In the west, our work culture has a real “standing still is going backwards” mentality. We have all become convinced that progression is the ultimate goal in any career. This is combined with a strong need for status in the form of material wealth and a perceived “success.”
But if that’s true, where does the progression stop? When do we allow ourselves to be content in a role — to have reached the end destination, at least for a few years?
In this article we’re going to explore whether it’s actually okay—perhaps better, even—to “have enough” and to stay still in business. To do this, we’re going to look at a few areas:
- What does success really mean?
- What are your life aspirations?
- What is your right income?
What does success mean to you?
We all recognize the signs of a successful career: salary, promotions, responsibility, job title, office size, bonuses, perks, and so on. If you ask most people what their aspirations are for their career, chances are they’ll rattle off items from that list.
But if this is what it means to be successful, then why are so many people with all of these things miserable, sleep-deprived, anxious, and even clinically depressed?
It’s because these metrics represent one narrow definition of success that does not apply to every person. In fact, they probably apply to very few of us.
Success is personal
If someone is massively depressed or anxious as a result of their job, I would argue they are not successful. Remember that for most of us, a job is about earning an income, which is necessary to enable other aspects of our lives.
Most of us believe our success is tied to wealth and status because that’s what we’re told. But we know that wealth has rapidly diminishing returns. We know that for people with strong inner contentment, the idea of status is irrelevant. So why do so many of us supposedly desire this kind of success?
It’s down to definitions. A very small number of people are truly driven by growth and money and fame. The rest of us aren’t like that; we’re driven by ten thousand other things. Being parents. Charitable efforts. DIY. Dancing. Caring for your grandmother. Traveling. Dating. Building a community. Getting fit. Financial independence. The list is literally endless.
The problem is that we’re told success doesn’t come from these things. Western society says your self-worth and identity are inexorably tied to your income and job title. Fortunately, you don’t have to listen.
Redefine success for yourself
Fundamentally, finding contentment in your job means understanding that work is just one component of your life. So consider the other components; the other demands on your time and the areas where you can find fulfillment. If your current job allows you to have all the other components of your life exactly how you want them… then why would you put additional burdens on yourself for work?
It’s okay to say, “I’m finishing work for the day, same as I have for 10 years. Now I’m going to do X thing that brings me real fulfillment.”
Think hard about the most important things in your life, and do whatever makes sense in nurturing those things. If that means climbing the ladder at work, then do it. If it means working 4 hours a day and never getting promoted, then do it and be successful in the only way that matters—internally.
What are your career aspirations?
Say you’re an aeronautical engineer. You’ve got a salary you’re comfortable with and do work that fascinates you—it stimulates your creativity and it delights you with exceptional reward when you solve problems. It’s everything you’d hoped for back at university!
But you’ve been in the role for a few years now. The colleagues you trained with have all gone to bigger, higher-paying management or consultancy roles. And now you get offered a big “promotion,” too, with a bumper pay rise, and a full team of your own to manage.
Society and peer pressure say you need to accept this because:
- Think about the money…
- It’s a great opportunity…
- You don’t want to become obsolete…
- If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards…
But is the salary worth changing your role? Is the status of a new job title worth giving up your creatively challenging and complex work? Or would you be more successful by staying where you are?
The prevailing narrative says that you should always be pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. But that’s the problem with these catch-all rules: they just never apply to everyone. Sometimes it’s okay to be comfortable, steady, or predictable at work.
Most of us have very short-term viewpoints, but justify them with long-term statements. We chase promotions now in order to “secure our future.” But what gets lost in all this is the present—the only time that you truly experience.
So, if your career goal is to establish a decent income and work 30 hours a week indefinitely, why would you listen to people who call you lazy or unambitious? Unlike most of us, you actually know who you are and what you want.
Last month, world number one tennis player, Ashleigh Barty, retired at 25 years old. In prime physical condition and dominating the tour’s biggest events, she said she had given everything to tennis but simply had other ambitions she needed to fulfill. That amount of perspective in a 25-year-old is staggering, and a fantastic lesson for all of us.
What is your right income?
Most of us think of career growth in terms of salary growth and, therefore, feel a need to ascend the ranks. Too few workers think of growth in terms of becoming better able to do the job; better at working with customers, improving their craft, and getting more done in less time.
In most parts of the US, a household income of around $45,000 means that all of your base needs can be met: food, water, housing, education, caring for your family, and so on. And so, anywhere above this number you can find your “right income”—the amount you need to earn to live a fulfilling life.
Unless your hand is forced (e.g. your actual role is being transformed along with major company changes, or unforeseen financial trouble strikes), you don’t actually need to keep changing roles.
Acceptance of income is extremely rare. Anyone reading this can probably count on one hand the number of peers who are legitimately happy with their (non-millionaire!) income, and wouldn’t change their role for more money.
The laws of physics don’t dictate that the cost of your lifestyle is always increasing. That’s a choice. It’s heavily pressured by a highly materialist popular culture, but it’s still a choice, and one you’re perfectly entitled to reject.
Once you’ve found a job that pays you enough, you are under no obligation to “climb” anywhere else.
Staying happy with staying put
There’s a broad assumption that we all want to “move up” in companies and roles. That we have to do this. This is flatly not true. Unfortunately, those who could be called “content” or “comfortable” are instead often labeled “lazy” or “unambitious”.
There is nothing wrong with wanting more. There should be nothing wrong with not wanting more.
In today’s work environment it takes a profound effort to stay where you are. To recognize that your life is a balance, and sometimes having your work as a constant is worth far more than a climb. Doing this requires you to resist a persistent stigma—but the reward for just doing enough can be life-changing.
When was the last time you checked in on balance in your workplace? If “right now” sounds good, we’ve got just the work-life balance survey template for you.