Prestige vs. Happiness

I hear the word “prestige” a lot. There is a great deal of concern with whether a given job is prestigious. Sometimes people weed organizations out of their job search purely because of the perception that those organizations are not prestigious enough. I have friends not wanting to take jobs because the job title is not  sufficiently prestigious. I can bring up what I think is an amazing job opportunity, with good pay and a great work/life balance and the response will be “but is it prestigious?”

It got to the point that I was hearing this word so often, I really started to have a philosophical conversation with myself regarding what it actually means.

I ended up concluding that “prestige” means other people think something is cool. The dictionary definition confirms my conclusion: “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.” Prestige is not tangible. There is no money or benefits associated with it. It’s a feeling.

The problem with choosing a career path based on the fact that other people think it is cool is that you are by definition not choosing a career path based on the fact that it is the right path for you. You are not considering your own happiness, whether you will truly enjoy the day to day work, and whether you will actually like working there. That’s not good.

And because you’re the person who is going to spend your time working in that job, in my opinion, your happiness and satisfaction with your job is the only thing that matters.

To be clear, I am not saying everyone in a prestigious job is unhappy. That is not true at all. I know plenty of lawyers in prestigious jobs who love what they do. Their prestigious job is a great fit for them and they love the work.

What I am saying is that it is a mistake to pursue a job because it is prestigious. If a prestigious job will make you happy and leave you feeling thrilled to go to work in the morning, then pursue it with everything you have got. But if a prestigious job will fill you with dread as soon as the alarm goes off and you’re only able to stick with it because of the paycheck, run away.

In your job search, be selfish. Be ruthlessly selfish. You are the one who has to wake up and commute to work. You are the one who is going to be in the office at least 40 hours a week interacting with your co-workers, serving your clients, and reporting to your supervisor. You will spend a lot of time at work. No one else is going to do that for you. Unless they plan to meet you at your office on Friday night to take over the projects you need to finish so you can go home, (this would be legal malpractice but you get the point I am trying to make), no one else’s opinion about how cool your job is matters even a little bit.

If you take the job you want, you are way more likely to do your best work, get promotions, raises, and carve out a career that you can thrive in.

If your extended family isn’t impressed with your job at Thanksgiving, that’s a pretty small price to pay for actually enjoying your work.

So if there is a job opportunity that you genuinely think will make you happy but no one else thinks it is cool, who cares? I am not saying considerations beyond your satisfaction with your job don’t matter. Your salary matters. People need to support themselves and their families, of course. Where the job you are currently in will lead you in the future matters. If you know where you want to be in five years, you need to make sure you are taking a job now that is a logical path to get you there. Commute time matters. Geography matters. But none of those considerations have a thing to do with prestige. They all have to do only with your selfish happiness.

So I am calling for abolishing prestige as a consideration in the job search. What other people think is cool really doesn’t matter to you and your life and make no mistake- other people thinking you are cool is what prestige is. That is truly all it is.

When planning your career, ask yourself if a particular career path will make you happy.  Try to focus only on that, even if you can only do it for ten minutes.

Ask yourself inwardly focused questions. Will you actually enjoy getting up and going to work in the morning? Will you look forward to seeing your co-workers? How often will you have to stay late or work on weekends? How much will that impact other things you want to do in life? Do you want to eat lunch at your desk everyday? Why did you decide to attend law school? Will you be living that vision for yourself? Where do you want to be in five years? What jobs do people who are already there have in their work history?

Prestige is meaningless. It’s a big puff of smoke. It necessarily takes the focus off of your own happiness and puts that focus on what other people think of your job path. What they think doesn’t matter. Focus on you and you alone.

Let’s stop worrying about prestige and start worrying about genuine career satisfaction.

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