7 Signs You’ve Lost Yourself as You Climb the Corporate Ladder

by Alli Polin on August 30, 2016

climb the corporate ladder

My University has a great career center and the year I graduated, 8,246 years ago, tons of companies had significant on-campus recruiting efforts; I was lucky enough to get hired as a change management consultant. However, this is not a story about the job market or how to get hired off campus, it’s the story of what happens after that… when you not only take your first corporate job, but also lose yourself, bit by bit, as you climb the corporate ladder.

Days before I started my job, I cut off all of my long hair, bought “appropriate” shoes, and invested big bucks in the dress code of coordinated suits and stockings.  I put on my costume each day to go to work and one morning I woke up and realized it was no longer a costume, but a part of who I am.  I judged people as pulled together (or not) by their appearance and of course the closer they mirrored my own, the bigger the thumbs up.

I bought into the organization culture hook, line and sinker and enjoyed time with “my people” doing work that mattered. One summer, I went on vacation with my family, was telling them about my work and they didn’t get it.  It was as if we were living in different solar systems and not different cities.  

That’s when it hit me… I no longer saw the world the same way. The radical, innovative, risk-taking me had settled into corporate life. I changed, but not on purpose. 

Seven Signs You’ve Lost (Parts of) Yourself as You Climb the Corporate Ladder

Sign #1: You tell your spouse you’re working on the deck (on your computer, not outside)

Sign #2: Your smartphone gets more cuddle time than your significant other. 

Sign #3:  You’re pretty sure that values are something that go on the break room wall.

Sign #4:  You think bringing your whole self to work means tolerating personal pictures in people’s cubicles and offices. 

Sign #5:  You only think in “big picture” and need “your people” to take care of the details. 

Sign #6:  You see challenging the status quo as the equivalent of tendering your resignation

Sign #7: When you meet someone at a party and are asked what you do, you immediately share your title because that tells them everything they need to know. 

Now that you’ve seen some of the signs, and are saying, “Holy crackers! (Or maybe something a little less polite) That’s me!” What’s happens now?

For most people, they can’t pinpoint the moment they decided that the job is their life and life is the job.  If it happened to you, you’re not alone. It happens to people making the corporate climb and to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners who want to keep up with the competition.

It’s as if we’re all in one big office together, running on our hamster wheels. Look left and look right, we’re all running. It’s logical that it’s what we’re supposed to do to survive. But think back to when you started – didn’t you want more than that? To survive? I’ll bet you wanted to make your mark and to thrive. 

So, you’re here now. Ready for a change? Ready to rediscover the core of you AND continue the climb?

We both know that change happens whether you do it with focus and intention or not.

Here’s the Way Forward:

which path

Imagine four tunnels in front of you… 

Which tunnel will you take?

Where are you headed?

The first accepts that this is life. Not what you pictured but it’s the one you’ve got. While you could change, you’re not going to do it now. You are going to keep on keepin’ on. 

The second thinks about what you could do differently for the next three months and then at the end you’ll document all of your next steps in a work plan. You may even implement some of it for a little while until things get busy.

The third tunnel has you making a beeline out the door, and hanging up your own shingle.  You can’t get away fast enough. 

The final tunnel is… you tell me. There is always another choice.

You have tons of tools at your disposal.

Re-engage your  3 C’s: Confidence, Competence, and Creativity

Confidence you have what it takes to get to the other side no matter which path you choose.

Courage to do what you’re most afraid to do.

Creativity – this is the fun part. There is no one set path so why not bring some play into your journey and see where it takes you?

So You Wanna Break the Frame?

The key is to do something different. If you show up in the same clothes, at the same office with the same mug to focus on the same tasks it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of sameness. 

1) Grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your Evernote) and in 60 seconds list as many things as you can that you absolutely used to love to do. Sewing, running marathons, time on the beach…

2) Next, put a number from 0 – 5 next to each one to reflect how often you’ve done this activity in the past five years. 

3) Finally, pick one to do again… now. Maybe it’s taking a class at the gym or joining a squash group.  Maybe it’s acting and it’s time for you to research community theater.  Whatever it is, make a commitment to start with one thing that makes you feel most like you again.  The you who you were before you lost yourself in your corporate climb.  


How have you re-energized your leadership and found yourself again when you’ve gotten lost in the climb?

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™ August 30, 2016 at 6:55 am

Whoa Alli! You just wrote a post about my life — 28 years ago. In fact years before that, I realized I had “bought into” and was also getting burned out as a programmer/analyst when I answered my home phone “Programming, this is Kate.”

