…..portability, flexibility, technical prowess. I didn’t necessarily make more money but I did end up with a wider variety of options. Looking back, I am happy with how it worked out. You need to decide what priorities you have for career advancement.

  159. thewriterbean*

    I was working on a track that I thought was everything I wanted. I burned out fast. (Didn’t help with mental health issues, not one bit.)

    Going into my current career, I remember asking my mother what the hell I was doing. For me it felt like a step down; I always thought that to succeed, I had to be perfect. I had to have THE job, I had to do what I’d always planned to do. My mother told me to look at this new job, and my previous career, and look at what I actually did. The two jobs weren’t all that different. Both were typing. Both were talking. Both were managing people. They just were wildly different industries. And one had a far better work life balance, better pay, better regulation.

    And now… here I am. Obviously I don’t adore my job ALL the time, but I got into this one at a time when there was a lot of change. I work two minutes from the ocean. I clock off at 3pm and get 12 weeks off a year (and sick leave on top of that). If I need to work from home, I can. My boss has recognised my skills from my previous job and is giving me duties that align with that, while removing some of the less enjoyable ones. Seriously, making the move to the less prestigious job has been the best thing I’ve ever done.

    I was talking to a teenager who wanted to go into my old career path, and he was asking me about it, what I loved about it. He then asked why on earth I’d give it up for… this “nothing” career. And I understood — by those metrics, this career isn’t much in terms of recognition. But I was able to say to him that I was actually happy. I could leave before dark and go for a run on the beach after work, I could prioritise my mental health, and I actually have time for hobbies instead of getting home and working all hours. I’m on call in this job, but I get compensated.

    I think for me it was reminding myself that the perks I get being off that traditional path are actually worth far more than a title. My mother likes to remind me that jobs aren’t glamorous, really — at the end of the day, I’m still a glorified typist. And I’m happy just being able to sit in my office, write some stuff, and switch off at the end of the day.

    Oh, and for when I miss the old career: I still freelance. Best of both worlds!

  160. Wrench Turner*

    I’m in my 2nd career, about 8yrs in the trades and recently joined a local Union. Before joining, I worked my tail off. I took all the hours I could get, chased commissions and 4D chess strategized customer service over months and years! with the goal of moving up in the company and getting bigger checks to offset the chaotic and extreme seasonal hours/pay variations. Sometimes I would work just 1 or 2hrs a day with no warning, or suddenly 12 or 16. Work was very hard, but I was great at it and the company loved me. Goals on target, on schedule.

    When the pandemic hit, I saw how entirely expendable us “essentials” were, including at my company. The field workers were literal human sacrifice while the Bosses sheltered at home or at the offices we were actually locked out of. No hazard pay, no bonuses, almost no PPE. Techs got sick, some of our customers died. And I wasn’t even allowed in my own building to use the bathroom.

    When I was approached by a Union recruiter who was very transparent about pay and expectations, I ran the numbers and saw that just doing my regular job wouldn’t require killing myself anymore. I tried to organize my shop but nobody was interested, so I jumped. I don’t have all my time back (it’s still a hard full time job, some overtime, some on-call), but I have the peace of mind of a predictable paycheck, actual retirement and pension and good health insurance. I still always work with the best future of the company in mind, but that’s because I’m still good at my job.

    Some of my new coworkers pursue side work, additional hours, etc. because they have their own motivations, but as long as I have enough to pay my bills, money isn’t one of mine. And I have enough. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to scramble to survive. Can you imagine?

  161. Office Gumby*

    When I first got into my current career path, it looked rather different than today. Back then, it was cutting edge, rather new, and still a little undefined. I loved it because of it’s frontier feel, and that I had an opportunity to be a mover and shaker, that I could, essentially, help define a new field (which I did, as much as an individual could).

    Over the past few decades the industry did that–defined itself. However, it ended up going in a direction that didn’t suit me, and so here I am, stuck in a metaphorical city with far too many municipal dog laws, and not tromping through unchartered territory.

    I still miss the frontier, and I still wanna go hiking. For me, success is having the resources to be able to do that. I’m gonna work the day job (which is NOT my passion) just long enough until I am financially secure enough to FIRE*, then go pursue the frontier work I love so much without needing to be obligated to earning a paycheque to pay the bills and feed the cats.

    *Financially Independent, Retire Early.

