I Think Climbing the Corporate Ladder Is Thrilling (and I’m Not Sorry)

I work nine to five. I sometimes sleep with my Blackberry. And yes, I love my job.

Embracing the Corporate Ladder | APW

I work for a large, bureaucratic organization. People write almost exclusively in the passive voice (“It was decided at the meeting that…”), there are forms for everything, and committees to decide membership for other committees. Ostensibly, I work nine to five, although there have been many nights where I’ve fallen asleep clutching my Blackberry in bed. I often wear a suit.

This is where I tell you about how I hate my job, and long to start a bakery-slash-letterpress studio, or that I’m just putting in time until my blog takes off, or that I’m going back to school to become a pony trainer. But I can’t—because I love my job.

I love the people I work with, the (fascinating, complex, challenging, tangible) work that I do, and the strange and wonderful opportunities that my work presents to me. I love the bizarre situations I find myself in, when I have to whisper to myself, “This is my job!” Oh, and the best part? They send me to a different country every few years, and I’m a sucker for a good passport stamp.

My husband clearly loves me a lot. How can I tell? Countless things hint at it, but the glaring example is that he completely changed his career so that he could follow me around the world more easily. Now he works from home, wherever home happens to be, while I head to a not-very-exotic office in some pretty exotic locations. It’s difficult to even explain how grateful I am to him, how indebted I feel at his willingness to allow my career to dictate how—and where—we live our lives (although we do get a say in where).

I’ve never identified as ambitious. I’ve always loudly proclaimed that family is my number one priority, that I don’t care how far I advance in my career as long as we have fun and enjoy where we travel. My husband and I have derived countless hours of entertainment idly spinning a globe, pointing to our big map over the couch, saying, “How about here?” over breakfast. Lots of my colleagues are ambitious—people are always hustling to move up, to do something big. I’ve always said I didn’t want to play that game, just wanted to enjoy my work and see where it leads.

Six months into my first assignment, though, I had the opportunity to take on much more responsibility than I normally would. I was terrified of screwing up—and relished the challenge more than I ever thought possible. What’s more, I did a pretty good job of it—and my entire blasé façade of unambitious, only-in-it-for-the-perks girl had been revealed.

I had convinced myself that I didn’t care, until I experienced first-hand the thrill of a stretch assignment successfully pulled off. Now I’m facing up to the fact that, despite my protestations to the contrary, I am ambitious. Maybe I said I didn’t want to play the game, but this turned out to be disingenuous. I like the game. I like learning how to negotiate, how to develop my skills; I like the idea that I can parlay my current assignment into something more valuable the next time around—and then I come up short, because my entire notion of what’s valuable has turned upside down. Is it a fun place with great street food? Or is it a step up in my career? If those things align, awesome—but if not, what do I choose? What do we choose?

Ambition to climb the ladder in a big organization is met with scorn in a lot of circles these days. It goes strongly against the trend of proclaiming ourselves above the rat race—more tuned in with what really matters in life, like picnics and artisan pickles—but my career matters to me. I don’t want to be typecast as the harried career woman who’s glued to her Blackberry and neglects her family, but I also don’t want to turn away from something I find so satisfying.

So I’m stepping up and owning my ambition. It may not be the cool thing to do, but I don’t want to end up as the first person in history who, on her deathbed, says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.”

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  • SarahRose

    Love it. It is true; artisanal pickles are not for everyone. And it’s wonderful to hear stories of people finding what IS for them.

    • Meg Keene

      HA. Truth.

  • dcbride

    foreign service officer?

    • The OP

      Yup, that’s why I posted anonymously!

      • dcbride

        it’s a sweet job – and a great building. i’m civil service here and love it.

        • The OP

          I’m actually not American, but our system is quite similar to the State Dept.

      • Elle

        I’m the daughter of two foreign service officers, and I saw my parents in your post. I’ll always be thankful to them for rejecting the premise that work and family are mutually exclusive, that passion for one has to negate or diminish the other. It was never in question to me that you could have both, or (for that matter) that I had the right to expect both. It was an unconventional childhood but there’s nothing I would trade it for.

      • honeycomehome

        Hey APW: It’s a bit misleading to title this post “Embracing the Corporate Ladder” when it’s not actually about someone who works for a corporation. (A bit nit picky, I know, but government bureaucracy and corporate culture are actually pretty different.)

        • Amy March

          Agreed. Still fascinating, but also feels a bit othering of corporate ladies. Like even posts we say are about your work aren’t actually about corporate life.

