Why Professional Martyrdom Is A Shitty Career Strategy And How To Fix It

Why Professional Martyrdom is a Shitty Career Strategy - Brass Tack ThinkingOne of the hardest parts of professional development is learning to look in the mirror.

So many professionals want to look outside themselves for the factors that are holding them back.

A crappy boss.

Working too many hours.

Not enough feedback. Too much feedback.

Competing priorities.

Lack of opportunities. 

Lack of respect or acknowledgment of one’s capabilities.

The list goes on.

Here’s the hard part. Ready?

Ultimately, even if all of these things are true, you hold the reins. If your career is not headed in the direction you want, the bulk of the responsibility AND opportunity lies with you.

There are often circumstances beyond your control that limit your potential, whether they be related to people or budgets or organizational structure and culture.

The one thing you always have within your control is how you respond to the realities of your professional circumstances.

You can endure the status quo, and learn to make do with what you have.

You can change the status quo by starting in the mirror. That means working to create change where you are through your approach to your work and recognizing your role in that, or creating a change in circumstances by leaving or finding another opportunity that’s a better fit for you.

If you’re not cut out for that, that’s totally cool.

But what is not cool is shirking accountability for the path that your career takes.

More of it is within your control than you think it is, and often changing the things around you starts with expecting more from yourself and asking if you’re living up to the same standards to which you’re holding everyone else.

If I had a dollar for every friend or colleague that told me all about the endless hours they work or how overwhelmed they are with projects, I wouldn’t have to work myself. But hanging yourself from the cubicle cross is really a lousy career strategy. And too many people spend their entire careers doing just that, waiting for someone to recognize their brilliance and their selfless sacrifice and undiscovered potential. Until no one ever does.

Because it’s not someone else’s job to convince you that your work is worthwhile. (Ask me how I know this to be true, or how many years I spent learning the stuff in this post the hard way.)

Then we end up resentful, bitter, and wondering why our career isn’t fulfilling.

If you aren’t doing these things already, here are a few things you can do today to drastically improve your professional situation and stop being dragged along behind the work freight train:

1. Communicate.

If you are overwhelmed, someone is mismanaging priorities and projects. That’s likely a combination of you and your boss. Many managers don’t always have a good handle on all the competing priorities, nor can they possibly know and understand at all times how that’s affecting their team. It’s their job to ask. It’s yours to communicate it as well.

2. Set boundaries.

Try this on for size when you have that meeting about priorities.

“Here’s an accounting of all the projects I’m working on currently, and an approximation of how much time I’m spending on them per week. As you can see, the priorities are outweighing my capacity. I’d like to be sure we’re in agreement about what’s most important, and work together to address the other items through an increase in resources or a shift in expectations and priorities. Can we discuss?”

It’s your job to have a handle on how much time you’re spending where, and whether the issue is truly a capacity one or one of your own struggles managing projects or information. It’s your manager’s job to enthusiastically tackle that discussion. If they can’t or won’t, then you may very well need a different boss.

3. Get honest with yourself.

Are you stuck in the busy trap?

If you’ve got time to kvetch on Facebook but are losing sleep, that’s an issue. If you’re burning time idly because you can’t figure out what you should be doing next, that’s an issue. If you aren’t ever reading a book or taking a bath or going for a walk, you’re making a choice to spend time working instead of doing those things.

If you feel like those choices are not yours to make, you’re wrong. The problem isn’t that we aren’t empowered, it’s that we aren’t always willing to live with the risks of being so (like having to have a frank and uncomfortable conversation with your boss, or realizing that you really need to find a different job, or being willing to answer to a missed deadline because going to your kid’s swim meet was more important).

There are always circumstances in our professional lives that suck.

The people who purport to be following their bliss at all hours of the day with zero friction are deluded or lying or both. There are truly lousy managers, crummy corporate cultures, impossible team mates, unrealistic deadlines, restricted resources, insane clients, politics and drama and confidence issues.

We all struggle. We all have to make choices. We all have different priorities, personalities, circumstances and tolerances that make this far from a universal constant for everyone, but a balance and footing we have to find for ourselves. But we do have to find it for ourselves.


Let’s make a promise, you and I. That we aren’t going to be martyrs in our professional lives. That we’re going to own it, because we’re the ones driving. And when we feel like we aren’t, we’re going to face down some hard decisions to figure out why that is…and own that too.

Accountability is sexy.

And we all have to own our career paths lest someone else do it for us.


  • http://acceso-directo.com/ Ceci Saia

    This is the pep talk I was needing. Great post, Amber.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Glad it resonated, Ceci.

  • http://camiloolea.tumblr.com/ Camilo Olea

    Great post, Amber!

    “(Ask me how I know this to be true, or how many years I spent learning the stuff in this post the hard way.)”

    So, care to share how? :)

    Best regards from Cancun!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      The short version:

      I spent many years on a career path that was making me miserable. Then I realized the only person that was going to fix that was me. So I quit my job and did something about it.

      • http://camiloolea.tumblr.com/ Camilo Olea


  • http://www.ashtonsmith.net/ Ashton Smith

    Great article. Now to apply some of it.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Let us know how it goes, Ashton.

  • Working Mama

    Great post Amber…wondering if you have children and how you see this in light of that?

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I do. And I quit the job that was making me miserable, without another job lined up, when I was a single mom of a one year old with a mortgage and all the typical obligations. I went into business for myself, and I was willing to work at Starbucks or Target or tend bar to make bills if I had to.

      Then I took a job with a startup when she was two. Then I quit again when she was five to start another business. I’m still a single, working mom.

      In my view, my kid needs to know that she can do anything, and that it’s up to her to make it happen. I intend to lead by example.

  • Faith_Azreal

    Totally needed this pep talk!
    I’ve been struggling with the very same issues at my new job. I hope I can put into practice, if not all but most of what you have said.
    Thanks Amber!

  • http://ReturnOnNow.com/ Tommy Landry

    Great commentary Amber. I struggled with this same thought process for much of my career working on the client side. In the end, I came to terms with the fact that I not only wanted to work for myself, but I NEEDED to work for myself. Once I made that decision and put a plan into motion, the skies cleared and I could see for days. Thanks for speaking so bluntly – people need to be shaken sometimes to wake up.

  • Soledad Madero Yuquich

    Great post! Going through these processes right now. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Geoffrey Winn

    This is difficult reading for professionals but necessary. Well written.