The Disadvantages of Having Career Goals

Very ambitious individuals are often disappointed

Posted Oct 21, 2012

The satisfactions of work are not usually tied to achieving specific goals

Not uncommonly I see young people who have had very successful academic careers. They have gone to the best colleges and graduate schools. They are on what may be described reasonably as a fast track. Sometimes when I see them they are just a year or two out of law school and they are working at a prestigious law firm. They are working very hard. They are being paid $130,000 to $180,000 a year to work 70 hours a week.  I am always sorry a little for them, despite the fact that they are making a lot of money and working in a law firm that will look good on their resume, they tell me. They know that the chance of making partner is only about 3% Also, their training is usually very comprehensive in an extremely narrow part of the law. When they leave the firm a few years later, their legal experience, however prestigious, does not qualify them to work in many areas of the law. They know all this. Still, they are likely to keep up this pace at those firms despite my attempts to dissuade them.

I ask them what their career goals are. Some have to stop and think about that question. Up until now they have been running as fast as they can, putting one foot in front of the other without really stopping to think about where they are headed. They are doing what they have always done–because they are good at it and because they have always been congratulated for being smart and working hard. Still, if I persist, some of them will tell me that they want to make a lot of money–not an awful lot, just a lot, perhaps two or three million dollars. Some others say they want to become president of a large corporation or own their own company. When I ask what they hope to achieve, really, with these particular goals, they often come up with sophisticated reponses.

“I want to make enough money so that I don’t have to worry about money.” or

“I want to be recognized as a success. I want the prestige and the status of a successful person.” or

“I want to rise so high in my work that I can do what I want without there being someone over me to tell me I can’t do that.”

These goals, which seem reasonable, are unfortunately out of reach. For everyone.

I knew before becoming a psychiatrist that money didn’t buy happiness. Everyone knows that. What I didn’t realize is that money doesn’t buy financial security. Only the very rich know this to be true. Everyone thinks that if they only had another $100,000 or so they would feel secure, and they wouldn’t have to worry about money. The truth is: some people worry about money and some others don’t worry about money. Whether they are on welfare or whether they make %10 million dollars a year. Those who worry about money continue to worry about money no matter how much money they make. They can explain this in very convincing ways. Perhaps they made all that money by leveraging investments in real estate. But what if the real estate markets drop suddenly. They can be wiped out!  I have had a patient who had approximately 30 million dollars tell me he could not afford a divorce.

“No kidding,” he said. “I know how that sounds, but the family would have to make real sacrifices. We would have to give up the boat and some of the cars, for instance.”

So,  someone whose goal is to make enough money to feel secure is going to be disappointed. Okay, so you don’t believe that; but it is true.

Similarly, success brings only a temporary sense of achieving status or prestige. It feels good only when someone is  in the process of getting a promotion. The feeling wears off. Such a very successful person is likely to move into an affluent community where everyone is doing just as well, and no one is impressed by him or her. Certainly, his children are not impressed. Or his spouse.

Finally,  no one reaches so exalted a position that he doesn’t have to answer to other people. I noticed this first, of course, in the army where my hospital commander had to answer to the base commander; and he had to answer to visiting generals, and they had to answer to visiting congressmen. Even doctors, who like to think of themselves as independent, have to answer to their colleagues for referrals and even to their patients– although sometimes it doesn’t seem that they worry very much about that. So, that sort of independent authority is out of reach for everyone.

Sometimes I see these individuals much later in their careers, when they are forty-five or fifty and going through a “mid-life crisis.”  Many of them are unhappy because they weren’t able to reach their goals; but a surprising number have reached their goals; and they are unhappy also. All their hard work enabled them to become president of their corporation, perhaps, and they find themselves disappointed. “Is that all there is,” they feel. Like the song.

So, is everyone doomed to be unhappy?  Of course not, but the people who enjoy their daily work,  the process of working, are those who are likely to reach middle age without regrets. Often there is a career path off in the background; but their satisfactions come from the nature of their work, including the social aspects of their work. It is important, also, to leave room for everything else in life, friends and family, learning new things, and having fun.  (c) Fredric Neuman 2012.  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at