Don’t Be Too Eager

“Don’t be too eager to move on; enjoy where you are in your career.”

That’s advice I hear about a year ago from someone in my field. At the time, I thought it was lack of ambition. After all, good Americans are supposed to want more work and think of it all the time.

Well…wrong.

See, I’ve changed my mind on the advice. It has deeper meaning than I realized.

On the surface, it means simply to enjoy the moment. That’s important, but not all it offers.

Another level down it tells you not to move on before you are ready. People are often promoted up to the level of their competence then can’t go any higher. You may be able to reduce the odds of this happening to you by achieving the level of competence needed before moving on. Even if you are offered a position, it may not be the best move at that time. You may just be setting yourself up for failure. In this regard, “don’t be too eager to move on” is sound advice. Your eagerness and ambition may just be your downfall. So take the time to learn, enjoy your work and then move up when you know you’ll have a decent chance of success.

That’s not to say ambition is always a bad thing — like most things in life, ambition is a double-edged sword. If you can wield it properly, you have a career weapon in your career arsenal. If not, it’ll cut you.

Then again, I have a tendency to overthink things. Maybe I should just take it at face value.

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Jessica Strugibenetti

I like to think of this as being present. If you’re constantly in a hurry to get to the “next big thing” before you’re ready you might miss out on some really wonderful moments both personally and professionally.

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Mark Hammer

The typical early work experience of someone of your generation tends to be different than someone of my own. Not just your work but your school experiences. By the time you finish high school and university, how many courses will you have taken that extended over the full academic year? Chances are pretty good that NONE of your courses at either level ever went for more than a few months. I think one of the consequences of that is a different sense of when one is “done” with something, and how long it ought to take to be “done”. There is also something to be said for the pressure of student debt load placed upon today’s graduating students, and their sense of urgency in addressing that.

Finally, 30 years ago, you looked for a job by going to the bulletin board at the employment center, asking your parents, and reading the classifieds. Even though unemployment was lower then than it is now, your current capacity to be aware of all the possible jobs out there, and easily apply for them, is head and shoulders above what you would have had access to 30 years ago.

Like the difference between what mom serves up at home, and a food court, or the difference between the available partners in one’s small town, and the dating possibilities available when you move to the campus of the state university in “the big city”, one’s willingness to commit to a job and employer…or to a meal choice or partner, is diminished when presented with ALL THAT CHOICE.

One of the things you’ll find as your public sector career progresses, is that one of the biggest obstacles to enjoying your job…anywhere…is turnover amongst the people you work with. In our own federal employee survey here in Canada, since we started asking the questions in 1999, one of the best predictors of many other survey results is employees’ complaints about “constantly changing priorities” and “instability in the organization”.

As Sterling wisely notes, ambition itself is not intrinsically a bad thing. But I think one has to ask oneself whether you want to be a part of the problem, by being yet another turnover statistic (you know, the person “who would likely know X, but doesn’t work here anymore”), or part of the solution, by sticking around a little while, acquiring rich organizational knowledge, and leveraging it, in service of the public interest and organizational stewardship.

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Profile Photo Kati Knowles

Good advice! I’m still so early on in my career and am incredibly eager. I have to constantly remind myself that timing is everything and everything happens when it is supposed to happen. Moment of Zen for the day :)

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Susan Thomas

@Sterling, An insightful post. As we have seen throughout history, ambition is often blind and clouds one’s judgement.

@Kati, Stay focused on the timing element. It’s more important than you realize. My advice is to never take a job just for the money. People need to focus on what they bring to the table rather than what the table can bring to them.

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Mark Hammer

Whenever I see discussions in which people say they are “looking for new challenges”, I generally tilt my head to the side, quizically, like the RCA Victor dog. My response is generally that, as a mature adult, I don’t need challenges. I’m certainly up to them, but I know who I am, where my strengths and weaknesses lie, and what I can do, and don’t need to prove anything to anyone or to myself. If another job, initiative, or task needs me more than my present one does, so be it, I’ll be there to serve. But I don’t need that job for me.

Let me add to this that the challenge remains for senior officials to figure out how to reward people in place. Encouraging younger government professionals to take a little more time and ripen is appropriate, and helpful, but it cannot stop the completely natural urge to feel like one is progressing, moving up (albeit at a slightly slower pace), and being recognized. It takes years for people to feel comfortable and self-assured in what they can do well and where they fit into the scheme of things. And until they reach that point, they still need the symbols of personal progress, including recognition and reward. They can pursue that in the form of seeking other jobs, and shooting for promotions, but as I’ve droned on about many times before, that churn is harmful to organizations’ health, I don’t know what it’s like in D.C., but here in Ottawa, the poaching that goes on between departments (here, what we refer to as “agencies” usually means something smaller than 500 employees or so) is downright destructive.

Which is why I depict the challenge as one of “reward in place”: something that provides the sense of progress and “new challenges” to those who feel they need it, without obliging them to “move out so they can move up”, and leaving disruption in their wake.

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