Forward, Not Upward

This was originally formed as a note on career growth that I had been working on the past few weeks, but for some reason was struggling with.

Then my aunt died last night.

My family is spread across multiple generations. My grandmother died nearly ten years ago at the age of 108. My aunt who just passed, my dad’s sister, was 94. My dad is turning 75 next month. He was in his 40s when I was born. This probably explains why I have never been in a rush to have children. It was never seen as a huge imperative for me.

(Besides, my dog is going to live forever, so I never have to worry about saving for college.)

Why my aunt’s death spurred me to hit publish is something I will solve for myself, but it does bring to mind a story I shared with participants in Facebook’s Research Associate Program yesterday that I’d like to elaborate here.

Around ten years ago, I mentored some kids in LA who were on the wrong path, in neighborhoods where boys were as likely to be convicts or corpses, with not much space in between. One kid, who I will call John here for the sake of anonymity, was 16 at the time and in a gang. He wanted out. He didn’t know how. With a lot of work, meeting with his mom and teachers, tutoring, sacrificing, and some perseverance mixed with grit, he graduated.

Not just from high school. Not just from college. But with a law degree from UCLA.

I am an introvert by nature. I suffer from imposter syndrome daily. It takes a lot out of me just to be around so many people day in and day out. And sometimes my voice starts to crack or stutter because I am so stuck in my head and my brain is so tired from being around people, I literally struggle to get the words out of my mouth. So when I am home with my dog and there is silence? That, to me, is heaven.

I was always told that in order to grow, in order to advance, I’d need to be more extroverted. I needed to be above introversion. Because introverts can’t lead. I unfortunately passed this advice on to John, thinking that it would help him in his journey. At his graduation party, I congratulated him on moving upward towards his future. He’s a lawyer now! He’s moved up and above his past! He’s not trapped in the cycle anymore!

His next few words were poignant:

“I didn’t move up, J; I moved out. There’s a difference. You just gave me an opportunity to walk through that door.”

Language forces perspective.

Humans have bodies (obviously) so we always experience events from a given perspective (e.g., from the side, at eye-level) rather than a god‘s eye view.

There are three dimensions of perspectival construal of a scene (Tomasello, 2003):

  • the granularity dimension reflects the ability to describe objects coarsely (e.g., a thing) or in fine grain (e.g., a kitchen chair)
  • the perspective dimension captures point of view, such as describing an exchange as buying or selling
  • the function dimension corresponds to different construals of the same object according to different functions, such as a person being a father or a doctor.

The way we use linguistic symbols thus creates a clear break with straightforward perceptual or sensory-motor cognitive representations — even those connected with events displaced in space and/or time — and enables us to view the world in context for the communicative purpose on hand.

In short? How we speak matters. How we speak about growth is critical to the behaviors and actions we display in our work.

“Moving up” or “level up” as an inspirational call-to-action makes sense for populations who are held down by oppression. This shouldn’t be the case with career growth. Using words like upward may imply something lies beneath us. Hierarchy. That some are lesser than others. If we grow upward in our careers, we are now above those in similar positions we have moved on from. If we grow a product upward from a previous state, we have lessened the work done prior to a product’s current state. If we fall, we’ve lost upward mobility.

It is a constant battle to fight to the top. And there will always be someone above you.

Forward implies progressive movement. Increments. Mobility from one state to the next. We can look back on where we were and use our knowledge to inform our next steps. We can grow in our careers, move to a management position, and be at the same level and pace as others. We can bring others along without having hierarchy over them. Our peers and our team can be ahead of us in certain areas without being above us. We can fall and pick ourselves up, yet not lose a step because we. are. still. moving.

It may be easy, especially during performance summary cycles, to consider career growth as upward mobility, and judge our progress based on hierarchical frameworks we’ve encoded into our societal DNA ages ago.

But we’re not in competition with each other. We are running together. Step by step.

And if you’re uncertain what that next step looks like? Start with one. One teammate, one mentor, one advisor. Build a relationship with that person and see how that relationship grows. It is much better to have high quality relationships that help give voice to your career than high quantity relationships that provide only noise.

I’m still an introvert. I’m still an imposter. I still pay attention to every word I speak audibly. Most of the time, I still feel like I don’t belong. But I am learning through experience, building day to day, and developing relationships that lessen imposterism and sense of belonging little by little, reminding myself that as long as you’re moving forward, you’re growing.

Just make sure to leave the door open for others on the way through.