Friends and family saw it in me and one suggested a go to a career counselor to talk about what I wanted in life and career. I did and it was so enlightening. Once I chose a different tunnel out — in my case self-employment — one of my sisters said to me, “You’ve changed. You’ve turned back into the sister I knew.”

So to your wonderful list of tools, I would add outside perspectives from family and friends!

Great post. I believe it will move many people!

Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™


Alli Polin August 30, 2016 at 7:48 am

Thank you for sharing your story, Kate! How telling it is that when you found the right path for you, it didn’t consume you but allowed you to bring all of you to the world.

Right on about the insights of family and friends too. They see things that we’re blind to and often need to hear!




Chery Gegelman September 4, 2016 at 11:36 pm

I love your story Kate! “You’ve turned back into the sister I knew! “


Jon Mertz August 30, 2016 at 7:33 am

Spot on, Alli. I am in the middle of picking a new tunnel. Taking the time to think, try new things, and refresh is a luxury. Whether or not we think we have the time to do these, we can always carve out 2-4 hours a week to do so. The choice is ours.

We can work and live in a way that excites us and enables us to be who we are. We need to tap into our courage….



Alli Polin August 30, 2016 at 7:50 am

Appreciated your recent piece on Thin Difference on choice, Jon. Reinvention can be terrifying but it can also be remarkably fulfilling. Enjoy this time of transition. Look forward to learning more about what’s next for you.



Terri August 30, 2016 at 8:51 am

Hey Alli,

I was looking in a mirror as I read about your journey for it was mine too. I didn’t cut my long hair right away even though I was given “ladder climbing” advice to do so. I did it after a high level executive went straight for an older guy who worked from and said “Nice to meet you Terri.” Ha!

Now after years in the corporate mold, I am “breaking the frame.” To start the process, I did exactly as you suggest in item 1. And I also looked at who I am today and what might be of interest to me now.

At the top of my “might be of interest now” list was reading to an inner city kindergarten class. I decided to pursue it as an activity to “break the frame.”

In this activity, I was “breaking the frame” on my style of presentation. Instead of using PowerPoint slides, I was using a storybook with wonderful illustrations. Rather than stiff corporate types as my audience, I had enthusiastic and open 5 year olds. And instead of being in the corporate mold of presenter, I was an animated, silly and most importantly I had renewed aliveness as a presenter. Fun, rewarding and totally me!

Spot on Alli! Terrific advice for doing something different to move out of the vortex of sameness. Will share!



Alli Polin August 31, 2016 at 10:14 pm

Terri –

I love both of your stories! Can totally relate on the hair.

As for reading to the kindergarten class – how fun! Intentionally stretching in joyful ways is the best way to break the frame and rediscover parts of ourselves that have been dormant for far too long.

Thanks so much, Terri!



Terri Klass August 30, 2016 at 9:22 am

Fantastic and thought-provoking post, Alli!

I too have gone through many different tunnels that seemed more satisfying at different points in my life. I think the key is being honest with what gets us out of bed in the morning. And it’s different for each of us at various points in our lives. When my kids were young I knew I needed to exit a highly rigid corporate world to try out a more flexible consultant’s life. It was scary but I was willing to spend more time alone to promote my best self.

So knowing there are both sides to each of our choices is helpful and sharing our challenges with people we trust can be so rewarding.

Thanks Alli and I will share this provocative piece!


Alli Polin August 31, 2016 at 10:18 pm

Terri ,

When I left my corporate position to stay home with my newborn kids it was a huge decision. I know that tunnel well. I was also able to transition back into a corporate position a few years later when the time was right for me once again. We seem to go in cycles through many tunnels over the years, don’t we?

I also agree with you on the key – acknowledging choice and being a leader who chooses which path to follow instead of waiting until all the others are eliminated.

Thanks so much!



LaRae Quy August 30, 2016 at 7:33 pm

Love this, Alli…especially Sign #4: “You think bringing your whole self to work means tolerating personal pictures in people’s cubicles and offices.” That was me…

I look at tunnels as challenges to be overcome…and as soon as I’ve made it out of one, I turn to look for another one. The reason? I am always looking for ways to expand my horizon. It’s not that I’m restless, exactly, but I do believe we are our own worst enemy when it comes to what we believe we can accomplish and what we can’t.

We can be on the right road and still get run over if we don’t move…


Alli Polin August 31, 2016 at 10:20 pm

Yes! It’s not a tunnel and then… stop. That would mean that the rails were broken 🙂

Also, thanks for your closing in your comment above. It’s a powerful truth.

Thanks, LaRae!



Chery Gegelman September 4, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Great post Alli! I’ve been visiting with several people lately that are losing themselves in their work. And struggling to figure it out. This is a great share!


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