  162. Mrs Pickle*

    This was exactly the post I needed to read today. I’ve worked my way up and up through my career and have always had a weird sense of missionary zeal about it – somehow believing it’s what I’m meant to do, my calling.
    I now realise that’s all a house of cards – magical thinking even – and its come at the expense of not really knowing myself or what I want.
    I look forward to re-trading these posts over the weekend and reflecting on where I am.

  163. Suzanne*

    I just left a 20 year career in banking management. High stress/high goals. I now work for the local High school as a bookkeeper. I LOVE it!! Yes, a pay cut. But not nearly as bad as I thought. The hours are awesome, the students are great, union, retirement and I will have winter and summer break! I haven’t had this much time off in 25+ years. It was scary to change but I am so happy I did!!!!

  164. Kayem*

    For me, most of the ambition pressure came from my family. One side went on to do Very Important Things in industries from engineering to academia to freaking NASA. I was never inclined the same way they were and I found that I was unhappy trying to meet those expectations. No matter how much I tried and how much more effort I put into it, the payoff wasn’t worth the increasing unhappiness and a workload that felt like the unholy love child of dread and drudgery. I had a lot of coworkers and supervisors who were also inclined towards ambition, which added to the stress. I thought that it was my purpose to move up in the ranks until I was doing Very Important Things, that there was no other alternative.

    It wasn’t until I literally quit the path and started a new one that I found what was right for me. In my case, it took returning to school and trying out a few degree programs before finding something (via internship) that clicked. The pandemic has disrupted my path, so now I’m working a day job that has nothing to do with the path I wanted. However, said day job pays decently, lets me WFH, and being seasonal, I get plenty of time off (albeit unpaid) to work on projects related to the field I want to eventually get back to.

    The job has some downsides and I still get flack and pressure from my family and former colleagues for not being ambitious enough in my upward mobility and that I’m not doing Very Important Things. I still feel pangs of guilt and doubt about what I’m “supposed to” be doing versus what I need/want to be doing, and probably will for a while. But I can alleviate some of that by knowing that the extra time I would have spent working towards higher and higher titles is now time I can spend with the people I care about.

    Also, most of those family members who were highly ambitious and did Very Important Things are unhappy themselves. Quite a few because they sacrificed life outside work to gain more and more altitude in their industry. Some are happy, sure, but too many of them found themselves miserable once retirement came around because they had nothing outside their work life and I don’t want to be one of them if I can help it.

    1. Kayem*

      Also, my partner had a similar thing. They were on a high level academic track most of their career. They had the kind of training and experience that only a handful of people in the US have and was in high demand. But the higher they went in their field, the further away they got from what they really wanted to do, which was help people.

      After a spectacular burnout and some employer sabotage, they quit entirely. They are now working as an underpaid level 1 IT person at an understaffed and underfunded local government. And they are happy. In the almost 20 years we’ve been together, I’ve never seen them so happy about work. Sure, our budget has taken a massive hit and we downsized and still get stretched thin and have less financial security, but totally and completely worth it.

      Partner was worried at first that people would think there was something wrong with them for going from a prestigious position to an entry level position written for someone who just graduated high school, but there’s way more people who get why they made the switch because those people have been in the same place too.

  165. Mythos*

    Realizing that the meaning of life is just to be alive and enjoy this planet for the limited time I have left in this life.

  166. parsley*

    During the pandemic I picked up a lot of freelance work while I was unemployed that then continued on when I found a new job, and it’s put a lot of extra money in my pocket. Enough that, if I’m smart and careful, I might be able to pay off my mortgage within the next couple of years and remove a massive expense (especially given that interest rates have suddenly ballooned here). Once that’s gone, I can switch to full time freelance, after a little longer working full time to build a buffer, and then I’ll have so much more free time.

    I’ve had some time where I was working my freelance job during annual leave, and it was so peaceful – it’s the type of work that doesn’t really require me to interact with anyone, so I could get up whenever I felt like, putter around the house, and then sit down in the evening to churn out the work that had come in during the day. I’m a night owl, so being able to have a lie in was amazing.

    I’m the type of person who never really had a work dream or ideal career, so it was only a few years into full time work that I realised the type of work I would like to do is no work at all, but since we’re stuck with our current system, I’ll trade that for very minimal and pretty easy work on my own time. I like my full-time job right now just fine, but I took knowing that I would be looking to build skills I can add to my freelance portfolio and then leaving when I feel secure enough to do so. I’ll probably step down to part time work plus freelance to start with, but that’s the eventual goal.

