Downshifting as the very term indicates means moving from a higher gear to a lower gear in a vehicle. Derailment is the dangerous act of a rail going off its track.
It requires little intelligence to recognize that downshifting is better than derailment when it comes to vehicles. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of wisdom to recognize that what applies to vehicles applies to careers too.
Careers are always referred to in terms of paths, tracks and ladders. This rather mechanical view of careers stems from the notion that once on a path or track or ladder, there is only one option – to keep moving forward or upward; there is no getting down or slowing down. This notion of being devoid of choice makes the individual look like a prisoner. Even worse, it attaches a value judgment on anyone who stops, slows down, takes a pause or gets off momentarily.
As a result, in a vibrant economy like India, more and more executives are confronted with the need to decide what they will do in their ladder or path every two or three years. Because every two years, they are lured with hard to refuse invitations to shift to a higher gear or climb more steps even if their hearts plead with them to take a pause or their heads tell them that they are not ready for this. For most executives, not doing anything or turning down an invitation does not appear to be an option.
Some succeed in the choices they make while many others fail because they may accept jobs for which they may not have the competence or may join work environments that do not suit their value system or may sign up to work with managers whose style is incompatible with theirs.
These issues become extremely stark as executives become older because they fail to attach a higher monetary value to their life stage need for congruence where they can say and do what they feel. They fail to attach a higher monetary value to their need for meaning. They fail to attach a higher monetary value to their need for respect and regard for who they are.
Many may also fail to make a realistic assessment of their emotional readiness to live with the inevitable dishonesty of organisational life, especially at senior levels.
Once in the face of these realities, they recognize that they just cannot handle it and call it quits. They recognize that they do not fit in with the demands of that higher step in that ladder or that higher gear in the car. Those who do not learn from this experience might blame the corporate world or bad luck and repeat the mistake once or even twice. By then, their self-confidence goes into a negative spiral.
So, what is the way out?
First, I believe that senior professionals, especially nearing executive positions and over 40 years of age must have a very high level of awareness about what they can and cannot do, what they value and what they do not, what is important and what is not. They must also have the courage to accept these realities and not live in denial.
Second, executives must use this awareness to decide when they need to downshift. They must know the limits of their competence including their emotional capabilities and physical fitness and determine when is the right time to shift gears and slow down.
They must have the grace to accept that the corporate world will be the way it is or even get worse but remember that they have the choice to engage with it in a way that works for them.
Downshifting might mean choosing to work in a smaller organisation where one is respected and valued. Downshifting might mean sticking to doing what one is very good at or passionate about and not venture into unknown or unsuitable terrains. Downshifting might mean that one stops choosing jobs that call for excessive personal and family sacrifices. Downshifting might also mean taking a calculated reduction in pay and benefits so that on a sustainable basis, one is still fine. However, downshifting does not mean one is resisting change. It only means one is adapting to it in a harmonious way.
By being perceptive, self-aware and smart in choosing the right time to downshift, executives might be able to build sustainable careers which allow them to move out of restrictive tracks and paths and ladders and take the road less traveled.
My work brings me in touch with hundreds of executives who have downshifted and through that have been able to regain themselves, their identities and the quality of their lives.
My experience also tells me that when one does not downshift wisely when one needs to, one might go through the ignominy of derailment.
We all know which is better, don’t we?