Getting A Promotion Could Actually Wreck Your Career Goals

by Christian Bonilla
20th Century Fox

A quarter-life crisis is an unpleasant thing. It strikes when people in their late 20s come to the realization that life and work aren't what they hoped for, and they don't know how to fix the situation.

Numerous surveys have come to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority of people aren't engaged in their work. There are lots of contributors to the depressing statistics, but getting promoted is probably one of the least recognized.

For some people, getting promoted can be worse in the long-term than getting laid off.

Success can become the enemy in your career if chasing promotions clouds your other career goals. Earning promotions and getting ahead absorbs so much time that it's difficult to keep options open while you're uncertain about your life goals.

The prospect of recognition and promotions may motivate you to work hard and develop skills, but it can also distort your vision. This is especially true for those who crave tangible progress and need to feel like they're winning at their jobs.

Unfortunately, that describes many of us in our early 20s. It's one of the ways in which school shapes our personal reward systems. Success is addictive, and addictions skew judgment.

Here's how success can trap unsuspecting young professionals: Advancing in your job requires you to build industry and company-specific skills. That alone absorbs most of your productive hours.

On top of that, you accumulate valuable institutional knowledge that makes it harder to walk away from your profession over time. Starting over is daunting, and your company will often entice you to stay to prevent the loss of that knowledge.

If you know you're in the career you want for the long haul, that's great. But most of us fall closer to the middle of the uncertainty spectrum. Without a clear direction, it's easy for you to only master the skills you need today and not ask what skills will get you closer to their career goals.

How The Promotion Snowball Sneaks Up On You

Let's say you're hired right out of college into the marketing department for a marquee brand. You wanted the job because it blended business with a creative side, and soon you're running focus groups, pitching new ideas and learning lots along the way.

Then, you find out your manager has a problem. The team needs a “data person,” and you see an opportunity to become an authority. So you read a book and watch some online tutorials, and in a month, you've learned just enough of the basics to get the job done for her.

It's fun to solve new puzzles, and you're being recognized for your contributions, which feels great.

A few months go by, and now you're officially the team's data person. You take a class to polish your fundamentals, and after a while, you have real chops.

Your manager recommends you for a position in which you'd be doing more of this; everyone thinks you're a perfect fit. It's not what you originally wanted to do, but now you can afford to replace some of that Ikea furniture and maybe even take a vacation.

For the first year or two of your career, you were so focused on doing well and getting that first promotion that you barely considered what comes after. It soon becomes clear that after you hit one milestone, new ones immediately take its place.

The difference now is, you have more things pulling on your time and even more to learn just to do your job. Before, you were exceeding expectations. Now, it's just part of the job.

But you're also learning more about how the system works: how budgets are allocated, how hiring decisions are made and how to build your influence. Understanding the game better makes you more comfortable.

Soon, you're wondering how much your raise will be at your next promotion.

The Hangover

Whether this scene is a triumph or a tragedy depends on what you want. If you love your new work, great. If not, you may have let a promotion make a bad decision for you.

If the gap between the skills you have and the ones needed for the career you really want gets too big, all of your options have significant drawbacks:

  • Stay on the path you've accidentally chosen, and watch other people ascend through the career you wanted (depressing).
  • Go back to school full-time to re-tool your skill set to make a career change (expensive).
  • Try to re-tool your skills on your own while staying in your current role (hard).

The moral of the story is to not let near-term success distract you from what you really want out of your career. You can aim for promotions without selling your soul by keeping a few principles in mind:

1. Say no: Don't let yourself be pigeonholed by skills you acquired solely as a means of building your advocate network and elevating your profile.

2. Be proactive: When you learn things opportunistically to pitch in on something, parlay that goodwill into opportunities that interest you, not more of the same stuff.

3. Learn broadly: Don't slow down your broader education until you're sure that the career path you're on is the one you want.

There are unfortunately lots of reasons why you might not be in the job you want, but forfeiting control over your career choices should not be one of them.

This article was originally published on the author's personal blog.