This is the third installment of the Career Path series. If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2, you may want to start there. The series is my attempt at sharing observations and mistakes I’ve made throughout my career which may be helpful for others on the same path.
I always thought the way to move up in your career was to be the best. And through that lens, I viewed any opportunities to show I was the best as a constant competition. There were others who wanted those same opportunities and I measured myself against them. I also assumed everyone around me saw professional development in the same way; we were all in competition with each other and whoever grew the most, won the game. If my workplace was a forest full of trees competing for resources, I needed to be the tallest one in it.
Part of my thinking was certainly my own creation but a lot of it also came from some of the environments I’ve worked in over the years. Even though many of us have figured out the best workers don’t necessarily make the best leaders, it can still feel good when the best workers get promoted because it signals to the entire group that hard work is valued and rewarded. And make no mistake, you do need to be good. You should work hard and you should pursue opportunities to train or become a trainer yourself, but you don’t have to be the best.
The spirit of competition is a fundamental component of capitalism and it’s baked into our society here in the US. I won’t argue that a competitive mindset is wholly a bad thing, especially in the private sector. But in corrections, we are all in the business of helping people change their lives together. Whenever someone is trying to develop a new program or lead a project in contribution to that goal, we should all want that person or the agency they represent to succeed. I failed to see the bigger picture and this last point for a long time, so as I look back, I think about how much more I could have done to help others be more successful.
When I suggest you should be your best, it’s meant to be measured internally, by ourselves, and not against others in similar positions. But I say this at the risk of suggesting good work is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve fallen into the trap of using my own definition of good when it wasn’t necessarily in line with my organization’s goals and I can tell you, that doesn’t lead to success. In fact, it can actually lead to a lot of resentment. So take a moment to think about the values of the department you work in. Does your definition of good align with your manager’s? If there is incongruence, ask yourself why. If you feel your leaders’ values should bend more toward your own, you’ll either need to build influential relationships with them or get promoted and become a leader yourself. Either way, your good is going to have to match their good or you won’t get the chance.
The biggest catalyst for change in this area of my life was being inspired to view the organization and the people in it differently. The spirit of competition may still be alive and well, but I didn’t need to be another tree, I needed to be the one tending to the trees. And when I figured that out, it made it easier to let go of things that didn’t matter and focus on the things that did. Instead of concerning myself with individual accolades and who received the credit, I focused on outcomes and the success of the teams I was on. The funny thing is, the more I did this, the more successful I felt.
It’s difficult not to look at promotions and specific professional development opportunities as a zero sum game. Opportunities can seem few and far between and in order for you to be selected, others have to be passed over. But there is never going to be just one opportunity in the span of a career. You may need to consider what lies beyond the walls of your office, or how to bundle your knowledge and experience into something different, but opportunities are out there, even when the path to them isn’t linear.
There will always be someone else with a better education, more experience, and sometimes just flat out more talent, but that person is not the competition. When you measure yourself against them, you may motivate yourself, but it can also lead to focusing on your shortcomings instead of your strengths and the success you could have, parallel to theirs. I’ve worked with some amazing individuals, but no one can be great in all things at all times. There is room for you and everyone else to be successful when you become the best version of yourself.