Navigating Self-Fulfillment: When Up is Really Down.

January inevitably brings with it pronouncements of everyone else’s New Year’s resolutions. In the workplace, that doesn’t always mean “working hard to the top!”

 

I peruse LinkedIn every month or so. Today a couple of messages (and updates) required that I log into my account. Unsurprisingly, what I found on there were a lot of New Year’s resolution-type posts, everyone still positive and jovial from the recent calendar flip.

One post in particular got me. It read

What is your new years resolution? Mine: keep working hard to the top!

And when I say “got me,” I don’t necessarily mean that in a positive way.

In truth, it ticked me off.

I converse often with people about work. (I’m a working person, after all. It’s what working people do, especially ones without children.) I can’t count the number of times during those conversations that the topic has drifted to considering oneself “successful.”

I also can’t count the number of times I’ve categorized those I’ve spoken with about success into one of three categories:

  1. Success means getting to the top of whatever managerial structure exists in my field.
  2. Success means getting paid as much as possible, even if that means I’m not at the top of the managerial ladder.
  3. Success means self-fulfillment.

Granted, a person can accomplish two or even all three of these things simultaneously, but what I mean is that for every person there exists a primary definition of success. The other two just happen to come along for the ride.

But why did the LinkedIn post irritate me?

Well, I read it and immediately got defensive. Why?

First of all, I was immediately struck with the feeling that the person who wrote it assumed their goal — getting to the top — was also everyone else’s goal.

Second, because I’m in group 3: I’d much rather do something that fulfills a deep desire than work to get the big bucks or the corner office with a view at the top of the highest skyscraper.

After all, I’m a writer. And one doesn’t become a writer for the money.

But more than writers are Category 3 people (and even some writers aren’t Category 3 people). I’ve met all walks of folk — housekeepers, secretaries, and retail clerks, among others — who have no desire to become supervisors or managers, entrepreneurs or business owners.

They actually like being housekeepers, secretaries, and retail clerks. They actually plan to retire as baristas, or mechanics, or custodians, or landscapers.

They’re perfectly happy where they are.

For Category 3 people, “working hard to the top” isn’t what we’re after. And it’s frustrating to hear those words chanted because far too often it’s the battle cry of someone else’s ambitions being shoved into our faces, like some kind of slice of employment pie that we don’t like but everyone assumes we must want.

People who rave about climbing the professional ladder are very often the same ones who think secretaries or baristas couldn’t possibly be happy doing what they do; they’re the ones who treat these “down there” people with pity, contempt, or as a rung to their own success.

Does being Category 3 mean we don’t want to become better at what we do? No.

Does it mean we don’t want to problem solve, or be challenged, or learn new things in our job? No, no, and no.

What it DOES mean is that we’re happy. We’ve found contentment. What it actually means is (*gulp*) we’ve found that thing that many Category 1 and 2 people haven’t unearthed yet but strongly desire: Fulfillment in our work.

We’ve found that thing many people haven’t unearthed yet but strongly desire: Fulfillment.

And, to Category 3 people, we don’t mind being “down here,” on the lower rungs of the ladder. Our up is down.

The typical “up,” on the other hand, doesn’t look so great from our vantage point: it’s confusing, messy, distant, and perhaps dotted with bad deals or unsavory and ethically borderline business practices. When we look up we see butts, the undersides of shoes, and those yucky wet pant hems people get from stepping into parking lot puddles.

While everyone is scrambling up this shaky ladder, hoping to perch on that top rung for their fifteen seconds of fame, we’re down here, enjoying the show.

After all, someone has to hold the ladder steady.


What’s “up” to you? Let’s hoot about it…

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