Ask Sahaj: I feel guilty about my lack of career ambition

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Dear Sahaj: I’m about 20 years into my career, one where I got a degree from a top-rated graduate program. I see many peers moving ahead professionally, in short “kicking butt and taking names.” I’m happy for them, but also thankful that I don’t have the headaches they are about to encounter.

I moved to a management position before many of my peers but have stagnated for over a decade. And other than what I perceive as others’ judgment of my lack of advancement, I’m very happy at my job. I really enjoy being a front-line manager, and nurturing staff as they grow into their potential.

I’m finding that most of my motivation for advancement is external. I’m South Asian, and fail to see others like me who are content at lower levels in the organization. I dream of retiring (at least 15 years away). I am actively pursuing various hobbies that interest me, and I dream of a time when I can work on the hobby when I want and not after a full day of work or on the weekend. I don’t have children, so I have a fair amount of free time. Yet I feel like I’m not living up to my professional potential. I recently put myself up for a promotion and regret the decision. I know I could do the job well, but I just don’t care about it or the title. There is very little financial incentive for the promotion.

How do I become comfortable with the happiness I feel in my current position and not feel compelled to chase something others say I should?

– Forced Ambition

Forced Ambition: There’s a difference between the pursuit of happiness and the happiness of pursuit. Though the pursuit of happiness is often correlated with status or wealth, the happiness of pursuit is about having clarity about your reason for doing things.

You are straddling two internalized narratives – one where you are content where you are and choose to prioritize a life of personal pursuits and balance, and one where you feel pressured to keep doing and achieving. I can hear your confusion and guilt – that you are content but maybe don’t deserve to be.

The purpose and influence you have as a front-line manager to nurture others’ career development is absolutely something to celebrate – especially with 20 years under your belt! Instead of it not being enough, try reframing: You have discovered and tapped into your strengths. These just happen to be different from others.

If you’ve been sold a story about how your life is supposed to look, you’re likely going to feel a disconnect if you don’t act within that dominant storyline. For you, this reinforces your beliefs: Others are chasing things, so you should too. If you aren’t doing, you are lazy. Career achievement should be prioritized.

I have often observed these beliefs in South Asian households, where validation and love are sometimes tethered to achievement. This increases what is known as negative achievement behavior, or pursuing something because you’re told it’s what you should do. Negative achievement behavior involves forming an external identity around certain achievements and feeling unable to change course.

Instead, work to unlearn this mind-set and embrace positive achievement behavior. This can look like validating your own competence and work ethic rather than seeking external validation or building your self-worth around who you are and not what you do.

I like to ask folks I work with who struggle with achievement behavior these questions:

Why do you want this?

Who are you really doing this for?

If no one can know you achieve this, will you still enjoy it?

How does taking this step help you achieve a bigger goal of your own?

You use happiness and contentment interchangeably in your letter, but there’s a difference between them. Happiness is an emotional state. We experience happiness, which can be fleeting and circumstantial, but we can nurture a sense of contentment by practicing gratitude and by focusing less on what we achieve and more on our relationship to the world around us.

You are challenging years of social, cultural and familial conditioning and redefining what it means for you to feel content. You’re enjoying the fruit of hard work, which means you can slow down and enjoy the comfort of now. These things may feel uncomfortable because they are generationally new or countercultural. But just because they’re uncomfortable, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.



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