Personal development is the most overlooked aspect of career development. The personal has to come first, but it often doesn’t because personal growth isn’t as linear as career growth. It’s hard to tell when we’re actually making progress as a person, and we like progress. We become accustomed to it from a very early age.
Most of us are placed on a structured path from pre-K to college. If you were like me growing up, you put your head down and got good grades and played sports and joined a club or two. Your life was fairly predictable, and you kept believing that if you worked hard and did what you were told, it would turn out pretty good.
And life was good! You got a diploma and maybe a GPA high enough for honors and a job waiting for you after graduation. Then you entered the real world and continued to view your career progression in the same linear fashion.
It wasn’t wrong of you to think like this. Many companies, especially the big ones, have a structured corporate ladder with more important-sounding titles the higher up you go to foster a sense of career advancement within the organization. You come in as an Associate, then become a Senior Associate after two years, then maybe a Manager after five years, a VP or Director after eight to ten years, and then Managing Director or Partner after you’ve proven you can bring in revenue for the firm.
The need to promote a linear sense of career growth is strong. A friend of mine that works at Apple told me that even Tim Cook introduced a ladder of “Manager” roles after he took over as CEO, appending it to the ladder of “Individual Contributor” roles that dominated during the days of his predecessor. Once you become an “IC4” (Individual Contributor 4), you have the choice to jump on the “M1” (Manager 1) ladder track and grow from there. Other companies promote or fire employees at specific intervals of their employment, suggesting a “grow or GTFO” approach to career advancement.
While corporate ladders and title bumps are often necessary to incentivize employees, the danger is that we cling to this manufactured career development as our only signal of growth through our adult years.
Comparing ourselves to our peers makes things worse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on someone’s LinkedIn page just to compare their career progression to mine and see whether I’m ahead of the curve or falling behind. But the problem with this professional comparison is that we just don’t know where someone is in their personal journey, and we ignore the point we’re at in ours.
Sure, success is obviously a signal that a person must be doing something right as a member of modern society, but we still don’t know what dark stuff they might be hiding or personal issues they might be dealing with. There’s no LinkedIn for someone’s personal progression.
And maybe therein lies the issue.
There’s no way to signal how advanced you are in your personal development because it’s unique to every person. You can standardize the corporate ladder, but you can’t standardize the “ladder” of being a human being. Sometimes we have to step down the career ladder to step up the personal ladder, and that’s okay.
These realizations often come during unexpected times, like they did for me.
After I left my big corporate job working at a hedge fund, I joined an early stage startup as the first full-time employee. One of the cofounders, who was also my boss, had an extremely aggressive personality. He wasn’t afraid of confrontation or challenging people on their decisions.
He was a type-A formidable founder—someone used to getting what he wanted, whatever the obstacle. I once heard a story that he was running late to catch a flight, and when the Uber pulled up, he managed to convince the Uber driver to let him drive the car. It was this type of resourcefulness and “get it done” attitude that he demanded from everyone who worked for him, and it’s also what made the job so incredibly stressful.
Stress is a great catalyst for revealing subconscious, unwanted things about yourself, things you never want to encounter at a time when you’re focusing on your career. But when the subconscious becomes conscious, you can choose either to confront it or not.
That time came for me when I had my first breakdown at work
I remember trying to meet an aggressive deadline for some 50-page legal document and thinking that I was in way over my head. I was working with a lawyer at the time and needed his comments back the same day. I remember feeling so much stress and pressure and fear of failure and it all mounting like water in a kettle that was ready to boil. The lawyer wasn’t picking up his phone, and I knew I wasn’t going to meet the deadline.
I was living with my parents at the time, so I sat down with them in the kitchen and told them how I didn’t think I could keep doing this job, that maybe I was just not cut out for it and should start looking elsewhere. I was literally unable to hold tears back.
My parents did what any good parents would do: try to comfort me by telling me everything was going to be okay and not to take work too seriously.
Then I took a walk through a park to clear my head. When I came back, I called my boss to tell him I couldn’t meet the deadline. His response was uncharacteristically chill: he asked that we try again with the lawyer the next day.
We hung up, and that was that.
I had a weird emotional hangover after that incident. I was trying to process how I got driven to the point of tears over trying to meet a deadline. But that wasn’t the first time: I had been dealing with crying spells for the past couple months, probably since I started my new job.