  167. Trade offs*

    “But I’ve realized that what I really want is to have lots of time off, do work that I’m passionate about but that doesn’t overtake my life or stress me out, work part-time, have enough financial security to not feel stressed about money and still be able to travel and pursue my interests, take classes, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends.”

    … To me this all sounds like an unrealistically big ask, and life has shown me that I need to make trade-offs between all these things. It is so expensive just to live a decent life and have a moderate amount of security – let alone have enough money to travel etc! – that it feels like opting out of the career rat-race simply isn’t an option. If you want to retire before the age of 70 or have kids, it’s out of the question.

    Maybe that’s not the case for people living in low cost of living areas. But moving away from my expensive city would mean losing the community I’ve worked so hard to build.

    Does anyone else feel this way?

    1. toolittletoolate*

      I think the important thing here is that someone be self supporting. You can’t expect somebody else to provide the nice trips or the retirement fund.

      My parents actually asked me to help my brother out financially (because I have a good job)
      and I said no because the guy literally works less than 20 hours a week, and spends the rest of his time pursuing his “interests.” I have no problem with his choices, but I’m not going to subsidize them when he is a perfectly capable of working more.

  168. That One Person*

    I’ve grown up on work stories from mum where she’d say to my sister and I, “You guys are some of the smartest people I talk to all day.” I’m very proud of how high she’s grown in her current company because she’s a hard working person, but I also get to hear about all the stress and how jam packed the schedule is that sometime its hard just to squeeze a bathroom break in and I know that just won’t work for me physically or mentally. It’s also one of those things where at my retail job I briefly considered becoming a team lead and then decided, “No…I already don’t like this job, that will just make me unhappier in the long run.”

    I think the job and the sacrifices are the main factors. It can absolutely be easy to get swept up in someone else’s success and want that for yourself, but it’s also kind of like watching a show: you get to see that moment and only snippets, but not the whole picture. Absolutely be happy for them of course, but when they’ve had time to acclimate ask the person about the ups and downs. That doesn’t mean you have to completely block out all advancement, but I would suggest trying to gauge the duties and expectations that you can from people in those positions to help decide how much that kind of schedule would impact you. That way you can better narrow down a stopping point.

  169. Isarine*

    I know I’m a bit late to the party so you may not see this. After years of struggling to get back into school for a higher level STEM degree, I got a job at a small office that wasn’t my passion, but I didn’t hate. Over time, I’ve grown to a position in that office where I’m making enough money to cover all my bills, and enough to spoil my niblings (from a distance, sadly!) and either travel or do some events through the year. I’m not willing to take a “better” job that would take away my project or fun time.

    I’ve made the rule of “would it make my five year old self happy?” Kids are just truly themselves without all the social baggage. And yes, we need to do boring stuff to be able to live, but we can still honor and respect happiness and fun. So, for me, it’s going to events and dressing up like a faerie or a pirate or something else ridiculous, and doing things with or for the kids in my life that my personal five year old self would love. She would NOT love working so much that she can no longer pretend to be Rainbow Brite.

  170. Save Bandit*

    I am turning 38 this fall, and I am becoming more comfortable with myself and who I am with every passing year. In the past couple years, I’ve had a bit of a reckoning with myself as to what I want from my career and my life. I realized that I have always been a person who values my time over money. That can be difficult when I see my friends take amazing trips, remodel their homes or move to nicer houses, get new cars, etc.

    However, right now my priority is my children. My family does need me to work, so I have been walking the fragile line between feeling fulfilled in my job while still having a job that is flexible and allows me to be with my kids evenings and weekends, no guilt for dealing with sick kids, etc. So far that has required a trade-off for less money. I do have aspirations to grow in my career, because I enjoy the work in my field and I would like to eventually climb the ladder. But, that can wait until my kids are older. My focus is on evaluating my life as it evolves and changes, judging what I need in each different stage.

  171. toolittletoolate*

    Just say no and keep enjoying what you are doing. As long as you are self supporting, you don’t need anyone else’s permission to work part time, or refuse a promotion, or anything else.

  172. I do not miss my 20's.*

    I also have a different take on ambition. Ambition doesn’t always mean more or harder work!