          • lawyer wishing she was an FSO

            I totally agree. I thought it was strange that a post about climbing the corporate ladder was written by someone who works 9-5. No one serious about moving up the ranks in corporate America works 9-5. And while I have many friends working in the federal government who have challenging, exciting, and important work (including in the CIA and FSO — I am actually tremendously jealous of most of them), it’s just not as cutthroat as a culture that is driven by the bottom line and client demands. Sorry, it’s just not.

          • KH_Tas

            9-5 gets you upward mobility in some places, I have a decent chance to get fairly high up on that here (Australia) and my understanding is that the OP isn’t from the US either

          • The OP

            Yes, as I stated, I’m not from the US. I’ll shoulder the blame for the title as I suggested it, not APW. Having worked in both private and public sector in my country, I felt the similarities were enough to allow myself the creative liberty of using the expression “corporate ladder.” I apologize if that offends?

            And 9-5 are my *working hours*. I generally exceed them!

        • Gina

          Lol so true. The “9 to 5” schedule tipped me off…

      • fellowfso

        I knew as I was reading this that it was written by a Foreign Service Officer! The job brings such unique challenges to a family and a marriage; I was really happy to see this.

  • Chiara M

    This is exactly why I love APW so much. Because this kick ass lady is doing what she loves, and being one of those awesome feminists who is pushing at the glass ceiling. Even though that may not be her intention, the rest of us (and our daughters) thank you for it.

  • Jenni

    Awesome counterpoint to yesterday’s burnout open thread. I love the contrast!

  • Peabody_Bites

    This: “I like the game”. Me, I love the game, I love my job at a big international corporate, I love pushing forward my deals externally and my career internally. I love my sector and my boss and the endless damn meetings and when I fall into bed at midnight, and check my phone in the middle of the night when I get up to pee (7 months pregnant. You are ALWAYS peeing), I still love it. That said, when this crazy phase is over (2 weeks to go) and I have two months of a more balanced life before going on maternity leave, I will be so ready for it and will relax into a more gentle work pace and a life where I actually see my husband and my house.
    And I don’t know what balancing this job-love and the coming baby-love is going to look like and I can’t imagine how we will manage but I don’t want to forget how much I love what I do, and who I am at work, even when it is terminally “uncool” so to do.
    Bit of an unstructured ramble (from a pre-meeting!) but your post really spoke to me and I wanted to respond.

    • Sheila

      When my first baby was two weeks old, I had to go into work for a short meeting (group that I led had to make some important decisions that couldn’t wait out my leave). I came home and cried to my mom because for the first time in two weeks, I had felt like I knew what I was doing. I cried because I WASN’T sad to leave my baby and go to work. I didn’t actually want to work full-time when she was 2 weeks old, but the juxtaposition of feeling like I knew my role and was doing something I was good at, with feeling like I had no idea who this new “mom” person was and had no clue how to be a parent… it was tough to handle. I started counting down the weeks until my maternity leave was over. And then of course I got better at being a mom, and my daughter got a whole lot more interesting to be with… just in time for me to have to go back to work! (It didn’t help that my leave was January – March and ended just as the weather got better.) ANYWAY I’m not even sure where I’m going with this, except to say I think you can be a very dedicated parent and still love your job, and if you find at first that you feel way less competent in your new role and start to wonder what happened to you… you aren’t alone.

      • Jessica

        Thank you for sharing this. I’m not anywhere close to being a mom, but after reading about my new-mom-friends having trouble going back to work I can’t help but feel that I will not share their sadness at being separated from my children. I obviously can’t tell now how I’ll feel, but I don’t want to feel like the odd-parent-out if that does happen.

      • Peabody_Bites

        Thanks Sheila – that is reassuring to hear!

  • KH_Tas

    Thankyou so much for this. You speak things that I am often afraid to say

  • lady brett

    this is great.

    and, p.s., this is why i read apw – the last three days of vastly differing brilliant commentary on this subject has been great. plus, i’m a sucker for learning something new, which anything about career ladders and corporate work is to me (and for happy stories. of course).

  • Kina

    Fun/sad story about ambition: I had a therapist (who I otherwise deeply respected) once tell me that my ambition was such that it was “almost masculine in nature.” Say WHAT?

    Excellent post, and thanks for the artisan pickles – gave me a great early morning lol :)

  • rys

    Love this. I’ve been pulling really long days (no all-nighters, thankyouverymuch) to finish my dissertation and as hard as it is, I’m reminded in my work and in reading pieces like this that I love what I do, and I want to put in the hours to be successful. I’m aiming big, and I like doing the work to make the career dream possible. Ambition, it’s cool. And fun too.

