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‘My Boss Expects Me to Have Career Ambition. Do I Have To?’

Whether you’re working as a cashier or an administrative assistant, everyone is asking where you want to be in five years.
Amateur Hour is an advice column for people who are new to the professional world and are figuring out how work even… works.

I'm the type of person who works for one and only one reason: to earn a living. I do a good job, but this is 100 percent because I'm terrified of starving in the streets and 0 percent because I genuinely care about work or want to build up a “career.”

There aren't any jobs in the universe I'd ever actually want to do. I've never read any job description and not thought, Well, that sounds awful. The highest bar I'm interested in setting re: work is finding something that isn't too awful to bear every day, and performing well so I don't get fired.  


I accept that having a job also means being required to nod and smile along with all the company BS. I do. But I struggle mightily with my company's obsession with everyone's “career development.” It's fine that this stuff is there for people who are interested—what I don't understand is why those of us who aren't interested, and are never going to be interested, are forced to participate too. No matter how many times, year after year, I smile and repeat “I'm fine with where I am now, I don't have any goals beyond performing well in this role,” I can't seem to escape it. 

Is it too much to expect that I can simply have a job that allows me to earn a living and that's it? Or will I really have to keep dealing with this CAREER nonsense until retirement? If so, how do I navigate this? Do I need to come up with some convincing fake “goals” and “passions” to appease the powers that be? If so, I'm completely blank on ideas for what to say and would appreciate suggestions.

Nah, you can have a job that just lets you earn a living without requiring deeper emotional investment from you. Lots of people do! But depending on the job and the company, yes, you might indeed have to play along with some amount of “career development” talk.

A lot of this depends on what career path you take. If you’re, say, delivering pizzas, you’re probably going to encounter less managerial pressure to lay out specific career goals than if you’re on a professional-track job in an office. Even that distinction doesn’t always hold, though. You’ll find managers who want to push a specific view of career progression in every sector; they’re just more common in some jobs than others.


But you’re clearly at a company now that puts a heavy emphasis on it. I’m curious what your manager’s response has been in those conversations where you’ve explained you don’t have goals beyond performing well in your current role. Has she accepted that or pushed for a different response? If she’s accepted it... well, the best route might be to just know that you’re going to have this conversation a few times a year, you’re going to give the same answer each time, and that will be that.

But if she’s pushing for something more—and some managers will—it’s probably worth explicitly addressing that tension. In that case, you could say something like, “I’m happy with my current role and to the extent that I have goals for my career, they center around staying in a role like this one. I get the sense that you’d like me to work toward something else. Will it be a problem if I don’t aspire to move up?” Who knows, maybe you’ll hear they prefer to have periodic turnover in your job because they like getting fresh perspectives, or they want to make sure you understand you’ll hit a salary cap at some point. But there’s a pretty good chance this will nudge your manager into realizing she should adapt her approach with you, because the “needs” she’s trying to address aren’t your needs. And if she doesn’t, that’s good information for you to have too; at that point, at least you’ll know that, yes, this is going to keep happening as long as you work there (or as long as she does).


If you do find yourself working somewhere that requires you to fake a level of investment that you just don’t feel—and with a manager who doesn’t respond well to the more candid discussion—sometimes just sounding thoughtful about it and like you’re taking it seriously (as opposed to blowing it off entirely) will check that box for your boss. For example, these answers often work well:

  •  “I’m not sure of my longer-term goals right now. I enjoy my current work and would like to focus on getting better and better at what I do.”
  •  “I’ve found my current role lets me focus on some of my personal goals outside of work and is a really good fit for my life, so for the foreseeable future I’d like to keep doing a good job in the position I’m in.”
  • “I value the way this job lets me focus on my work without some of the pressures that I’ve seen come with higher-level roles, so my goal is to continue doing well in this job, and I hope to be here doing it for a long time.”

All of these say, essentially, “I’m good, no need for more” but in more acceptable corporate-speak. 

Often when managers want to focus on career development, it’s because they think that’s necessary to retain good employees. After all, the thinking goes, if people don’t see a path upward within the organization, they’ll end up leaving to find that advancement somewhere else. So sometimes simply explaining that that’s not what you’re looking for will put the conversation to rest—for a while, anyway.

The good news is, these conversations are usually a once-a year or twice-a-year thing with most employers (often as part of annual performance evaluations). If you encounter a manager who’s quizzing you about your career goals all the time, that might simply be a manager who you’re incompatible with if you’re not willing to smile and play along. (And really, that’s a manager who most people would be incompatible with, because that sounds overbearing and annoying.) 

Get more good advice from Alison Green at Ask a Manager or in her book. Do you have a pressing work-related question of your own? Submit it using this form.