Careerism is the idea of concentrating your “being the best you can be” efforts on your workplace or work activities, your work setting. Careerism is fairly wide spread along with its modern sibling consumerism which is the idea that satisfaction in life is best obtained from buying stuff and services. Together they compliment each other well and they are so pervasive in modern society that we tend to forget that other goals exist.

There is no rule that says that that worth must be seen in an occupational context. One could just as easily see it with a family setting (how good a mother, husband, or uncle are you), where success, for instance, as a parent could be determined by how well the children turned out or your success as a spouse depends on how successful one’s spouse turns out — self-referential I know. Similarly, worth could be seen in a personal setting defined by personal goals such as happiness, actualization, money, fame, power, contributing to society, or making a difference.

Instead of focusing on, say, your family, your avocational activities, or community activities, the goal for a careerist is to rise as high as possible in terms of professional rank and achievement. Such dedication usually requires a full time commitment to one’s vocation. People must be on call round the clock, either literally with the blackberries and cell phones, or mentally in the case of a researcher who thinks about work as the last thing before falling asleep and the first thing after waking up. Other goals, like family or personal satisfaction, take a back seat even though they are often along for the ride. The career is the means and the end to personal growth.

Such beliefs are widespread.

That said, careerism can, in a sense, be healthy. I do not see anything wrong in trying to be the best, say, musician you can be; if, for instance, you have less capacity or capability of being a valuable community organizer or contributor and more capability of playing music. Much of the genius and wonderful things in this world is indeed the result of such determination.

However, the problem arises, I believe, once the following conditions happen


  • Supply of workers outstrip demand.
  • Output quality can not be objectively determined.

The second item in particular is the beginning of a miserable slope. The consequences is that one’s goals can no longer be furthered by simply improving competence. The reason is that there are still many workers available beyond the competence cut off where competence can still be clearly differentiated from incompetence. Competition must therefore be decided on other terms.

Often career promotion then turns political. Objective competence is no longer relevant but subjective competence still is. The point of the game, the so-called personal growth if you will, is no longer about producing the best results possible but rather in giving the best possible impression which allows a person to further his career.

Since objective measures at this point has become rather meaningless, career progression is now measured in terms of tokens which are cheap (profit maximizing) to offer but kept in limited supply. They can range from the tangible such a plastic plaques and awards to the special offices (corner offices and offices with windows) to the intangible such as praise, awards, and impressive sounding titles. It can even be a higher salary—I bet you are well aware of cases where two people have the same output objectively speaking but one of them is paid more due to being one a different career stage.

A careerist can actually pursue these goals for their own sake. It is indeed possible to develop an attitude that directly equals titles, awards, and corner offices with achievement. Indeed, one may even think that some jobs are more important than others simply because they pay a lot.

The systemic consequence of this form of extreme careerism is a tragedy of the commons. The long term sustainability of the system is sacrificed for short term personal gain. We already see this failure in some systems (health care) and we may soon see them in other systems (science).

I think many people who originally got into a career because they were passionate eventually reached the point where their career turned into this kind of careerism and the goal changed from doing good to playing the game. Consequently, they got frustrated with the system and with their work and then they left it. Leaving can be either mentally in terms of doing the minimum effort required to stay paid or physically by retiring.

Imagine that you’re in school and instead of grading your essays on a scale you only get pass or fail grades. Alternatively, imagine that everybody either gets A’s or B’s only. That should not be too hard to imagine. However, in some way the teacher, or better, some future employer, still has to select the best student. How is that done when there are 10 students that passed or have an A? In this case, it clearly does not pay to try to write better essays because this is still only going to get an A. Other factors start playing in. One strategy may be to write more essays. Another strategy may be to curry interpersonal favors or try to promote one’s essays more.

It should be clear that marketing and trying to manage other people’s impression of one’s work becomes much more important than the work itself once few people can tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better. Of course, those doing better work can tell. Interestingly enough those who just do work that is good enough are either successfully deluding themselves or they have simply become very cynical. Both are good survival mechanisms preventing people from going nuts. Conversely, if your work or if the system ever meant something to you for its own sake rather than simply a career in the sense of titles, salaries, and baubles, you may just decide to leave it disgusted with what it has become.

Many fields, in particular white collar professional fields, suffer from this problem which is why I am highly reluctant to “go back” despite the occasional offer to “come back”. See, I originally wanted to do good and be the most competent I could be. I still have this drive. I have, however, found that the top (as traditionally defined by the highest salary, the most impressive title or the biggest awards) in a career is not reached through these means. At some point, the barrier I mentioned above is crossed. If you are aware of its existence it is pretty easy to tell. If you are not aware, it is very hard to tell. It happens when people begin to tell you how to manage your appearance rather than your work, e.g. what to wear, what to say, who to talk to, and where to be seen. I think a substantial fraction of the professional work force is (deeply) unsatisfied with this. Either they suffer silently inventing all sorts of excuses for why they still work (I live for the one person I can help, … ) or they get out and adopt what is known as “honest work” to heal their soul. I obviously lean towards the latter.