  • Katie

    You know what — I don’t think you’re uncool, I think you’re living the dream (and I’m a little jealous). I think most of those people leaving the corporate world to go be small business owners are looking for what you already found — a career or job that is satisfying and makes you happy. Good for you!

  • Sarah E

    Rock on, lady. It takes all kinds to run this world. And if everybody decided to up and become a resident writer on Amtrak, who would drive the train?

  • Lisa

    My most creative moments have come in meetings. Meetings at corporations. Meetings with white boards and pizza brought in. I would need to be a tougher soul than I am to be truly suited to corporate life, but damn, so much about it I just loved.

  • EF

    I wonder what kind of position this is — from the globe-trotting and analyst sounding description, I doubt it’s a 9-5 job…but instead longer hours than that.
    But that’s not a criticism! I have next to no creativity at all, only in formulating how to apply case law to X problem. I do well in office environments and now that I’ve grabbed onto a low-ish rung, I’m hanging on for dear life. However, that’s not to be unrealistic with what comes with it: a lot of time away from home, long commutes (but in the city, on the train, I dig it), long working hours. Some people do well in that environment and we should be glad to exclaim that we do. Thanks for this viewpoint, and not just a celebration of the independent, creative workers, APW!

    EDIT: I now see it’s foreign service, and definitely agree that’s not the same as the corporate ladder. A different challenge/demon, perhaps, but not the same one.

  • Sara P

    This is so great! Thanks for the variety, APW. And rock on, OP. It sounds like fun :).

  • Robyn

    Thank you for this. I never thought I would like my corporate job, which I only took so I could start paying my bills, but it’s awesome. I realized as I’m still starting out, I need good mentorship and honestly a great place to easily find mentors is in a large corporation. I need to be part of a team, and given challenging assignments that are so far out of my comfort zone that I’d never think of them myself to stay motivated. In a time in my life where my Facebook feed is littered with articles from mommy blogs about the importance of being a parent above else and putting your job on the backburner is the most important thing and no one can be happy unless they are truly “free” and not working for The Man, this is refreshing. Thank you APW!

  • Kelli

    As is so often the case, APW gives me words for a thought or feeling I may have had for a while, but never had the language to describe. I totally relate to this 100 percent. I discovered ambition in my current job, and there is a part of me that has felt a little guilty about that, for many reasons. One thing that has been particularly challenging for me is that I am more “successful” than my partner. He works from home and is currently struggling to find a business model that fits him best. Meanwhile, I have a fairly high-profile job in a field I love, and have negotiated several substantial raises in the two years I’ve been here. Thankfully, he has been incredibly supportive of my career, but I do still feel guilty sometimes. And, if we’re being totally honest, I want to push him to be successful, too. He is so talented, but I think my success has enabled him to be a bit too passive with his career. Any thoughts on how to encourage him to make a business plan and stick with it, without seeming condescending in light of all the ways in which MY job is going well? Important to note: we are living together and are pre-engaged; we expect to be married by the end of the year. Thanks, friends.

    • Katherine

      I think a lot of this depends on whether your partner wants to be more successful at a career. I am much more ambitious (job-wise) than my husband, and it’s sometimes been hard for me to understand that he doesn’t care work in the same way I do. And, honestly, the fact that he works part time, does the dishes, and cleans the bathroom makes it a lot easier for me to pursue my career goals.

      • Kelli

        Thanks, Katherine. That’s a great point. I think part of the issue for me is that, much like the author, this ambitious version of myself isn’t what I pictured for my life. I imagined that I would be the one making less money, taking off to have kids, etc. And now, while I don’t know that I’d want that anymore, I don’t think I’d even have the choice. Plus, my partner DOES want to be successful in his work. He is very unhappy with his current situation, and it’s difficult for me to not try and fix it. Ultimately, though, like you said, there’s a tradeoff. He may not be making big money, but I am always well-fed :)

  • Meigh McPants

    Love this. I think the lesson of this week is that corporate ambition and artisanal pickles are equally valid choices, and the beauty of feminism is that it allows for both. Or it should, anyway. I love these posts b/c they’re not prescriptive; I get so sick of interwebs people telling me how I should be living my best life. This is just “this is what I’m rocking, it works for me, and I love it,” which is so refreshing. Thanks OP!

  • Diane Day

    Honestly, I’m jealous. I really wish I’d found a job/career that I love as much as OP seems to love hers.

