The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

The Art of Resisting Promotion

The default course is: as soon as you’re doing a job well, you get encouraged to switch to a different job. This new job will likely be similar to what you’ve just been doing, but slightly larger, more complex, higher status, more flashy, and higher pay. And higher pressure.

This can seem like a tantalizing upgrade — and sometimes it is, especially for the ambitious climbers out there — but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes this new job is actually less fun than the one you had been doing, and had finally gotten good at. Sometimes it takes ten to twenty percent more of your time and attention, which is exactly the time you would otherwise use to rest, restore, and work on creative projects. Those vital few minutes needed to defrag, kick it back, and feel like you’re not constantly behind on everything.

In addition to that, it’s usually slightly different duties. These can be a fun challenge and a welcome respite, if you were bored with your previous duties. Or it can be frustrating. Sometimes — this seems to often be the case with management promotions — the skillsets required to do the new job well are slightly different from what you had already developed, and sometimes even conflicting with your creative passion or aptitude. For example, a programmer who is good at programming and enjoys it, but gets promoted to a team-lead for a programming project — since they obviously know what they are doing and produce good work — but doesn’t actually enjoy managing other people and isn’t necessarily very good at it. What they’re good at, and enjoy, is programming, which they no longer get to do.

(A related phenomenon is what I call Creative Off-Ramping; where musicians end up turning into music teachers, or performers end up turning into sound techs, but this is slightly different and I’ll leave it for another article.)

For many years I volunteered as a stage-hand at a local music festival. It was usually one of my favourite parts of the summer. The excitement, sense of duty, and all the live music was incredible. A couple of times, I helped out as the assistant stage manager. This was fun and exciting, too. And slightly higher pressure than just being a stage-hand. At one point, noticing that our stage had been running smoothly, our coordinator asked if any of us would like to take on being the stage-manager. I considered this carefully. It would be exciting, I would feel important, it would be a great thing to put on my resume. But I decided it wasn’t worth it. And I’m so glad I did. Declining this tantalizing offer meant I could enjoy the rest of the festival more. It meant I wasn’t tied to that stage all the time, and could walk around and enjoy the music. And most of all, it meant I could still work at that stage, do my best, feel like I was actually doing a decent job and more or less knew what I was doing, but I could also relax a little knowing I was not where the buck stops if something went sideways.

Another time I made a similar choice, and was glad I did, was when I was involved with a local radio station. I’d been into music for years, and had started a show with a friend. Shortly after that, the station manager was ready to retire. I was petitioned to switch from just helping host one of the shows, to be the paid station manager. A job I felt in no way qualified for, and which wasn’t lined up with my life goals and passions. It was nonetheless interesting, probably because of the importance involved, and the fact that the other staff for some reason thought I’d be a good fit for the job. I gratefully declined the offer, stating that I was honoured they had thought of me, but I’d prefer to remain an artist creating content for the station rather than managing it. I’m glad I did.

On several occasions during my restaurant days, I was asked to step from cook to kitchen manager. Or from barista to front of house manager. On both occasions I considered this. But I liked cooking, and I liked making coffees, and I liked being able to occasionally say “No, I’m busy that afternoon” when the manger messaged me asking if I could fill in a dropped shift. Staying as a staff member rather than a manager gave me more freedom. Slightly less pay, but much more freedom. On a couple of occasions, I agreed to fill in for the kitchen manager and front of house manager. This was an interesting experience and it worked out well: I got to try doing the job, in a way that was helpful to the business because they needed someone while the normal manager was away, and I got to learn about how it worked, feel the importance of the position for a few weeks, and then I got to step back.

So I try and remind myself (and encourage you to also!) to think twice before accepting a promotion. If you’re an honest, reliable, hard-working person, you will probably be offered promotions on a regular basis; promotions of many different kinds, in many different areas of life. Some of them will be worth taking, but others won’t. Perhaps the majority won’t, even if they seem like an interesting opportunity. And the people offering them can be quite compelling with their sales pitches!

Whatever kind of promotion it is — work, volunteer, other — I try to ask myself: will this be better or worse lined up with my goals and aims? Will it be more fun, or less fun than the job I’m currently doing? Are my skills a good match for it, even though it would be a logical progression from the point of view of the person offering it? Is the added importance worth the added responsibility? Even though money is useful stuff, I try to avoid making these decisions based on the pay. The people I’ll be working with, how the job aligns with my values, and whether it’s something I enjoy doing, I’ve realized, are far more relevant to my long-term happiness than a modest increase in pay or prestige.