Hitting the Career Ceiling
by Jon Acuff
A Career Ceiling is the lid on top of your career ladder. It’s the top height any particular job path is going to take you. I ran into one when I was a senior content designer at a software company.
I started working there as a contractor. Over time, I earned a real position within the company and in a few years I was given a senior content designer title. That’s when I had effectively come to the end of my career path.
I was making the most money I would ever make in that role and there were no other writing roles available at that company. Nor would there ever be. The only way up was to become a creative director, which meant managing designers and copywriters. That’s a great option for some people but for me it meant doing a whole lot less of what I actually liked doing: writing.
I was thirty-two and my life had already gently rolled to a place of inertia. I might get small raises over the years to come and slightly more responsibility, but for the most part that was it.
My wife would later tell me she was deeply concerned. With two young kids, a mortgage and a fairly new marriage, it was intimidating to stare down thirty years of possible career monotony. I might not be that adventurous, but being “done” careerwise at thirty-two was a jagged little pill to swallow.
When you hit a Career Ceiling, you used to have only a few options. You could:
1. Get a job at another company.
2. Do a job you didn’t want to do, like being a creative director.
3. Suck it up and die inside over a period of roughly thirty years.
The first option doesn’t fix things, it just delays them. You might get a different title and more money. That other company might have a “senior senior writer” position but eventually you’ll face the same ceiling you faced at your previous job.
In the second option you just trade your ladder for a different one. This plan doesn’t work well because you end up doing more of something you didn’t want to do in the first place. If you didn’t want to be a creative director, progressing up that ladder wouldn’t feel like a promotion, it would feel like punishment. You would just be going deeper into the wrong career.
The third option is definitely the most depressing but it’s also the most popular. That’s why in a 2013 Gallup survey, 70 percent of Americans said they hated their jobs or felt disengaged. As a culture we’ve collectively bought into the lie that work has to be miserable. Dilbert books didn’t sell millions of copies because people are happy at work. We eat at TGI Fridays not TGI Mondays. We live for the weekends because we’ve accepted that the weekdays are where dreams go to die. Poke your head up if you’re reading this book at work. Seven of the ten people you can see hate being there. No one wants to stay at a job they don’t like.
What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if having the job we wanted to have was about being the person we needed to be first? What if it wasn’t about trying to avoid career transitions but instead embracing them? Because they are coming, for all of us. Every one of us will experience a Career Jump, a Career Bump, Career Ceiling or Career Opportunity.
Excerpted from Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jon Acuff, 2015.
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