Don’t let HR determine your career ambition
Breaking free of your company's incentive system
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“I’m done with it. Done with the office politics. Done staying up past midnight responding to Slack. This wasn’t what I envisioned for my career.”
Alice (not her real name) had reached out to get career advice. Over Zoom, she shared that after five years in product management at various big tech companies. she was ready to make a change. Alice was ready to leave product management behind to become a writer.
“That’s great,” I said. “How soon do you want to transition?”
“Well,” she answered, “I’m up for a promotion to L3 (level 3) in a few months, so I want to wait for that.”
When I asked why she cared about getting the promotion, she told me that her company had originally mis-leveled her. She’d seen peers with less experience join as L3s and didn’t think it was fair. After making a case to HR for the past six months, she finally had the chance to move up.
“You do realize that your future readers won’t care whether you’re an L2 or L3?” While she admitted I was right, she was resolved to land the promotion.
Perhaps this desire will only cost Alice a few months of independence. Maybe once she gets the promotion she’ll give her two weeks notice. But something tells me that’s not how it will play out.
Once Alice achieves the new level she’ll feel obligated to stay for a few months as a show of good faith to her manager. By then, it would be silly not to hold out a bit longer to get her mid-year bonus. She could leave then, but she’d miss out on another leveling opportunity. Meanwhile, months tick by as her book remains unwritten.
It’s easy for any of us to succumb to these incentives because they were designed to override our career ambitions. Once a company hits a certain number of employees, turnover becomes expensive. Even losing a single employee can cost a company 1.5-2X annual salary.
To retain talent, HR departments create complicated frameworks of titles, levels, and pay bands that are designed to give employees a reason to stay and continue striving. A bonus after the new year. A promotion opportunity in the fall. Another carrot, just as long as you stick around for a few more months.
The people who are most susceptible to these reward systems tend to be those who excelled in school. These star students enter the messy world of adulthood and yearn for a clear rubric they can follow to achieve some socially acceptable form of success. When HR comes up with a fancy compensation framework, they’re all too easily seduced to compete for the valedictorian spot.
The problem is, once you buy into your company’s leveling system you start to see yourself through its lens. While your parents may be impressed that you’re a big tech PM, you can’t stand the idea that you’re only an L2. This arbitrary level determines how peers see you and how you see yourself. It fills you with the drive to move up in your company, overriding your other career goals. This is how you can end up spending a decade climbing your company’s ladder instead of lifting your head up to search for a nearby elevator.
Changing the game
If you find yourself consumed by a counter-productive system of incentives, here are things you can do to change your psychology:
See the game for what it is – the first step of breaking free is clearly seeing your company’s incentive system. As you examine it, you’ll notice ways that it wasn’t designed with your best interests in mind. More likely it was created by consultants to help your company save money on turnover.
Switch your social setting – If you work remotely, it’s easier than ever to immerse yourself in a new social setting. Curious about writing a book? Join an online community where other writers hang out. Want to start a business? Spend time in online spaces with other entrepreneurs. Changing your environment will expose you to new desires that will replace the pull of your company’s incentive plan.
Find new role models – They say you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Using podcasts and YouTube videos you have many more options for who those five people can be. By selecting the right role models, you’ll spend less time comparing yourself with colleagues at work, and more time becoming like people who you actually want to emulate.
Build a career elevator – Rather than spending your energy reaching the next rung of your company’s ladder, start thinking about how to build your own career elevator. This could involve apprenticing for one of your role models, starting a podcast, or building a business. The important thing is that you have much more control over how quickly you rise.
My intention is not to convince you to leave your company to “go independent.” There are plenty of great reasons to work for big companies including benefits, the opportunity for impact, and camaraderie with co-workers. What matters is whether your career choices are being motivated by real desires or manufactured status games.
Author Luke Burgis differentiates these types of motivations as thick and thin desires:
There are two kinds of desires, thin and thick.
Thick desires are like layers of rock that have been built up throughout the course of our lives. These are desires that can be shaped and cultivated through models like our parents and people that we admire as children. But at some level, they’re related to the core of who we are. They can be related to perennial human truths: beauty, goodness, human dignity.
Thin desires are highly mimetic (imitative) and ephemeral desires. They’re the things that can be here today, gone tomorrow. Thin desires are subject to the winds of mimetic change, because they’re not rooted in a layer of ourselves that’s been built up over time.
If you are staying at your company because of the reward system that your HR department created, you are likely entertaining a thin desire. By seeing this system for what it is, you’ve already taken the first step toward playing a game that you actually desire to win.
Invisible College Update
For those who’ve been following along with Invisible College, we have an official date for the presale of our NFT collection – Thursday, February 17th!
To participate, all you need to do is:
Join our Discord
Fill out this form to register your Solana wallet address (the form includes details on how to create a Solana wallet)
For more details on the mint, check out this helpful mint guide we put together.
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Amazing way to put it. As a non-excelling in school person and currently trying to figure out the working world, I can see how this can happen for (used to be) outstanding students - many of whom are my peers :)