The difficult decision of choosing the right path for professional and personal success
During our careers, some of us will encounter transformative crossroads. Diverse paths will subtly emerge before us, presenting various possibilities that force us to introspectively question who we are and where we see our future selves. Certain decisions will offer a sense of confidence and security, some will challenge our values and motivations, and others will present a high degree of autonomy and uncertainty.
Many people make career decisions based on how it affects their wealth, prestige, goodwill, and security. For others, such as myself, the ability to exercise authenticity is a career necessity — I firmly believe my actions must align with my values, both in and out of work.
As a professional designer, I’ve always had to balance two distinct worlds. On the one hand, designers are responsible for creating positive and valuable experiences for the people using the products and services we design. And on the other hand, we must consider business needs, such as overhead costs, profitability, and market share. But what happens when these worlds contradict each other, and we must decide between personal values and career ambitions?
Below are three distinct career paths professionals will encounter that challenge our beliefs. How we react to each turning point can say much about who we are and what’s most important to us.
After years, sometimes decades, many professionals will reach a level of mastery in their domain. Remaining in this leadership zone is a reasonable career strategy. Here, we can retain who we are and exploit all we know in the comfort of our intellect, experience, and values.
This position is safe and familiar, but most importantly, we can maintain a degree of authenticity. Being masters of our domain, we stand by our principles. We become the defender of our nuanced ideology, invariably placing our beliefs and knowledge before any career advancement that would challenge our code of conduct.
However, there is a downside to standing by one’s values too firmly. Sometimes, the company or institution we work within requires actions and behaviors from us that do not align with our core principles. And often, these actions are essential to take our career to the next level.
In such cases, our immutable personal values become barriers preventing us from advancing. This internal struggle can be complicated and frustrating —as we willingly sacrifice career progress to preserve our principles.
While questionable values can be an obstacle for some people, others may have ethics that perfectly align with their career goals. For example, an aggressive earnings-driven individual has a clear advantage in a business culture that values profit and growth as opposed to someone who is an empathetic problem-solver. Sometimes the greatest peril to our career advancement is the thing that makes us who we are.
The second path can be difficult for those who know who they are and what they stand for, especially when authenticity is a tenet of our identity. For example, we may need to place quantity before quality or focus on profit instead of people if such values are required to advance in a particular job environment. For certain people, this is a no-brainer if it means a fatter paycheck or more influence and power.
But it’s not just our principles at stake — we may need to alter our persona to advance ourselves. For instance, professional success may rely upon our ability to be highly aggressive and proactive when our natural temperament is quiet and reflective. In such scenarios, being who we are is not an option if we want to progress.
One of the greatest threats to maintaining authenticity in our careers is fear. People would instead perform actions that misalign with their values or act differently out of fear of losing a promotion or not receiving the respect they deserve.
Finally, we have the third path. This route is where people can be their most authentic selves. I’m referring to creating your own business or being self-employed.
Success and failure are equally probable outcomes on this unique path. This unpredictability is due to the challenging process of carving a path instead of following one. However, failure here can be less discouraging since we are in control of our destiny while remaining true to our beliefs.
I often joke about leaving my job to build birdhouses I can sell from my driveway. I don’t particularly like birdhouses, but the idea of using scrap wood and hand tools in the solitude of my garage to craft something I’m proud of has an appeal that aligns nicely with my disposition. Unfortunately, I’d have to charge several hundred dollars for each birdhouse to afford my mortgage.
Some careers and jobs fit nicely with who we are and our beliefs. But if we can not find a business or company that fits our needs, we can always make our own. It may not be a birdhouse business, but it can still be something you’re proud of and enjoy doing.
Of course, someone can temporarily circumvent these paths by changing jobs, hoping the next place has values that match yours. But most people will eventually end up at the same crossroads. From my experience, the higher up in a company you go, the more you must assimilate to their values to advance or stagnate as you hold on to yours.
Cynicism aside, companies do exist with values that align nicely with each type of individual—finding that company is the tricky part. Unfortunately, the only way to discover if a company or job is the right fit is by working there and being highly aware of our values.
For those who do not recognize or use their core values to navigate the world, it can be a straightforward process to advance in a career — lacking stable values provides a high degree of job flexibility. Certain people can even be considered ethical chameleons with their ability to adapt their beliefs to suit the needs of their careers.
When it comes to those who value authenticity, it can be distressing to decide if we should remain in our comfort zone, modify our principles, or risk everything to pursue success on our own to preserve our authenticity and individuality.
Each path has its benefits and drawbacks. What we decide to do at that career crossroad depends on many individualistic factors. I do not believe anyone can tell us which path to choose. We must look deep within ourselves and ask what is truly important to us.
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