For me, a career crisis normally happens each Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. – Alain de Botton

While I suspect that the gap between your current grade, the grade of others, or the grade you desire does not leave you in tears each Sunday night, I suspect it’s something that crosses your mind time to time.

You see, in government, it is not unusual to reference someone’s grade as an indicator of the importance one holds. It can also be an indicator of success.

For those not in government, a grade is the indicator of how much pay someone receives. It’s also supposed to reflect increasing complexity of work and the amount of oversight one gives and/or receives.

In the TEDTalk by Alain, he talks about how our society assumes we live in a meritocracy. That is, that if you work hard then you will succeed. Alternatively, if you do not work hard then you will fail. The gap between what we expect and what happens can lead to a career crisis.

I can think of no other workplace where fairness is embedded into the bureaucracy of hiring and promoting than in the government.

Thus, when we think about someone’s GS grade as an indicator of success, we must believe that they are distributed fairly. That if you work hard, you will progress up the GS scale.

And while I cannot think of a workplace where fairness is more of an expectation, I cannot think of a place more rife with grade snobbery and grade jealousy.

Grade snobbery and the career crisis

In his TEDTalk, Alain defines snobbery as taking a small aspect of someone and using that to describe the whole of that person. Thus, grade snobbery is assuming that someone’s grade defines the whole of a person. The dictionary goes further to explain a snob is someone who has excessive respect for social position or wealth.

It is not unusual to hear a grade-snob relate the appalling situation in which someone of a lower grade has the audacity to speak out of their rank.

“No GS-9 has the right to tell me (a GS-12) what to do! Who do they think they are?”

Where is the career crisis in this?

The crisis comes when the person finds that they are unable to get work accomplished because they’ve alienated themselves to anyone below their GS. Or, when they apply to new positions (usually a higher GS), they are unable to get the job because behind-the-scenes references don’t check out. As a result, their career plateaus and they enter into the career crisis zone.

Grade jealousy and the career crisis

While grade snobbery is looking down, grade jealousy is looking upward. Usually, this shows up in comments like, “How did he end up a GS-15? He’s an idiot!”

In part, this statement comes from the desire to be a GS-15. In short, a sense of envy. But part of this statement comes from a belief of what it takes to become (and stay) a GS-15. And a sense of unfairness for the person having achieved that status.

I started early in this post saying that a grade is not only the level of pay someone receives. But also, that grade is supposed to be a reflection of the complexity of the work that someone performs. And also the oversight he/she gives and receives.

In saying that this ‘idiot’ shouldn’t be a GS-15 it’s showing the belief system of the speaker. Specifically that grades are earned fairly. That if, and only if, someone works hard they will move up the GS scale. Conversely, is someone does not work hard or does not contribute then they should not move up the career ladder.

Envy is the desire to have a desirable attribute of another. Jealousy, conversely, is resentment for what someone has received that is believed to be more rightfully deserved by another.

The truth is, while there’s a great deal of rules and regulations to ensure fair hiring, it doesn’t always happen that way. Job complexity and oversight can be interpreted differently. As a result someone who works as a GS-15 in one agency may do exceedingly more complex work than someone in another agency.

The career crisis comes from when the person finds themselves unable to get a higher grade regardless of how hard they work.

Avoiding the career crisis of snobbery and envy

I think Alain puts it well in his talk:

“So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Most of us began working for the government for the impact we wanted to have in our careers. And, somewhere along the line many of us are caught up by what success looks like in the government. I think it’s often hard to see the impact we have on the larger scale. And, so it is hard to determine if we are truly successful in our goal. As a result, we look for another way to determine our success – which is often in terms of grade. And, this sets us up for a career crisis when things don’t happen as we expect.

I want to encourage you to re-evaluate how you define success. Think instead of the impact you have on those around you. Are you mentoring? Are you building people up? Do you look for ways to continually improve? Because if you do these things – in my book you’re pretty darn successful no matter what your GS is.

That said, if you’re still looking for a grade increase, check out the post about things you can do to develop yourself for the next grade. There’s also a post on things you could be doing to prepare for a promotion. And, you may also be interested in a prior TedTalk Tuesday post about why you will fail even if you work hard (isn’t that cheery?).