The trap of careerism.

I came across a new word the other day while reading about American actress, Renee Zellweger. She was always someone I admired — her early Bridget Jones renditions were impeccable — but she seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. I watched her win the Oscar for Best Actress and became curious about where she’d been hiding. Thanks to the fine folks at Vulture and HuffPost, I stumbled on her relatable story, referencing a conscious choice to break away from the acting business in order to rediscover herself. Turns out that even hugely successful peeps can also wrestle with identity issues and depression. The article spoke of Careerism and though I got the gist of what it meant, I hit up google for more.

Two definitions jumped out at me. Wiktionary defines Careerism as: the overwhelming desire or urge to advance one’s own career or social status, usually at the expense of other personal interests or social growth. While, dictionary.com explains it as devotion to a successful career, often at the expense of one’s personal life, ethics, etc. 

Hmmmmn. It got me thinking — why are many of us so driven? What’s the point here, guys? Yes, the point is we seek fulfillment, and, we need money. Right? We compete with the masses for our own unique expression of self-actualization, which often comes in the form of a career.  And, we target the highest potential income along the way. Because, quite frankly, we deserve it.

We push. Climb. And achieve.

Yet for some, satisfaction is short-lived, so we continually chase more. I know from personal experience.  I felt inspired to dig into the subject but want to acknowledge there are many happy, gratified people who would probably tear this discussion to shreds. For some, their career is everything they hoped it would be. They have a healthy balance in life. For others, it’s intertwined with their identity, and that brings them joy. And then there are those who openly admit to feelings of emptiness and “what’s-the-point-ness”, (and perhaps a subgroup of folks who suppress these emotions). I think I’ve been in all of these categories! 

I’ve climbed two versions of corporate ladder in my life, nose-down, grinding away. The first, as an employee: my budding career in the world of Performing Arts fundraising. I had everything to prove and nothing but energy. Ever the pleaser (and also just legit eager to see what I was capable of), I poured myself into the job and quickly made a name for myself as an accomplished doer. Sam Wrenshall got shit done! I moved up through the hierarchy of titles and the infamous “salary grid” and found myself making more than $60,000 in my mid twenties. In the late ’90s, that was a lot of dough for a young person! Never mind the fact that it was the arts — reputably under paid. It came at a price, however: an expectation of increasing results. Every year, they moved the damned cheese on me. Instead of having to raise $500,000, it was $750,000 then $1M. And that went up, too. The presumption of meeting these lofty goals resulted in me literally cracking. At 26 (and just two years in), I burnt out. Couldn’t even string a sentence together. During my three-month leave, I learned a valuable albeit cynical lesson. We’re all replaceable. And, nothing changes. The workload is still there, right alongside its faithful companion: pressure

At the time, I remember feeling so let down. This vision of happy-go-lucky Career Girl felt like a crock. I was far too young to be jaded, but I was.

Like most difficult times, however, the breakdown revealed some powerful gifts. Most notably, newfound self-awareness, and the promise to create healthier boundaries given my workaholic tendencies.  

After 6 years, I left that world and joined another — that of self-employment. I confess I was switched on by the opportunity to control my time and walk in the field of “unlimited potential income.” (Who doesn’t want that?!) Turns out these carrots were not lies, though they came with some fine print I didn’t pay any initial attention to. (1) You will work your ass off for the first five years, if you want to survive in this business, no ifs, ands, or buts; this includes evenings and weekends, no excuses and (2) The income you make is directly related to your own talents and effort. Nobody is going to hand it to you. Cue the roller coaster!  

I loved both careers for varying reasons, but the latter especially. It taught me a myriad of lessons, introduced me to clients who’ve become some of my closest friends and colleagues I’d walk to the end of the earth for. But most impactful, it showed me ongoing perspective. There’s always someone worse off, we really have zero to complain about. And, nothing like delivering a big cheque to a grieving, young widow to remind you that tomorrow is promised to nobody! Yes, I know I say this ALLLLL the time, it’s kind of my credo in life. I also really dug working alongside my Dad over the years. What a blessing that’s been. 

Yet Careerism for me was most definitely a THING. Once again, I had something to prove. Uprooting my family and taking on the role as main breadwinner meant there was a great deal on the line. I poured myself into the work with feverish commitment. Then there was the internal daughter/father pressure I felt. Never from him, more from myself — that desire to make him proud. It wore on me over the years; and even as I became more successful and recognized in the industry it never felt legitimate. I always found myself looking over my shoulder, not quite certain if I’d be “found out.” 

Along the way, I didn’t burn out, but the fragile layers of my spirit slowly eroded inside. It was so insidious, I almost didn’t notice. In 2010, around the time my kids were 7 and 2, I bumped into my first identity crisis. I was 36 years old and feared that I didn’t know myself. Like, my true self. Hiding underneath the labels I had woven into my life (Mom, Wife, Business Partner/Owner), I felt an emptiness that scared the beJesus out of me. I became convinced that the answers lie in trying to achieve greater success. 

I tried this out for awhile, and each time I met a new goal, I did not reach a new level of happiness. I’ve spoken about this before. Sure, the initial “Oh wow, I did that!” felt pretty cool.

But I knew this was all ego, and thus, fleeting.

So, what’s the deal? It’s this: I’ve been on a deliberate mission to rediscover myself on a gradual basis over the last decade. What makes me tick? What makes me happy? What are my interests? At one point, I was certain I had none, unless you count drinking wine, and that isn’t something I’m excited about admitting! 

I began to throw myself into extreme situations of discomfort wondering if any would resonate. Many did. I found myself drawn to adrenaline-filled expeditions, connecting with people from other cultures and learning to drop the facade of who I thought I should be. I was attracted to countries where the people had very little in the way of material/status possessions but appeared happy and content nonetheless. Places like Nepal, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia all spoke to me at my core.   

But unlike Renee, I never retreated from “public life” and, in fact, I’ve been quite open with my weird self-exploration over the years. Hindsight sure is a great teacher, though. Looking back, I can see that losing myself in a career of any kind was ultimately going to break me. Even if I wanted it, and I wanted it badly. Success, recognition, continual career growth. I wanted it all! I’m supposed to be this tireless Capricorn… the “hard worker” in the family. Now? I’m entering a period where I want to play. I’m refusing to forget who I am at my core. I hope to encourage others to do the same. 

To be clear, I see nothing wrong with having a career, or creating a business that becomes the pinnacle of our self-expression and in a way we can best serve others. Hey man, that’s what I’m after, too! I genuinely believe we are at our very best when we are in service. However, a career can also be a mask… a clever way for you to avoid looking under the hood to better understand yourself. Or, it can be a trap, keeping you in a quasi alive-but-dead state. Is it time for you to wake up? Are you all good there?

For those who wish NOT to be disturbed in their current career paths, or their quest for more, I salute you and wish you well on your journey. Ambition is a value of mine. I just know that for me, Careerism ensnared me over time, but only now do I have a name for it. 

Back to that Renee article. She went on to say how she needed to not have something to do all the time. She wanted to allow space in her life for some accidents. “There had to be some quiet for the ideas to slip in.” I totally get that. I also loved the analogy she shared from her friend, actress Salma Hayek.

“She shared this beautiful… metaphor? ‘The rose doesn’t bloom all year … unless it’s plastic.’ I got it. Because what does that mean? It means that you have to fake that you’re ok to go and do this next thing. And you probably need to stop right now, but this creative opportunity is so exciting and it’s once-in-a-lifetime and you will regret not doing it. But actually, no, you should collect yourself and, you know … rest.”

So, maybe it’s time for all you tired-out career folk to rest up?

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