    I’m in a field (media relations) where I found there were really three stages to a career path. Tactician –> Manager –> Strategist/Lead.

    1) Tactician – Early career (media associate, account supervisor, etc.), I got paid to “do things”. Pitch reporters, write content, lead trainings, etc. If I wanted to get promoted in this stage, it meant more work/exhaustion/bigger projects, occasionally drafting strategic content or plans but mostly just executing. This was an awful part of my career! I hated it, found myself zonked at the end of the day.

    2) Manager – (Director) Once I broke out to the next level, I got paid to get other people to “do things”. This was considered the next stage in my ambitious path, but it’s actually an entirely different skill set! I found being a tactician way more exhausting and draining than managing others. This was a better life/balance for me.

    3) Strategist – (Principal/VP) Finally, I moved to more programs work (out of media relations and into messaging/communications more broadly) and 15 years in, I’m at the point in my career that I’m paid for the ideas I come up with that I can work with managers to execute with the tacticians. So according to the ambition/work intensity/ladder theory, my job should be REALLY HARD compared to the tactician, right? Way more exhausting?

    NO! Turns out I am a natural strategist and a decent manager, but I’ll never be great at tactics. My ADHD is way too strong to remember to change the subject heading in an e-blast to 40,000 people. Now, I work a full week, but I have way more flexibility than I did a decade ago. I don’t feel overworked. I have big responsibilities, but they’re manageable. My to-do list is occasionally frustratingly ambiguous, but way shorter than when I was a tactician.

    Obviously capitalism is stupid. This ladder is ridiculous. There are many people who should become expert tacticians or specialists who thrive without ever needing to climb out of that ladder into management. Some people are just great managers and they should be able to grow within that field without being tacticians first. And some people are decent strategists and big thinkers who were always tired and frustrated being tacticians or managers. So I wouldn’t close the door on ambition just because it’s perceived that the people at the top are exhausted – often they aren’t!

  173. Quinalla*

    I’m taking a different approach, I’m trying to carve out more space in my job for leaders/managers who are NOT what the business world is built for (full-time working men with SAHW or wives who only work part-time) because frankly this doesn’t work for almost anyone who isn’t a man, married/partnered or not, and doesn’t work for many men anymore either. I’m high enough level now that I can push for more flexibility, more reasonable work hours, more reasonable expectations, etc. I call out “I’m SOOO busy” humblebrags, really encourage people to truly disconnect on vacation, explain how folks can use our flexibility policies and tell them how I and others use them, etc.

    So far I’ve had some success and frankly, the old-school attitude people are slowly changing their minds or slowly retiring and most people backfilling positions have more reasonable attitudes, so I do see progress and I see more people feeling comfortable pushing like I am as well.

    But yeah, sometimes the best course is just to do something else or hop off the progression train. Frankly, not everyone can be in those highest positions – there just isn’t space :)

  174. CLC*

    Realize that all jobs are just part of the capitalist machine and jobs and titles don’t define a person. Find the best job for the amount of income you feel comfortable with. If you are happy where you are, it’s ok to stay there.

  175. Anon E Mouse*

    Really feeling this letter.

    I was always the go-getter, and career climber – not because I wanted a higher title or more prestige, but I loved the work, was good at it, and wanted to do bigger, more complicated things because they were fun. I’m high energy, and having Big Things To Do at Work burned it off in constructive, fun ways. Plus there were fancy titles and big salaries dangled in front of me, and while they weren’t my goal, if I’m going to do the work I want the reward.

    Fast forward through Covid, my mother’s murder, becoming care taker for my father on weekends, reorged into a dysfunctional team with a terrible manager, and having a critical skill set that makes it easy to have another job – but what job do I want? The complicated-work-fancy-title, that I’d enjoy but would consume my life and make it difficult to care for dad? The middle of the road job where it’s interesting but has pressure and little flexibility? The boring job with the short commute and lots of flexibility? If I take the boring job, what do I do with all my excess energy? Because of Covid and caretaking, I haven’t been able to build a life outside of work, and I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. They all pay the same.

    For the first time in my life, I have the freedom to redesign most of my life. It’s a huge privilege, but heavens it’s a challenging decision.

  176. Susan*

    Can I recommend the excellent ‘Squiggly Careers’ podcast. It advocates defining your values (what’s important to you from your working life?) and finding things that serve them. Ambition isn’t restricted to the next rung up.

