career regression, work life balance, purpose

3 strategies to keep your sanity when going up, down and off the ladder

For many, the new year is a time to re-evaluate career options, explore new paths or restart job searches postponed for the holidays. 

Enthusiastically, you may started your career search hoping to find exciting, well paid opportunities with clear growth.  For some this may happen.  They may successfully secure a job that meets their expectations.  Perhaps it is the result of working in a high demand field, a growing market, or simply, that they find themselves at the right place at the right time.

Some job seekers may encounter the opposite. Their options are not what they expected or wanted. Or they are left with only one option – having to take a step backward! That is, taking a job that pays less money with less responsibility or prestige than previously held jobs.

When you find yourself in this position,
it might be hard to see a way forward.

Many of us have been with faced with this option. And if we go this route, it can negatively impact our pride and leave us feeling dis-empowered. But our pride may only be a superficial consideration, as going backward also has deeper reaching consequences. Going backward may also challenge our mental well-being, as taking less-than-challenging roles may cut to the core of how we see ourselves and our sense of achievement and purpose.

So how do we consciously
move forward  when going backward
is our only option?

And, where did the notion of going anywhere come from anyway?

Dreams and Ladders

Let’s talk a moment about what it means to make conscious decisions. When we make a conscious decision we are aware of our reasons for making that decision and, among others things, we are aware of external influences and potential outcomes. In other words, we make decisions with our proverbial ‘eyes wide open.’

To make conscious career choices, it means we are aware of the influences affecting our ability to make decisions about our careers.  For many Generation Xer’s like me, this means that we must first wake up from the ‘dream’ they sold us.

The ‘American dream’ promoted the idea of never-ending economic growth, fueled by the rise of the middle class consumer. It had an inherent expectation of continued growth, which translated into workers having a one-way career progression up an imaginary ‘ladder.’

In the US, the dream simplistically went like this: graduate high school, go to college, find a job, get married, find another job – this time – on the ladder, have kids, buy a starter home, move up the ladder, buy an SUV, trade in the starter home for a McMansion, build a sizable nest egg for retirement, pay for your children to go to college, retire after reaching the top of the ladder, play golf, travel, babysit the grandchildren and host large family gatherings for Christmas – where everyone is happy and sharing in their versions of the dream.

The problem with this dream, it never mentioned downsizing, offshoring, recessions, foreclosures, redundancies, shrinking salaries, nor the idea of career regression.

Maybe there is another name for that dream…

My experiences with the ladder

What I have done for a living has always meant more to me than a vehicle to get the things I needed.  It has represented an opportunity to learn and develop as a person. Therefore, I’ve kept an open mind about trying new jobs. During high school I worked as a housekeeper at a hospital, the summer before college, I worked as machinist at a plastics factory (crossing shifts with my mother and grandmother), and finished college as a secretary in a non-profit research organization.

After graduating from college and staying home with my daughter, I easily got on the ladder at a Fortune 100 company by providing IT support. Over ten years, I moved up the ladder by developing global IT systems. Then, I did what others thought was a bit crazy at the time, I jumped off the ladder to start my own business. Many years later, I was shoved back on the ladder by my family and became a business advisor. A few years later, I was thrown off the ladder when I was laid off for the first time and was unemployed for two years.

While I’d never prioritized ladder climbing as one of my life’s goals, I had been fortunate that, for most of my 30 working years, I had generally gone up the ladder.

That is until recently.

For the first time, I have slid down the ladder – and fast!  So fast that it’s left burn marks on my hands – which admittedly has caused a bit of sting!

This is what is referred to as a ‘career regression.’

Today in my mid-40s, I find myself not where I expected to be at this age, i.e. near the top of the ladder with a sizable nest egg. But instead, find myself below where I started, with only one foot on the first rung carrying a sizable parent student loan.

I know that I am not alone.

Few expect to be off the ladder

In my experience, few people expect to be off the ladder. And if they do get off, they do not expect that it will be so difficult to get back on it. After I jumped off the ladder, former co-workers shared their struggles with me to maintain gainful employment. Many weaved in out of consulting until they were able to secure a foot squarely back on a rung. Women friends shared their experiences of jumping on and off the ladder to raise children or to take care of loved ones. As a business advisor, I helped those who had been laid off during the recession to explore business ownership. From teachers to scientists, I learned that most went to college to become ‘something’ and that ‘something’ did not include becoming a struggling business owner.

