At the start of every new year, we’re inundated with advice about how to plan your professional development for the next 12 months or tackle major goals you’ve been putting off. But what if that’s really not where you are this year?
Increasingly, I’ve been hearing from a number of my clients about their desire to scale back their professional ambitions, at least for now. Indeed, a recent Gallup report showed that stress among workers has reached an all-time high and only a third of workers are “thriving in their well-being.” With the stress of the pandemic and the adjustments we’ve all had to make professionally, it’s no surprise that something has to give.
But the desire to downshift is often accompanied with feelings of ambivalence or even shame. After all, despite the fact that so many professionals have experienced a sense of malaise over the past few years, the success narrative of corporate life still only has one storyline: Work hard to get promoted, land more clients, get better known, and rise in the hierarchy.
As a result, wanting a less frenetic pace at work, and perhaps to take on fewer clients and responsibilities, can feel professionally dangerous. Colleagues and clients have expressed concerns that downshifting, even for a year or two, might lead to their becoming irrelevant or forgotten by clients. And emotionally, the idea of stepping back may feel like a betrayal of their past selves, who had worked so hard to build up the steady stream of referrals and new business that they’re now rebuffing.
Their concerns are reasonable — research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett on women attempting to re-enter the workforce after taking time off for children showcased the surprising level of difficulty they encountered, even if the gap was brief and their previous credentials accomplished. It’s not impossible to imagine that any professional — male or female — might experience a similar challenge re-engaging with work after a sabbatical, or perhaps even a period of working less intensely.
But despite the possible professional risks, if you’re feeling burned out or overstretched, it’s important to recognize when you’ve hit (or are about to hit) a wall. Here are three strategies you can use to make peace with your desire to scale back your ambitions, even if it conflicts with your previous vision of yourself as a driven professional.
Think in waves.
As I describe in my book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, professionals — for understandable reasons — tend to keep doubling down on the strategies that have been effective for them at work. (If you enjoy networking, for instance, you’ll likely keep doing it.) That’s not a bad strategy in general, but it becomes a liability if you fail to recognize moments when you should shift your behavior. (Networking is wonderful, but the marginal value of making a new connection is low when your performance evaluations are suffering due to, say, a lack of emphasis on your public speaking skills.)
The secret, then, is understanding how to “think in waves” and recognize when it’s time to focus on another strategy. This applies within the professional realm (for example, reallocating your time from networking mixers to public speaking classes) and also beyond it. For many professionals, it may be time, after years or decades of grinding hard at work, to reallocate energy toward your health, if that’s been on the backburner, or a struggling child, as one of my clients is now doing, or outside interests.
Recognize there’s not a universal timeline.
By now, we all know the dangers of the “comparison trap,” in which we track our progress — and sometimes drive ourselves to distraction — by lining ourselves up against peers and colleagues. The behavior can be useful at times, allowing us to envision new possibilities for ourselves and spur us to healthy competition. But more often, it can spark self-recrimination. Why haven’t I made partner when Rob already has? Why can’t I land a seven-figure client like Donna did, or publish a book like Marco did last year? What’s wrong with me?
The admonition that “we’re all running our own race” may sound glib — but it’s true. On a recent call with a colleague, she was disheartened that various business projects weren’t advancing as fast as she’d like. Meanwhile, her best friend — and business partner — had unexpectedly died just a few months before. Another client was ready to take action on a suite of professional goals when a natural disaster hit her community. She immersed herself nearly full-time in relief efforts, but felt nervous about the impact on her business.
It’s understandable to want to follow through on the goals we’ve set previously, especially when it seems like everyone else we know is getting there faster. But we have to give ourselves grace and recognize that almost everyone’s timeline will get derailed at some point — we just don’t know when, or in what particular fashion.
Taking time to downshift now, if you need it, may feel like a step back — but it may give you the energy and clarity you need to move forward more quickly and effectively in the future. In fact, because so many people are re-evaluating priorities and expectations post-pandemic, this may be the perfect time to recharge, because fewer people will be “outpacing” you on the traditional career track than at other historical moments, so stepping off the treadmill may feel less stressful to you as a result.
Understand the conditions for growth.
Success often feels like a volume game: More time making connections, putting out proposals, and grinding at the office will lead to success. But sometimes — especially if you’ve already run yourself ragged and your ability to deliver in the traditional ways is compromised — what you need isn’t more. What you need is different.
Nearly a decade ago, I took a month off work (and wrote about the process for HBR). Taking an extended break (and being relatively “off the grid”) did entail sacrifices. Still in the early days of my business, I was enormously stressed out about the economic implications of not working, because I hadn’t yet built up any sources of passive income. And being out of touch meant I’d have to forfeit what was at the time significant revenue from clients with whom I was on a monthly retainer.
But a decade later, the money seems negligible in retrospect, and the memory of spending a month traveling around India is worth far more to me. And even in the short term, I discovered an unexpected benefit. Just days after returning, I wrote an article — about five things you should stop doing at work — that arose directly from the self-reflection the trip prompted about how I wanted to conduct my life. It became an unexpected success, and, despite being published in mid-December, one of the most popular articles of the year.
Allowing yourself different inputs, whether it’s a month-long trip abroad, or a year of stepping back from grind mentality and focusing on other areas of your life and well-being, leads to different outputs. While you may “fall short” on certain metrics you’re used to grading yourself on, you may also find inspiration in new areas or distill new ideas that could become meaningful to you and others in the future.
You’re used to thinking of yourself as a high-achieving professional, and it may feel discomfiting to have that identity brought into question through your own desires and actions. But downshifting your ambitions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re throwing away your past or becoming a slacker. It may actually mean that you’ve finally recognized what it takes for achievement and ambition to be sustainable.
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