You Could Be Chasing a Promotion for the Wrong Reasons


Promotions or career advancements involve changes in day-to-day responsibilities. You could move up one level with or without moving laterally, and your responsibilities will change. One example is moving from being an individual contributor to a line manager. You could also move from being a senior engineer to a product manager or a technical lead. Before you decide that you want that new role, try to understand your motivation to chase it. Understanding your cause becomes more important when you are at a stage where you are comfortable with your compensation package. On the other hand, you could be motivated for the wrong reasons.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Will you find your new role interesting? Is this a role that will give you satisfaction? Is this a role that will keep you motivated?

I’m writing this post from my own experience and what I learned from the people I’ve worked with — from one-on-ones, conversations, interviews, and observations. As a software engineer, I’ve been an individual contributor. I’ve led teams, managed people, and have conducted interviews. Though having gotten promoted to a new role has helped me learn and grow in my career. I couldn’t be happier to realize that I did a self-check on my motivations behind why I wanted to move to specific roles until I settled with a type of role that keeps me motivated.

Just like any anecdotal advice on the internet, take this list with a grain of salt. Our situations may vary.

You don’t have anything else going on outside your work.

If you wake up one day and all you think about is how you move up to a new job title, then you need to re-evaluate your life seriously. You probably don’t have much going on other than your career. Your world revolves around your day job.

I was in a similar situation at one point in my career. I realized that there is more to life other than my job title. I gradually built up my life outside work. I picked up hobbies that:

  • I enjoy, e.g., I recently bought a fishing rod and started to go on a road trip for fishing.
  • It keeps me healthy, e.g., Weight training, Muay Thai
  • Stimulates my creativity, e.g., Playing guitar
  • Compliments my career, e.g., Building open source projects, writing blog posts.
  • Educates me, e.g., Investing, building wealth.

When you find something else meaningful to do outside your day job, you’ll realize that:

  • You are not your job title.
  • Your day job is not all that you have.
  • Your perceived success in life doesn’t depend on moving up the career ladder.

There is more to life. Your day job is just one part of it.

You are comparing yourself to others.

Comparing yourself to others can sometimes be a good motivator, especially with people you aspire to become. But it could be harmful if you are blindly comparing your job title with your peers.

When you see your peers getting promoted and you didn’t, you might feel like you are falling behind. You are putting pressure on yourself that you have to get promoted, regardless of what the promotion could mean. You probably didn’t think about whether you will enjoy doing your new responsibilities if you get that promotion. Is the person that you’re comparing yourself with living the life that you want?

Start changing your mindset on comparisons — it will take time and deliberate effort. We are all unique, so there is no point in comparing job titles. We can all carve individual paths that suit our situations. We can optimize our career paths according to our strengths and interests.

You don’t have your definition of success.

You are after the commonly known path that society dictates. Success to you is the traditional “climb the corporate ladder and get a pay raise” type of success.

I was in the same situation. Until I gradually came up with my own set of principles that helped me define what success means. I realized that I am more motivated when I‘m chasing after my definition of success.

Here are some examples of my own set of principles when defining what success is. But, of course, these principles have evolved and have gone through iterations.

Career principles:

  • Stay on the technical track as an individual contributor.
  • I get paid based on the results that I deliver rather than the number of hours that I put in.
  • My work should be remote-friendly and flexible.
  • I should have equity — solves the “Principal-Agent Problem.”
  • I should constantly be learning something new, e.g., in my current role, I’m working on an unfamiliar domain around billing and payments while learning a new set of tech: Golang and Google Cloud.

Personal principles:

  • To have quality time for my family and friends.
  • To have time for my hobbies and pick up new ones. See above.
  • To continuously find business and investment opportunities.

This example set of principles have helped me establish and achieve my definition of success. It’s been a balancing act between these principles. Sometimes one will take priority over the other. However, if you neglect one of these items for too long, then it’s time for a change.

Your current work, product, or project is becoming less interesting.

What used to be an exciting greenfield project with a modern tech stack will eventually become boring. The work you’re doing on your current product no longer stimulates you mentally. You could have the option to work on a new project or take a lateral move. Unfortunately, you don’t always have the option to take on a new project. If you don’t, you can either aim for a promotion or move to a new company. Promotion is a more attractive choice in this scenario, especially if you are happy with your current company and don’t want to jump ship.

Before jumping right into preparing your promotion packet, spend some time understanding more about the role. Speak to your manager. Ask the people around you who are in a similar position. It’s even better if you could agree on a trial period with your manager. It is not uncommon for companies to allow you to unofficially take on the role for a certain period before you get officially promoted. You will then find out if this is a role that suits you.

You are attracted to the status that the job title brings.

Taking a job title for its status be a symptom of not having your definition of success, but it’s worth mentioning on its own. You could be after the superficial value a job title brings to your business card. Without thinking through if it’s a role that you will be interested in taking. The glamorous-sounding job title cloaked in “success” can be tempting to take on.

It’s fair to say that sometimes titles are helpful for external credibility. For example, for an early-stage SaaS startup, you'd probably want to deploy a “VP” or “Director” of Sales, so you’ll most likely be taken seriously by your first few potential customers.

It can be hard to avoid these biases that we have with titles. Titles encapsulate what a role means in an organization or a community. It could be tempting to put a lot of weight on a title’s “status” rather than its actual function. If we focus on a title’s responsibilities rather than its “status,” we will make better career decisions.

In closing

I’m not saying that we should avoid promotions. Getting promoted is not a bad thing. It provides us personal and financial growth opportunities. We need to take on new challenges to make our life more meaningful. We get motivation through these challenges that we love taking on. However, it’s best to understand our underlying reasons for it. Skills add more value to humanity than synthetic titles—skills over titles, wealth over status. There is more to life.