For instance, giving and receiving bribes is the accepted way of conducting business in many countries. Loyalty to one’s company is a higher virtue in Japan than here. Infidelity in marriage is accepted in many Latin countries (as long as it’s the man who strays). Revenge is expected if you’re a Sicilian.
I came across a value that I had assumed was universal. It wasn’t. During a speaking engagement to a group of 130 female executive secretaries in Portugal, I encountered women who had come from all over the world for a three-day seminar. English was the common language and much was gained by their talking to one another and comparing jobs, bosses and social and political environments.
In fact, one woman worked for a boss in Italy and another worked for the same man when he traveled to his Belgium office. In Belgium he was call “Sir,” was formal and non-interactive. In Italy he was known by his first name and joked and socialized with his staff. This man obviously was fitting into the culture of his particular work group and was a good example of how the expected norms of conduct should influence behavior.
The speakers were excellent and all emphasized upward mobility, job opportunities and strategies for getting ahead. The participants were surprisingly non-responsive. I noticed that they had no questions at the end of the talks and looked glazed a good deal of the time.
I decided to take a survey and found the problem. A large majority of the attendees had been in the same job for more than 15 years and only a small minority had any interest in moving out of their secretarial positions into more managerial or administrative jobs. The organizers expressed not only their surprise, but also their upset at the lack of ambition from the women there.
Their companies had sent these women for three days to a lovely resort by the ocean as a reward for loyalty and good work. If they achieved some personal growth, learned to communicate better, improved their telephone skills, broadened their general knowledge, learned of new computer technologies and enjoyed the sunshine, that was good enough. The seminar organizers, on the other hand, had seen their purpose as getting the women out of their secretarial roles into positions of greater responsibility, authority and power.
I was fortunate to be the closing speaker and could use the information from my survey. I changed the subject of my talk from “Onward and Upward” to “Happy at Work.” In other words, I extolled the virtues of predictability and security and gave permission to not “go anywhere” and to not feel guilty about it.
In our culture, ambition is almost universally seen as positive, whereas words such as “stuck” and “plateaued” have negative connotations. We don’t have a term in our language defining lack of ambition as a happy state of standing still, as a satisfactory place to remain for an indefinite period of time. I have often heard people ask questions like: “Where will you be in five or 10 years?” As if one should expect to be in a more satisfactory place, the assumption being that wherever you are now is not going to be good enough.
We need to re-evaluate our unexamined priorities. “Up” may not be the only way to go. There is a recent trend of professional women leaving their jobs in order to raise children and find satisfaction as stay-at-home moms.
I have caught myself trying to help people move into more lucrative or more fulfilling work, never wondering whether more is indeed better. I had not considered the security of stability, the pleasure of staying in a position one knows and does well, nor the validity of the choice to prioritize other aspects of our lives above professional success. We will find satisfaction only when we give ourselves permission to follow our own individual paths rather than running wherever the herd is headed.