Imagine that you’ve invested years of blood, sweat and tears at work, and have successfully climbed the corporate ladder, only to wake up one day and realize that you sort of hate what you’re doing. Sure, you used to love it, and the more successful you became, the higher up the ranks of management you went. But now, instead of doing the hands-on work that you loved, you find yourself buried in managerial tasks like budgeting and supervising people that leave you feeling numb at best. You find yourself in the ironic position where all your hard work and success have landed you in a job that leaves you feeling empty, frustrated, and unfulfilled. That’s what happened to me. But how? Or better yet, why?

As I rose through the executive ranks to my last incarnation, EVP and Worldwide Creative Director for Nickelodeon, instead of feeling directly connected to the creation of our programming and other content, I found myself spending nearly all my time in meetings with corporate peers and higher-ups. In theory, I should have been happy. I was working with good, creative people (many of whom remain my close friends), I was earning a great income, and the company made cool stuff that my own young kids loved. But. But. I was merely managing the people who actually did and made things. I no longer operated in my personal sweet spot, where my sense of accomplishment after closing a difficult sale or launching a new product was contingent on my having had a concrete deliverable and the sense that my efforts were integral to its success. Being a caused me to feel disconnected from what career analyst Daniel Pink has identified as the three primary motivators of behavior: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I had little autonomy, little interest in gaining mastery as a manager (in spite of myriad coaches), and felt dissociated from my true self.

Why do we reward success on the job with a promotion out of the job and into management? It’s a phenomenon that reveals antiquated flaws in organizational design (neither employees nor companies are in the long-term pension-building loyalty business anymore) as well as a 20th century, pre-behavioral economics lack of understanding about what really makes people tick at work. Companies continue to cling to the notion that one of the only mechanisms they have to acknowledge employees’ talent is to make them managers and then to continue to promote them into ever-higher levels of management — reflecting the misguided assumption that being good at something also means being able to (and wanting to) manage others doing the same thing. Once in management, its trappings — 401k’s, bigger compensation packages and offices, fancy titles — don’t really satisfy many of us who, like me, miss the doing. But because we often identify ourselves with our job titles (I’m Director of Marketing) — buying into the idea that clear titles confer status and meaning — it remains hard to envision work in the absence of titles. Management titles allow us to mark our growth, and our maturity. And it’s for all of these reasons that it took me a long time to realize that being in management was wrong for me.

I know now from my research into the science of emotion, that as corporate executive I felt like I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t — I didn’t like being a manager, but I was a manager, so I had to appear to be interested in all the stuff that went along with being a manager. This is something social scientists call “emotion labor” — what you experience when you feel obliged to act differently from your natural inclinations. Eventually, I quit my job and, over the course of several years and false starts, I reinvented myself as a journalist and author — a job where I manage no one (autonomy), make my own rules (purpose), and have very concrete results (mastery) when my work is published.

When I made my leap, I discovered that while there are countless books and courses about how to be a better manager, there are pretty much no roadmaps for how to keep succeeding if you decide you don’t want to manage others. So, here are a few thoughts, based on my own experience, for others who feel that management may be wrong for them:

You Can Stay at Your Company, But Forge a New Path

Unlike me, perhaps you don’t have to leave. Talk to your bosses about your issues and partner with them to create a different track for yourself. For example, when my husband started as a young writer at Time magazine, there was only one career path — work hard as a staff writer, and eventually you might be promoted to senior editor. In the early 80s, Time created a position for those who did not want to go into management — “senior writer,” which came with internal prestige, and commensurate salary bumps.

This is something more companies need to address. To remain globally competitive, organizations need to devise innovative ways to encourage and reward creativity. The unorthodox titles embraced by start-ups — directors of fun, ministers of information — can seem ridiculous, but the emphasis on improvising new ways of doing business is important. Furthermore, research conducted by Office Team found that 76% of employees did not want their boss’s job. If employees are no longer responding to the old carrots, it’s time for companies to establish new means of rewarding talent.

You Can Find A Company That Shares Your Values

There are plenty of companies that are doing away with traditional corporate structures. For example, Michael Abrash, a member of the Valve software developer community, has a radical notion of corporate structure, where project teams coalesce and dissolve continually within an organization. He believes that fixed organizational structure impedes innovation. And plenty of other people feel the same. You may find yourself more in tune with an organization that has this type of flat hierarchy.

You Can Strike Out On Your Own

And of course, you can always forge your own path. Just be sure to think through the following before you take the leap:

  • Have a clear idea of what success means to you. It sounds obvious, but most of us unthinkingly internalize others’ definitions.
  • Know that income flow will have peaks and valleys. Few of us are lucky enough to land clients on retainer, so understand out of the box that your income will fluctuate from month to month.
  • Don’t quit without figuring out your monthly nut, especially including health care — and then figure out how you can reduce expenses. Make your nut fit the dream, and not the other way around. And don’t quit without a reserve to handle the times when there’s little or no monthly income — anticipate your worst-case scenario. Mine happened a few months after I’d quit my big job when my husband was fired from his well-paid (management) job.
  • Understand that as a freelancer, you will have to be a consummate sales-and-marketer of yourself and that you’ll have to develop thick skin to handle the rejection.
  • Know that there are days where you’ll feel lonely working by yourself. Fortunately, the networked world can mitigate this problem as never before.
  • Embrace the idea of moving from project to project as a way to learn and grow and stay relevant.

One thing that people who have left management may underestimate is the blow to self-esteem that can happen when you can no longer simply define with a title what it is that you do for a living. Although that’s changing in the emerging world of co-working, freelancing, and zig-zagging careers, titles still have meaning, and it requires clarity and courage to say “thanks, but no thanks” to that management position. But take it from me: being an ambitious round peg in a prestigious square hole is no way to spend a working life.


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