Do the laws of nature apply to our careers?

By Christian Nielsen

Just as people reach the very heights of their chosen careers, their job satisfaction begins  to dip. Is this an inevitable law of physics?

Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen
Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Tuesday 29 September 2015

The unwritten law of a stellar career is that you hard when you're young, establish a good reputation and reap the rewards as you climb the ladder. But what happens when the view from high up the ladder starts to get a bit blurry?

At some stage after about 50, a strange phenomenon begins to take hold. Reading goes from being an enjoyable cerebral exercise to an upper body workout as well, as you pump the book in and out to find what seems to be an ever-changing range where the words become clear.

Standing up, once done with ease, becomes a two-step manoeuvre; first you raise yourself, then you wait a second to stop the spinning (that could be a sign to go to the cardiologist as well). And the once simple task of cleaning a gutter becomes a daredevil act as vertigo sets in (something to do with the inner ear, among other things).

Could it be that a career also follows the laws of nature, or mechanical motion?  As you achieve what you set out to do early in your career, the highs and the exhilaration of ‘new' challenges drop off – unless you've been job-hopping for decades or qualify as some kind of workplace adrenaline junkie and always push for the latest, toughest assignments.

Speaking to people who have reached their career Everest – or K2-equivalent – reveals a hidden tyranny of success. The higher they climbed, the further they moved away from what they loved doing the most; the things that drew them to the job in the first place and, no doubt, propelled them on the path to career success.

One medical scientist I spoke to said in the final years of his career – before retiring from a position as head of department – he spent more time dealing with holiday rosters and refereeing staff tiffs than he did looking through his beloved microscope. The rest of the time he dedicated to grant proposals and speaking at conferences. Neither of which were terrible but these tasks didn't light the same fire in the belly as a discovery in the lab.

A French-speaking engineer I once helped to improve his English presentation skills – after his company was taken over by an American one – once confided that he still yearned for the days when he managed the factory floor. His intimate understanding of the production processes, combined with people skills and aptitude for figures, made him an ideal upper- in . He took every promotion he was offered and valued the challenge of leadership roles. But – and this is a big ‘but' that comes later in a career – deep down it wasn't really what he loved doing.

For some , or perhaps the people in them, the true height of their career may not be the wrung in the ladder that delivers the best views. Of course, the decision to take promotions is theirs, and they have to own that. But the irony – wrapped inside an enigma – is that the majority of people only discover this ‘viewpoint' after climbing to a dizzy height.

But there is another law of nature that everyone knows; what goes up must come down. So, whether by choice (step down), failure to continue performing (demoted or sacked) or simply holding on tight (pension time), there is at least one certainty in every career.


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