After navigating this hangover for a few days, it became obvious that I couldn’t keep ignoring the signs: maybe the stress of work had brought to light something that I had been harboring to light, and maybe I shouldn’t accept frequent crying spells as normal. So, I decided to sign up for therapy.
If there’s one thing therapy does a really good job at, it’s getting you to see your personal development from a different vantage point. For a long time, I considered myself a mentally healthy person. I meditated, I took walks, and I had good relationships with friends and family. But I also never allowed myself to grieve the end of a 10-year relationship, to fully honor and let go of that previous part of my life.
I had dated my ex since high school. We officially split right before the pandemic. We dated on and off for 10 years, but the breakup lingered because neither of us could fully let go. It wasn’t uncommon for us to find ourselves on the phone every couple months, chatting about life and things that I can no longer remember. I knew it wasn’t healthy at the time, but I did it anyway. This person had been my everything for nearly half my life.
Now, I was alone, dealing with a level of stress that I was finding hard to cope with. I felt like I was crumbling, lacking the emotional support that my ex had provided for so long. There were so many times I wanted to go back to the “good old days”, but I knew that was no longer an option. Feelings of regret and inadequacy poured over me whenever I got stressed out and thought about her absence. Obviously, this wasn’t healthy at all, and the grief came out sideways in random crying spells.
Therapy helped me keep going at work as I continued to take on more responsibility and projects across the company. But there was still a part of me that was feeling a void, and this became most pronounced when I’d go on Slack. At this point in my employment, our team had grown quite a bit, and most of my new colleagues were living and working together in Buffalo. I’d see pictures of our expansion project at the facility in New York and think just how cool it was that we were building something tangible. I’d also see pictures of my colleagues at the site and feel like I wanted to be out there building with them.
So that’s what I told my boss.
The transition wasn’t what I initially expected. In preparation for the role change and the upcoming move to Buffalo, I spent the next few days on calls with my new boss: a guy with years less professional experience than me whom I had interviewed and helped hire. My new title was also odd—and oddly long. I went from being a “Chief of Staff” to “Engineering, Procurement, and Construction Coordinator.” Colleagues that I had been working with had started getting leadership titles like “Lead,” “VP,” or “Director,” so “Coordinator” didn’t feel like a sign of progress. But I officially accepted the new role, knowing that there was more for me than just a role change. I was ready to make a personal leap forward even though it meant, perhaps, taking a professional step back.
I remember telling my therapist about the move. After he heard my story, he introduced me to the author Joseph Campbell and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
In the book, Campbell analyzed hundreds of mythological stories across cultures and time periods and discovered that many of them shared a common structure. He called this the monomyth, or the “hero’s journey”: The hero starts out as somebody pretty common, living a pretty common life, but circumstances force our hero to accept a “call to adventure” where they must leave their ordinary world to confront extraordinary challenges. They manage to overcome those challenges and come back home a changed person, a better person…a hero.
“Call to adventure” described exactly what I was feeling at the time, and learning that this was a common human thing assuaged any doubts I initially had about taking on the new role. Less than a week later, I packed my bags and moved to Buffalo.
That was November 2021, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, even though it also came with its own set of challenges. I lived in Buffalo during the coldest four months of the year, rooming with colleagues and adjusting to my new role and my new home. But the fact that it was so cold kept distractions at bay, which gave me an opportunity to experiment with different habits and behaviors to better manage stress on my own.
Then I moved to West Texas and spent 5 months in a town of less than 10,000 people, rooming with colleagues while we built a new facility in the middle of the desert. As you can imagine, we had even less distractions out there, so we spent the extra time just working more and bonding with each other.
I found that the more time I spent getting to know my colleagues helped me get to know myself. There’s probably some psychological theory that can explain that, but I don’t care about explanations. What I care about is that I experienced it, and never before had I felt so much personal growth in a professional setting. I don’t think I would’ve felt the same if I simply stayed in Chicago and got a promotion.
Today, I’m still at the same company, and while there are things I need to keep working on to grow professionally, I try to think about that growth in a more holistic, integrated way. Growth won’t always look like it’s going up and to the right; sometimes it’ll go down or sideways. That’s what being human is all about.