No One Wants to Be a Follower: Mimetic Desire.
If you're not careful, you'll find yourself working hard to achieve the goals of others. Think about your priorities, and decide if you're investing in the right places.
"When's our next stock vest date?! I need to pay off my credit card bill!"
I looked with confusion (perhaps bemusement) at Elizabeth. An engineer on my team, she had a salary well into 6-figures, and had no kids.
I decided to pry a little. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened? Buy something big?"
She shook her head, "No, it's just impossible to live on our base salary in Seattle. It's so expensive here!"
This was obviously false on so many levels. One of which was that my 6-person family easily lived on my wife's base salary. Another is that not everyone in Seattle is a highly paid engineer.
It turned out that Elizabeth felt the need to impress her mom, so she bought a big house. Her sister was obsessed with fashionable clothing, and so she felt the need to wear (new) fancy name brand clothing. Her boyfriend loved cars, so she'd bought a new sports car.
In my opinion, it sounded like Elizabeth was literally spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to impress people. And that's fine, as long as she realized it was a choice she was making.
We all get caught up in chasing what other people want.
When I talk to people about their careers, I usually make the assumption that their goal is to get promoted, and make more money. And I've been wrong.
I mean, that's a popular goal. It's a way to get recognition for your hard work. It's one of the primary ways you can increase your income. Other than getting a new job, it's the main way to advance your career.
For the vast majority of my career, that was my goal. And I think it was a good goal for me, for quite a few years. Until it wasn't.
I'm getting a little philosophical today. Because writing about what you want is the best thing about having your own newsletter. 🚀
Why was it a good goal for me?
That goal in particular matched well with my personality, and the things I found fun about work.
I enjoyed the friendly competition.
I liked trying to see if I could get my career to go forward faster than my peers. I enjoyed competing against my own goals. Such as, "Let's see if I can get myself a top-tier rating in this first year at my new level."
I enjoyed the work more at higher levels.
I prefer to talk strategy than detailed implementation. I prefer to coach other managers rather than coaching engineers. I enjoy the breadth of focus of a large organization, more than the detailed deep dives of a smaller team.
I enjoyed the feeling of achievement.
It's hard to beat the feeling of relief when you finally clinch that next title, and you've achieved that huge personal goal you've been working on for a few years.
The tricky thing is that it's not a great goal for me anymore, and it might not be a great goal for you.
Question why you want things.
At one point in my career, many engineering leaders were talking about moving to AWS. It was the hot organization to join. AWS was growing fast, very profitable, and the rumor going around was that all the top people were moving there.
I began to think about joining AWS as well. I probably should, right? I didn't find the idea of working on the products personally interesting, but if it's the hot place to go, I felt like I should consider going there.
I eventually went there. To my complete lack of shock, the products weren't personally interesting to me. So I didn't stay very long. Why did I even think that I should go there?
A recent coaching client ran into a similar issue.
They were offered a better title at another company, so they were considering going.
The people at the new company rubbed them the wrong way during the interview process. They liked their current co-workers more. They also made enough money at their current job, although they'd make more money at the new company.
They said they were trying to figure out how to decide what to do.
I asked, "Why would you want to go?"
They said because everyone kept talking about how that new company was hot. They'd be making more money. It felt like they were passing up an opportunity if they didn't move.
I asked, "What do you want out of your career?" It took them a bit of thinking to come up with a list.
They wanted decent working hours so they could spend time with their family.
They wanted to enjoy their time at work, and preferably not feel stressed.
They wanted enough money to save for their kid's college, and retirement.
I asked if they were interested in bigger career growth, such as becoming a CTO, or a startup founder someday. No, they didn't. They really didn't feel the need to grow their career anymore.
You can see where this is going. Their current job met their goals. They didn't have ambition to raise their income, or even get promoted. Their current career met their primary career goals.
Why did I go to AWS, even though it didn't excite me? Why do so many people consider chasing opportunities which don't match their personal goals?
Mimetic desire is tricky.
What is mimetic desire?
Humans are driven by imitation. Take a look at any teenager, and you'll see the embodiment of mimetic desire. My 16-year-old wants a very specific sweatshirt that he saw on Tiktok. In that case, it's an obvious mimetic desire.
Adults are more subtle. We like to imagine we're less susceptible. Yet, most tech companies are funded through advertising. It works.
Our goofy monkey brains insist that we care about what our peer group thinks, and perhaps more importantly, our monkey brain wants what our peer group wants.
This doesn't just apply to purchasing sweatshirts, or the latest Ford Bronco (which I really do like).
It applies to every type of desire we have, including our work ones. Where we want to work. What title we want. How much we hope to make.
If my peer group thinks AWS is an impressive place to work, I'll start to think that it's appealing to work there. I imagine that my life would be better if I could be one of the people who went to AWS.
If my peer group thinks that a VP promotion is impressive, it makes me want that promotion more. Even if it doesn't fit my current goals.