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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Like You’re Falling Behind in Your Career

You see the latest “30 Under 30” article and—spoiler—you’re not on it. Then you read a status update that your college roommate started her own business. Now, for the icing on the cake: Your company honors the youngest person to ever be promoted to senior management. And, you guessed it, it’s not you. You start to wonder: Am I falling behind in my career?

The short answer is “No.” Careers are not a race. Nor is there one, clear, winning outcome that everyone should be striving for. However, your jump to quick comparisons may indicate that you feel like you’re coming up short of your personal career goals—and that is something to pay attention to.

Here are three questions to ask yourself to gut check how things really stand:

1. Am I Expecting “Overnight Success?”

You’re working yourself to the bone doing what you know is great work. But your efforts aren’t leading to advancement and recognition, so you’re pretty sure you’re doing something wrong.

Not necessarily. You’ve heard the term “overnight success,” but do you know that people generally work for many years before that big moment? (It took Pokemon Go two decades to become a phenomenon!) Or that many successful people fail before succeeding? Just because you’re not receiving any cool awards or invitations (yet), doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track.

OK, if I’m Not on the Wrong Track, How Do I Make Sure I’m on the Right One?

First, keep up the good work! Recognize that there is value in doing a good job, independent of any external accolades. You have to put the work in before you’ll reap the rewards.

That said, if you feel routinely overlooked, consider spending more time on making yourself stand out by working on your personal branding—that means your social media presence, your personal site, and what comes up when prospective hiring managers Google you. It’s up to you to tell people around you that you’re up to something special. (Bonus: Even 15 minutes a week can make a difference!)

2. Am I Prioritizing Other Values Over Industry Fame?

Imagine a world in which you’re frequently asked to be a guest on The Today Show, regularly featured on Influencer lists, and called out at company meetings and given awards—you’d do anything to make those things happen, right?

At first, you might say, “Hell yeah!” But then when told that it would require working seven days a week, giving up time with your friends and family, and sacrificing your sleep—you might change your mind.

If you’re honest with yourself, you might find you don’t care about having an ambitious, award-winning career, because your priorities are truly elsewhere. You might prefer to spend all the attention and energy that other people spend climbing corporate ladders on your loved ones or hobbies. And that’s OK!

There are very few truly bad career choices (outside of the obvious ones which you can probably figure out on your own). Just know that every choice has consequences and how you prioritize them determines how fast you move up that ladder.

I Do Love Time With My Loved Ones, But How Do I Stop Feeling Jealous When My Co-worker Wins Awards?

When you find yourself making comparisons and feeling jealous, take some time to reconnect to your priorities. Remember that you get to choose what you put first—and if you want to, you can still change your mind. As long as you’re happy and fulfilled, you’re doing OK.

3. Have I Been Slacking Off?

Some people take their career path above and beyond, becoming the professional athletes of the work world. Leveling up that hard takes blood, sweat, and tears—and if that’s not your cup of tea that’s okay, not everyone who jogs wants to be an Olympic sprinter.

But that’s also not an excuse to let your career get “out of shape.” Have you been running on autopilot? Sitting on the sidelines? Staying in your comfort zone and avoiding new challenges? There’s a major difference between wanting to stay where you are and coasting.

Yes, I Guess I’ve Been Slacking a Little Bit...

Keeping with the fitness analogy: Just like it’s possible to start eating right and exercising again, putting time and effort into your career will help you to course-correct. Identify and set new goals for yourself. (Not sure where to start? Get some help from a career coach.) Put in the work to set your career on a healthier path.

There is no one-size-fits-all career path and comparing your trajectory to others isn’t productive. Some professionals fly forward quickly while others take a “slow and steady” approach. A job can be a paycheck or a passion. Career growth may even take a back burner while kids are small or family members need extra care. The key is to pay attention and to be clear on your own priorities so that you can adjust your career to fit your goals at each phase of your life. So long as you’re not “falling behind” in your own estimation, you’re doing just fine.

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