Career Growth

How to Survive A Cut-throat Job Market

A brilliant, competitive friend of mine, doing a surgery internship at one of the best hospitals in the world, recently asked me a heart-breaking question. She spent all of college and medical school studying 12-hour days, getting As in most classes, and taking every opportunity to immerse herself in the practice of medicine. She wants to help people, and she is going to be great at it.

The problem? The hospital she works at is so cut-throat that interns write erroneous notes on patient’s notes just to get their name in front of the doctor on duty, ask top doctors whom they have never worked with for recommendation letters, and actively make each other look bad just to get ahead. So she asked me, “People are willing to do anything just to get ahead, but I don’t want to cheat and schmooze. I just want to practice good medicine and help people. Will I ever make it in the field?”

My honest answer? Yes, but probably not in a place that actively encourages and facilitates this behavior. And that’s okay.

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.”

There will always be places that actively seek out aggressive go-getters and facilitate schmoozing. (Ahem, Pearson Spector Litt anyone?) There will always be places that don’t. The important thing is to keep perspective, focus on your goals, and remain competitive with a rational, narrow group of peers that have similar career trajectories.

Cheryl Strayed wrote: “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.” The competitive, type-A side of me feels like I need to be on my way to publishing my first novel right now while simultaneously getting promoted and feeling terrible that I’m nowhere near as successful or wealthy as my co-worker who has 3 certifications, two Ivy League degrees, runs her own non-profit, and takes care of 6 dogs.

When I swallow my impulses, sit back and think for a moment about what I really want, I realize that many people I arbitrarily view as competition don’t have the things I want. I don’t want to run a non-profit or get 3 certifications. I want to be happy and successful and that means something different to me.

The same goes for my friend. Competitive by nature, she wanted to compete with anyone and everyone and excel. At some point, there are people you will not compete with because you won’t want to.

It’s a part of growing up, not backing down. Reaching for the top spot, aggressively even, can be rewarding and fulfilling to the right people. But giving up that goal and reaching for fruit that doesn’t require you to wine and dine in a $2000 suit can be often more fulfilling – particularly when it comes with other perks, like more time with family, less stress, better work-life balance, more friends, or even at-work happiness. And remember, there’s more than one way to the top.

While networking is always important and beneficial, you don’t need to schmooze and finagle rules in your favor to get the job you want. Unless this comes naturally to you (and you enjoy it), the job likely isn’t a fit for you, and you won’t be happy there anyway.

Letting go of the idea that the “best” is the best or doing the “most” is better can be difficult. But it can also be a step toward a much more accomplished, positive, and challenging career.

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