Career progression

‘Higher’ level jobs all seem to involve more planning, strategy and coordination than actual performance of a job. One might be a builder, but as the boss, one has to get plans approved by the council, visit the tile shop to order in the correct tiles, calculate all the bricks needed to construct the house, and present quotes to potential clients. The ‘higher’ up a builder is, the less cementing bricks to other bricks and nailing wood to more wood he or she does—those ‘lower’ jobs can be left to day labourers and contractors.

But what if you really just like building? At some point, we each have to make a choice about what it is that we enjoy and value, and construct our own hierarchies. Of course there will always be chains of command, with a boss-figure directing subordinates, with one person overseeing other people’s work because that person has the broader picture. But we need to separate that functional structure from our own conception of the value of what we do.

‘The modern era is often described as a skills economy,’ writes Richard Sennett* (p. 37), ‘but what exactly is a skill?’ It is assumed that the more skilled one is, the more advanced in one’s career one ought to be, with more responsibilities and more strategic influence. But skills, Sennett argues, are more about problem solving through repetition. One acquires them through a learning process of repeating a task until something ‘clicks’ and then repeating it some more until one finds better ways of doing it. ‘Skill opens up in this way only because the rhythm of solving and opening up occurs again and again’ (p. 38).

If one is at a point in one’s career that enables one to simply focus on the job rather than fighting with peripherals, one is far better positioned to develop these skills. What’s more, one is more likely to be enjoying it, since one signed up to be a builder / illustrator / physicist, and thus is likely inclined to prefer building / illustrating / theorising about physics more than chasing clients or applying for grants. Actually completing the tasks presents challenges that give a sense of achievement once overcome, once problems are solved. And the longer one lingers at this ‘lower’ level, the more refined one’s skills will become.

It is possible that the world isn’t entirely composed of people who like to use their hands when solving problems. Perhaps some people really do get a kick out of hands-free strategising, at a safe distance from the dirt. If your skill is really and truly administration, well, good for you. But I would never esteem you as being far above labourers, researchers and painters simply for your overarching role in an organisation. The little people have these skills too—only they know where the real satisfaction in work lies, and it’s not at the top.

* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin Books: London.