  177. Chickaletta*

    You have to ask yourself what kind of lifestyle you want, which you already know because you gave the answer in your question. You go on to mention growing “internal” pressure to keep climbing up the corporate ladder, but what you describe is external pressure because it’s brought on by external forces (your employer, your friends’ careers). Now, there’s nothing wrong to want to achieve title prestige or material wealth – plenty of people chose careers that help them achieve those goals and that’s fine because that’s what THEY want. But that’s not what you describe in you want for yourself.

  178. Jane*

    It took me many years, but I FINALLY realized that all of the “traditional” ways of living life aren’t the best ways to live life for everyone. Humans love systematic order, so it’s comforting when everyone does the same thing. But I realized that life is WAY too short to live it according to society’s notion of “happiness.” One by one, I realized: I don’t need to have kids, or get married, or buy a house, or move up at work. Those things are of little or no interest to me. I think part of becoming comfortable living life the way you want to is accepting and celebrating what makes you YOU.

    I’ll share the turning point for me when it comes to work: I’m a creative professional. I was part of a massive company lay off that also included a high-level creative director in my department. During the first few weeks after our lay off, I would send her job postings similar to the job she’d recently held, just in case she’d want to apply. She finally let me know that she had absolutely no interest in going to back to a director position and wanted to go back to being a senior creative. She explained that she never liked the “work politics,” the boring high-level meetings, the reports… she just wanted to be creative. It was like a lightbulb went off for me. That’s what I wanted, too, but I didn’t think you were just… allowed to want to stay at that level. LOL. But you are! Just make sure you keep getting raises to adjust for COL and enjoy life!

  179. Gabrielle*

    I struggle with this too, and a couple things:

    1. Outside of work, find people to be around who aren’t anything like your coworkers or your friends in high places. I don’t mean “make new friends” because to me at least that’s really hard, but I do mean, go to artistic events, community events, take a gardening class or a language class; or catch up with acquaintances you don’t always make time for (assuming you’re not imposing on them), or even read books whose characters have other values than money and career ambition. I learned this strategy as a way to avoid feeling stifled as a queer person — I needed to seek out queer people and queer literature even if I didn’t know where I’d fit in — but it also works for making me less focused on labels of success, and more on how everyone deserves a good quality of life.

    2. Sometimes there are strong reasons to go for a promotion — if the new job title fits the work you are taking on (or want to take on), and if you need coworkers to listen to you more than they currently are. Especially new people who don’t know your work but can see your job title. (I just got my first ever promotion within a job rather than quitting to find a new one, and I think it was the right move.)

  180. K in Boston*

    A few things that have influenced how I think of this:

    My previous employer implemented a path for growing more “horizontally” so to speak — expanding in knowledge rather than in managing more and more people. I don’t know that I loved how they implemented that, but I thought the general concept was a good idea to retain people who were good at their jobs but didn’t necessarily want to go into management. Still, it required constantly “climbing” a ladder, albeit in a different direction.

    For my MBA program, I had to write an essay on where I imagined myself in 5 years. The deliberate exercise helped me envision where I wanted my “ceiling” to be — At that time, I could see myself being content doing the work of my then-manager, but I wasn’t interested in the work of my grandboss, so I wrote about how maybe one more “level” up was where I’d want to go, but ultimately I wanted to be able to get a dog, and it wasn’t worth it to get a dog just to never have time to hang out with him or her.

    I thought more about how exactly I wanted to grow in the following years and signed up for my work’s mentorship program. My mentor connected me with someone on her team who wasn’t interested in management but basically just independently went out of her way to fill a niche based on her interests. I also talked more to my director about it, and we talked about how his role hadn’t actually existed before he came to our company — He basically interviewed for one role and was rejected, but the hiring committee thought he could still be a really useful asset, so they hired him into sort of a made-up role for him to “consult” in, and then he carved out his own niche from there. So he asked me to think about what I love most about my job and the kinds of things I like to do at work. It made me think more about how if I don’t want to take the traditional “managerial” path, I can still “grow” by just digging even more into the things I’m already interested in and good at.

    These all still require “growth,” which is what most managers want to see — that you’re working toward a goal, improvement, etc. — so maybe doesn’t totally answer your question. But these all did help me see you can grow in another direction, or you don’t have to climb ALL the way up the ladder, or you can climb a couple steps UP the ladder and then go SIDEWAYS from there.

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