Whether to cheer up a friend, or to help me with my own feelings of worth and financial well-being, I have sought ways to think about my situation differently – to reframe my views through the stories I tell myself.  Reframing is looking at a situation from a different perspective. It has helped me to find strength and power from within myself, reinforcing the idea that, no matter what happens, I will be okay.

Here are my top 3 stories that I’ve created to reframe my situation while moving up, down and off the ladder. As always, take what works for you, leave what doesn’t.


1. Remind yourself that your job does not define who you are.

What we do in life to support our financial needs does not define who we are as people. There truly is much more to life outside our jobs – often, so much more than we are able to see, particularly when we are working. Our jobs can literally take over our lives especially if we are unhappy with our jobs or feel anger or resentment because they do fully utilize our education, skills or pay what we believe we are worth.

Over time, we may begin to lose confidence in ourselves and in our abilities. This negative thinking can spread to other parts of our life, easily limiting who we are as people and our enjoyment in life itself.

I like how Rena DeLevie said it in her blog “You are more than your job”

Who we are,
who we want to be in this world,
is what it’s about.

This may sound obvious,
but it’s the first thing we forget when things get hairy.

She suggests that we remind ourselves each day that we are more than our jobs, that ‘this feeling fuels you to do good work and help others and create something bigger’ for ourselves. By reminding ourselves of this each day, it may help to ‘find meaning and freedom you never thought possible.’

2. Take pride in your work

When we are feeling angry, embarrassed, resentful, or ashamed about our jobs, it is easy for our pride to be hurt. When our pride is hurt, we may not take pride in the work we do. As a consequence, we become uncooperative and difficult with co-workers or limit how much we give to our employers. It is easy to think “this is more than I’m getting paid to do” or this is “more than my job’s worth” so I’m not going to do this task as best I could.

Here’s the thing, if we allow ourselves to be defined by our job, and we do a crappy work, then what does that say about how we ultimately feel about ourselves?

What I’m suggesting is that we take pride in the output of our work, and not, as is often the case, in our job title, position, pay, or in other people’s opinions about those things. This is definitely going against the norm. Social norms encourage us to think hierarchical. This hierarchical thinking ignorantly misplaces our pride on where we are positioned, or on our pay, or the praise we receive from others in the hierarchy.

To break free from this dynamic, I remind myself to be proud of what I’ve achieved or how well I have completed a task – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant that task.

I first learned how to change the way I viewed my job (reframe) while working as a housekeeper at a large hospital. It was easy to feel sorry for myself when my friends were out having fun and I was cleaning toilets and mopping floors every night after high school for minimum wage (at that time only $3.50 per hour). However, I realized that if I did a great job cleaning, then I felt better about myself. I took pride in what I had accomplished. I told myself that it was my choice to be there and I probably wouldn’t feel sorry for myself if I were not the housekeeper, but instead if I were the doctor cleaning my office myself.

I realized then,
how I felt about my work was
all a matter of perspective
my perspective.

3. Focus on your spot

The idea of having a ‘job for life’ is a relic of bygone days. Today it is frequent to be searching for a new job every 3-5 years. With shorten employment cycles and increased social media pressures to be ‘in,’ we never really stop searching! This endless search for the next opportunity can easily take over our lives, and make us feel like we’re spinning in circles.

A technique dancers use to keep from falling over or becoming dizzy when turning quickly is creating a mark on the wall and focusing on the mark each time they complete a turn. This technique is called ‘spotting.’ Spotting helps the dancer maintain control and balance.

 Like spotting, if we keep our focus on those things that bring us joy outside of our jobs, they can help us feel a sense of control and maintain our balance. A spot can be anything that shifts our focus away from our jobs to things that feed us as people. This can be retraining for a new career, delving into passion, learning a new hobby, or playing a sport. Like a good dancer, we too must have resolve and determination to find and never lose sight of our spots.

 There may be times in our lives that our jobs mean more to us than just a source of income and can also serve as our spot.

But when it does not,
it may be helpful to remind yourself that
our jobs may feed our belly,
but our spot will feed our soul…