by Mike Ellis

24 Jul 2015

The art of coasting

Your career: it’s about growth, development, building for the future. You’re on a trajectory which started when you left school with a couple of A-levels. You maybe went on to college. Your parents smiled as they could see that this was a career with legs, something going somewhere.

Your bosses’ job comes up. You go for it – it’s written in your path. You get more money, more responsibility, more budget.

A couple of years down the line and you’re head of department. Then five years later, VP. Then…who knows…

This kind of career is drilled into us. On the one hand, our parents’ generation has a lot to do with this – as lifelong career holders, that’s how it went for them, and they reflect that back at us.

But there’s also our environment: our peers, friends, government – and they emit a constant, never-ending background hum that growth is a good thing. If you’re not earning more this year than last, if your job isn’t bigger, more responsible, more important – well, then you’re failing.

To be seen to coast, just to relax into what you know and like? No, my boy! Get up that ladder. Show us your ambition!

It’s OK, strangely, for us to bust our balls for 20 years, sell a business and then stop working. Society forgives us for that. We worked so hard to get there after all. But choosing a path which enables you to coast, to find a balance, to just stay at the same level? Slacker.

We’re apparently keen on work-life balance, but try refusing that next promotion because you choose the extra hour a day at home with your kids over the increase in salary? Weird looks all round – and an unsettling feeling that you’ll be on The List when the redundancies come round, earmarked as the slopey-shouldered one.

We all accept it because everyone says it is A Good Thing, but growth is fundamentally broken. Sure, we maybe earned more this year than last, but then the bills, fuel, holidays, house prices and everything else have risen too. Net result? Not much, as far as I can tell.

As my company enters its fifth year of trading I feel this pressure to grow perhaps even more keenly than those who are employed by someone else. Almost everything is urging us to scale up – and I’m fascinated by this because it’s absolutely not something we are aiming for; it’s just the natural offshoot of an environment in which growth is expected. Almost by default (actually I think because we do a good job and are now known because of it) we have bigger clients, bigger budgets and better exposure than ever before. It’s obvious in abstract that bigger work follows that which went before – but also really interesting to watch it actually happening, month on month and year on year.

Round about now there are people in my position who would probably take on staff. But…I like the balance. I don’t want a £5k a month staff cost stressing me out. I have no desire whatsoever to work evenings and weekends. I want to hang out with my wonderful kids before they reach an age when they’re off all the time doing their own thing. I want to go surfing, write music, run, chill out with a cider, look at the sea.

This is not to say (dear clients!) that we don’t bust a ball when we are working. We produce great stuff, and we make our clients happy – and this is absolutely crucial to us.

But do we want to get bigger? No - but what is becoming clear to me is that it requires active effort to maintain – to coast – rather than grow.

I've found that these three things help:

1) Don’t be afraid to say no: it is strangely empowering. My hot tip is to find a friend with a similar mindset and share your “I said no!” stories with each other. It helps, and will bolster your confidence hugely.

2) Be picky with who or what you work with. See 1) but also don’t be afraid to turn down or push back about things you’re not comfortable doing. This doesn't always work - back at the beginning of Thirty8 Digital, we took on whoever and whatever we could - but it's a delight now to be able to pick and choose.

3) Remember why you’re here. This is the most important thing of all. If this means meditation or mindfulness, great. If that's not your bag, that's fine too. But just step away, regularly - and consider what you're doing and why.

It's all too easy to get caught up in the process of doing and lose sight of your horizon. Look at your kids, your partner, the things you find beauty in. Choose time with them over this strange thing we call "growth".

Choose to coast, and be proud of your choice.

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