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Could Staying Put Be Your Best Career Move?

Promotion chasing makes you miserable. Here's a better way to progress.

The habitants of Stars Hollow  – the fantasy New England small-town locale of TV series “The Gilmore Girls” – were at once both deeply content and thoroughly devoid of ambition. Grocer Taylor Doose maintained an iron grip on his role as town selectman, yet never considered moving into politics. Former showgirl Miss Patti found teaching dance to children a bit of a bore, but carried on without a hint of complaint. A troubadour crooned on street corners; he wouldn’t accept money. Last year – eight years after the original show had ended – Netflix aired four new episodes and viewers got a chance to catch up with the lot. Scripted and filmed before the elections, the town was as mellow as ever. Well, almost:

The show’s protagonist, Rory, a former studious and ambitious teenager, had become a failing journalist. Unlike many of those who watched, teenage Rory enjoyed the benefits of elite education, rich, generous grandparents, and a doting mother-slash-best friend. Still, practically anyone with a job could relate to adult Rory’s face after a disappointing interview with GQ magazine: looking back at the office she was leaving, pining for a job that wasn’t hers. Rory was not content.

Not too long ago, a young lady knew that her job for life was to serve her man. For his part, the man’s safest bet for cash was to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Then the industrial revolution rolled along, and the masses got jobs. Technology helped make these jobs less gruelling. With the rise of corporates, careers were born, as people hopped around for better terms. Globalization spread the benefits further afield and, for some, provided a chance to hop further away. (Recent observations on the lasting damage of free trade show not everyone was a winner in this game.) Throughout, we retained our notion of work as a lifelong occupation, a progressive route towards mastery.

Information technology put that to a rest. Instead, work has become a perpetual, chaotic strive.

Today’s career advice paddles recipes for re-inventing, re-aligning, and jockeying for the next position. Always Be Hustlin’, said Uber to its employees; that you already have a job is no reason to stop acting as if you don’t. All this chasing, we’re promised, will not be in vain. But what are its rewards, exactly?

To be successful is to be powerful, proclaims Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkley, in his book “The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence”. His findings suggest people quantify professional progress using four different metrics: power, control, status and social class. The first two are used to measure the capacity to act: power is defined as how much you can influence the states of other people, and control is the capacity to determine outcomes in your own life. The other two quantify respect; status measures how much you’re awarded based on your character and your actions, while social class attests to how impressed people are with your wealth, your breeding, or your glitzy job.

But power is slippery stuff. Sure, it’s yours for now, but what happens if you lose your job, are indicted for fraud or receive a nasty cancer prognosis? The paradox, for Keltner, stems from this fragility. He writes:

“Power is given to us by others rather than grabbed…Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.”

And herein lies the problem: since power is never for keeps, the hunt for it is never complete. Ambition, by nature, breeds discontent. So long as you’re striving, you may never find happiness.

This is a terrible bottom line. But is it the only one?

In “The Art of Possibility”, conductor Benjamin Zander writes: “Too much of what I did was measured by the success that I might gain, so I rarely had peace, either professionally or in my personal life.” Marketed as a management and self-help manual, the book – co-authored with his partner, family therapist Rosamund Stone Zander – propelled Mr. Zander into becoming a popular corporate speaker, and his corresponding 2008 Ted Talk has clocked over two million views to date. “Virtually everybody,” the authors write, “whether living in the lap of luxury or in diminished circumstances, wakes up in the morning with the unseen assumption that life is about the struggle to survive and get ahead in a world of limited resources.”

Mr. Zander founded the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in 1979 and later, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Serving as the musical director for both, he’s done plenty of recruiting in his time. But it’s his experience as a conductor, facing the musicians he’s hired, that offers penetrating insight on marrying ambition with content. For twenty years, he writes, “It seemed all I had to do was to gain sway over the players, teach them my interpretation and make them fulfill my musical will.”

None of us are immune to this kind of swagger. Our universe, an intricate solar system; ourselves, shining bright at its heart. Most everyone else is desolate rocks, wistfully orbiting round.

Only when it struck Mr. Zander that he wasn’t shining quite so bright in his players’ universe did his outlook on his day job change. “I began to shift my attention to how effective I was at enabling the musician to play each phrase as beautifully as they were able.” This, he adds, was never a concern before, “when my position appeared to give me absolute power…and I had cast the players as mere instruments of my will.” Keltner agrees: “We gain power,” he writes, “by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks.”

To channel your ambition effectively, both Keltner and Zander are saying, it’s best to focus less on advancing anywhere, and more on proving helpful to others.

The Zanders skid over the question of agency. They ignore the inherent asymmetry between the conductor (who gives the orders) and the orchestra (which obeys). How much of this applies to those bowing to a less enlightened boss? The couple argues this reasoning, which questions the ability to better our situation through contribution, confuses scarcity with scarcity-thinking; the first is experienced by those who genuinely face ongoing jeopardy, whereas the latter is just a negative belief, one feeding the urge to acquire ever more.

Only sometimes, they’re not so easy to tell apart. Analysis of tax returns, conducted by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues it wasn’t the gig economy that killed secure jobs, but the other way around: for over two decades, a secular decline in net job creation has been eating away at the prospects for a stable job. For many, the flexible-terms employment Uber and other sharing-economy firms began offering was not the alternative to a cushioned job; it was to having a job at all. When these employees worry about their power (or lack thereof), are they being plagued by scarcity or scarcity-thinking?

Even if this distinction is murky, the Zanders’ broader argument rings true: the narrative we form around our capacity to contribute makes a big difference. Still, that your best career move could be staying put and proving helpful seems radically short-sighted. If you’re busy taking care of others, who’s looking out for Number One?

Ever since 1997, when the article The Brand Called You was published, we’ve been told to consider ourselves the human equivalent of the mighty McDonald’s. Of course, the idea that we’re all out to sell ourselves implies we’ve got something to sell. In Keltner’s power terms, the self-branding movement advocates employees stop thinking of corporates as a stronghold of power. Employment is transactional, they say, and professionals need to claim back power by realizing they are not just being given to, but are the ones doing the giving. Once adjusted for MBA lingo, the Zanders’ suggestion to figure out where each of us can make a differentiated contribution sounds awfully similar to finding our “unique selling points”.

Power is held by those who have it to offer.

Rushing to the next job you can do is scrambling for power awarded by others. People may offer you money or respect; later, they might take it away again. But sticking around, long enough to figure out how you improve people’s lives, allows you to cultivate some power of your own. The decision on whose lives you improve is yours to make. No chasing. No angst.

Back in Stars Hollow, standing behind his counter, diner owner Luke would observe his fellow townspeople, high on caffeine, organizing yet another festival or gossiping the day away. He was fine staying put. Sooner or later, he knew, they’d all be coming round. After all, someone has to pour the coffee.

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