Debunking the ‘Career Utopia’ Myth

Vicki Wright Hamilton sitting in chair holding cash smiling
Like most people I know, I love a good movie – especially those that inspire. Some of my favorite films are about people finding their path to a career utopia. You know the stories. There’s Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire taking a leap of faith and landing in both career and romantic bliss; or Will Smith as Chris Gardner persevering through unimaginable obstacles to win THE job The Pursuit of Happiness. Even Anne Hathaway inspires me as Andrea Sachs, earning the respect of her unappeasable boss before learning to define success by her own standards in The Devil Wears Prada.

These are all differing career (and life) journeys, yet the one thing these films have in common is that they end with our hero walking off into the sunset having achieved career utopia. Then the curtain comes down. Yet life is not as simple as a Hollywood script. There is no sunset and closing music when we achieve a career goal. In life, we achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle, and then we are faced with the next one. This is what was happening with my mentee, Frances.

Francis had worked in corporate America for many years and achieved a modest level of success before realizing that she would be happier in the non-profit sector. She (like most of us) wanted to feel that her work was contributing to something bigger than herself; something that might help other people. So she accepted a role in a small, non-profit organization that paid considerably less in salary, but a bit more in good will. Frances may have been planning on career utopia, but after a few months she realized that some of the things she thought she was getting away from (workplace politics, long hours) were just as present in the non-profit world as they had been in the corporate environment. Still, she enjoyed knowing that her work was helping others in a tangible way, and she persisted. Then her son began to struggle in school. He was tested and found to have Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. Like many kids with AS, her son was very high functioning with an IQ higher than many adults, yet he had significant special needs that would have to be addressed. Now, she was dealing with finding solutions.

Frances took the time to look at her options and the programs offered to help her son. After a lot of research and looking, she found a great school not far from where she lives. There was only one problem….it was private and her non-profit salary would not be there to cover it. Frances is a dedicated parent and she knew she had to make some changes to help her son. As we spoke about the options, we began to discuss her career and current job. She was ready for a new challenge, but had been focusing more on the non-profit sector, since this was her most recent experience. Now, as we discussed the plan, she knew that she needed to focus more on career opportunities in the corporate arena for financial benefits it would bring.

Frances described some previous opportunities with large salaries that she had turned down, and when I asked her why, her explanation was that she didn’t want to be “owned” by the company because of a big salary. She was looking for more balance. As we discussed “ownership”, we discussed value and return on investment (ROI) from a company’s perspective. As you move up the corporate ladder and gain more responsibility (and more benefits) doesn’t that correlate to more “ownership” of you and your time? Isn’t this part of the struggle and discussion regarding work-life balance? Of course it is. This is why people struggle with the questions of ‘what is balance’ and ‘how do I find it?’ My belief is that there isn’t one definition of balance, just as there is no job “utopia”. Instead, I see each person having their own equation of career and personal satisfaction, and each equation has several variables. Salary is one part, job satisfaction another, hours in the office is another, travel for work another, even commute time fits into the equation.

I also don’t believe the equation is static. For example, until Frances learned about her son, her career equation was working for her. Now her circumstances had changed, and the equation that worked for her at one time no longer could meet her needs. As we looked at the types of jobs she would seek, Frances began to understand that while there is more flexibility in the non-profit sector, the corporate sector was more likely to deliver the salary she’d need. We even discussed working for herself, and realized that even your clients have expectations, creating a sense of “ownership” that comes from that side as well. Not to mention, you must deliver great customer satisfaction, so you can gain the next client.

So, we explored some options of how to find the best new equation from a corporate opportunity. What I advised her to try was to first “wow” the prospective hiring company and once they wanted her on the team, try to negotiate the best equation, possibly to include:

Working from home half of a day to a day a week
Working onsite for a 40 hour work week but adding hours from home after taking care of the family (such as logging into the network from 8-10)
Working late one day a week but keeping standard, 8-5 hours the rest of the week

After this discussion, Frances decided to pick up her career search on the corporate side. She also recognized that there will be some “ownership” from the company. But in the end, she is doing this to provide the best education for her son, who is her top priority in her career equation. Frances has given herself a year to find an opportunity and I am sure she will find a good one. So, there is no career utopia (in any business sector.) But if you can develop a career equation that helps you fulfill your personal goals, it will move you forward in your life’s journey, and that is better than any Hollywood ending.


You May Also Like…