    • Cathi


      I read the counterpoint posts to this one and I get jealous because having a passion for baking and/or letterpress seems nice, but that’s more of a “wishful thinking” kind of jealousy. I don’t have that sort of drive and passion for a craft or lifestyle.

      But this? This I do want. I want to wear suits. I want to work 9-5 (or later!). I want a boss and I want people to supervise. I want meetings to contribute to and make presentations for. I want to sit at a desk and typity type and feel important.

      Unfortunately I essentially majored in Artesinal Pickle Making, so having a corporate lifestyle seems like such a ridiculous fantasy.

      • Diane Day

        Haha yep I occasionally find myself wondering, “why on earth didn’t I just get a business degree?”

  • JenClaireM

    I think it’s so cool that you’re owning your ambition, that you like the game, that your corporate-style job is one you love. I’m kind of envious in fact. It’s always cool to find your work passion and go for it – wherever that is.

  • JSwen

    Ambition is very cool – own it!

    Growing up, I was always busy but in an auto-pilot sort of way. I found my ambition in the middle of college for a specific career. Sadly, the city I am in doesn’t have many companies in my industry and the company I climbed the highest in, axed me last year (without reason – booo, at will employment and nutso owners). My fiance loves his work and is at a company that still has pensions (wha?) so we could stay here for a long time. As I take the time off to finish my masters thesis, I’m also mentally preparing for my period of ambition to be effectively over. I’m optimistic that I’ll find other work that is (hopefully) fulfilling and (hopefully) economically advantageous but I might end up back in my old M.O. of auto-pilot. Not sure if that is a good or bad thing (I was working 60-70 hour weeks at my most ambitious) but it’s definitely going to be different.

  • Lena and Aggy

    Do you work for the state department? Because basically, that was/is my dream job.

  • Dami

    Thank you so much for this. Being in a structured work environment rocks. I love being in meetings and negotiating deals. Sometimes it is tiring but more often than not I find the knowledge gained worth it. Finally a post about actual career women and not just creative types. Not everyone has a creative bone in her body.

    • KH_Tas

      I was talking to my fiance a while back about how all the career articles on the internet were by creative types, as opposed to desk-job-minded people such as ourselves. We concluded that it was strongly self-selecting, as most people who are happy in the (now somewhat uncool) ‘norm’ aren’t as driven to write articles about it. Or are scared about being mocked (i.e. me).

      • Dami

        I agree with the latter. We are scared of being mocked. I think women in professional careers face some sort of backlash. A good example is the dearth if comments under this post compared with the number of comments that appear under posts about wanting to be a SAHM.

  • norim

    I am a 61 year old male who has been happily married for 32 years. While demographically we are very different, OP perfectly captures the tensions I feel, late in my career, between taking on positions that encompass new, “important”, and challenging work vs ones that facilitate an nice and interesting life outside of work and more time with family. Thank you.

  • lindsay

    This is awesome and validating for women like you and me.

  • such an interesting discussion on the wedding front..

  • Civil Servant Sweetheart

    Fantastic! Don’t get me wrong, I love the stories about sticking it to the man and starting up your own independent, self-fulfilling business – and part of me likes to fantasize about doing that some day. But most of me? Most of me is really happy, stimulated and fulfilled climbing the corporate (or rather public sector) ladder.

    I’m also a civil servant, currently applying for a similar job to this actually (fingers crossed!) and I love it. Yes, there are days when the back-to-back meetings or bureaucracy get you down, or you feel like you’re not getting any more done than moving documents around in the electronic ether. But, most days I feel stimulated, really interested in my work and – yes, I’ll be cheesy and say it – that my work is making a difference.

    I agree that it’s very different from the corporate world – but, having worked in both, my humble and very personal opinion is that I prefer the public sector. I get to crank out some top notch work, work with some really bright and fascinating people, move up in my career and really see a future in my organisation – all while leaving in time to go home and have a nice dinner and cuddle with my other half on the sofa. Yes, you won’t get paid the big bucks, but I love getting to have a fulfilling job and a life at the same time, and know that my work is – eventually – helping the average person on the street live a better life.

  • Whitney

    I love this piece and how it moves around the idea of how what-people-think-we-are affects how we self-identify.
    To me, the point of anti-rat-race is the climbing over the backs of your coworkers to get the raise or the corner office. Ambition isn’t the evil, its what you’re willing to do in the name of ambition.
    It sounds like the author loves her job. Good for her! :)