The Promise (and Perils) of Transcending Your Career
by Armand Diaz, Ph.D.


Since there has been “work” as such, I suppose people have had a hard time with it. Certainly, since the Industrial Revolution brought us the factory job and all that went with it, work has been painted in shades of grey.

In America, we are particularly driven by work. We associate ourselves with our jobs to an exceptional degree - all the more exceptional when we don’t like our jobs, or find ourselves working too much for too little compensation. Americans get less vacation time, have less job security, and relatively abysmal working rights in comparison to other Western democracies. And of course, we consider health insurance a “benefit” (shortened from “fringe benefit”) rather than a necessity.

But the economic problems with work aren’t the only ones. Most workplaces continue to operate on what at this point is a very antiquated system, and assumptions about how things should run are stuck in the past. Yet even when you work in a more progressive setting, or have a career of your own (as a professional or a business owner, for example), you can run into difficulty when you
transcend your career.

Human development is a complex subject, and we can’t get into it too deeply here. I’m going to use the
Spiral Dynamics system (check out the book by Don Beck) and the Holonomic Model of Consciousness Development by Jenny Wade for this article, but I’ll be simplifying and changing things for our purposes.

Basically, the idea behind these systems is that humans progress through increasingly complex levels of consciousness. Each ‘level’ is associated with a particular view of the world, a lens through which someone at that level will see everything they encounter, including work. As we go to higher levels of development, we get a more complex and inclusive view of the world. We still have access to the lower levels (and sometimes operate from them) but we can see things from a higher perspective than we could in the past.

Here’s a short description of the relevant levels, adapted from
Spiral Dynamics and tailored especially for the area of career:

The Street Fighter. “Life is a jungle, look out for Number One.” Life is dangerous and no one can be trusted.
Major Fear: Everything.
Job opportunities: There aren’t many jobs that look to employ the Street Fighter, but they find careers in gangs, drug cartels, and as street criminals.
Media images of this level can be seen in Goodfellas , The Sopranos, and Mad Max.
Ultimate career reward: Surviving.

The Conformist. “Follow the rules, and we’ll all enjoy Law & Order” Someone at the Conformist level plays by the rules, expecting to be rewarded in the future. There is trust in authority and a belief that the system works.
Major Fears: Change and difference.
Job Opportunities: Conformists can be found all over the landscape of work, but it is an attitude that is particularly sought after and encouraged in Big Box Stores, factories, and the cubicles of corporate culture.
Media images include Hank Hill and Sponge Bob.
Ultimate career reward: Employee of the Month Certificate.

The Achiever. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The Achiever has a somewhat similar competitive spirit to the Street Fighter, but while the Street Fighter doesn’t care at all for the Rules, the Achiever wants to be a winner and perceived as such by society. Rules are bent and occasionally broken, because they are seen as false limitations. Achievers have a scientific approach, and test ideas on their own rather than listening to authority. This level tends to be materialistic and success-oriented.
Major Fear: Failure.
Job Opportunities: Achievers do best in environments where they can advance. Professionals, entrepreneurs, and Wall Street types are usually at this level.
Media images include Donald Trump, Monty Burns, Gordon Ramsey, Jack Donaghy, and Mad Men.
Ultimate career reward: The Corner Office.

The Humanitarian. “All You Need is Love.” The Humanitarian sees past the need for individual achievement and seeks to work for collective values (at least with people that have similar ideas about what is valuable).
Major Fears: Isolation and unfairness.
Job Opportunities: Humanitarians often seek work in social service, health care, or with Non-Governmental Organizations, but also at the local food co-op or at a New Age bookstore. In fact, the Humanitarians are at the root of both the New Age and Green movements, just as they were with the Civil Rights and Women’s Movement a few decades ago.
Media images are fairly rare, although Lisa Simpson comes to mind.
Ultimate career reward: Universal Peace, Love, and Understanding.

The Self-Actualizer. Above the preceding levels are several more, which I will condense into one, where the emphasis moves from surviving and achieving to being, with an appreciation of life in all its complexity. These levels are very close to what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization.
Major Fear: Being limited.
Job Opportunities: Self-actualizing people are not too common, but they can be found all over the workforce.
Media images are exceedingly rare, although I think Jean-Luc Picard demonstrates a self-actualizing orientation.
Utlimate career reward: Doing work that is in concert with one’s true self.

While you may identify with one level or another, remember that the situation, like most things, is really very complex. You might be an Achiever at work and a Conformist in your relationships. And some situations at work might bring out the Street Fighter in you, while others bring out the Humanitarian.

Your career can hit a real wall when you, personally, evolve past the work you are doing. You transcend your career. It’s very common, since we typically begin work relatively early in life when getting a seat at the table, so to speak, is the priority. A recent college graduate is likely to take a job that pays well and has a certain amount of stability to it - setting up a Conformist situation. It may take years or even decades before the graduate even questions what the job is about and how it fits with her personal ethics and goals.

Forces tend to push us up the ladder of development (although they can push us downwards, too). The Street Fighter who starts to value their life might opt for the relative security of the Conformist level, while the Conformist who is consistently passed over for a deserved promotion begins to question authority and may develop into an Achiever. Achievers may find, like
Citizen Kane, that it is lonely at the top, and so become Humanitarians. At any level, serious life shocks tend to cue us in to the fact that our system of viewing the world is limited, and so send us looking up the ladder for a more inclusive perspective.

Since 2008, many of us have been delivered such a shock, as jobs were lost and companies downsized. While a bad economy often pushes people downwards into what they feel is a more secure position - typically the Conformist level - we are also experiencing the opposite effect. If you are reading this, you are almost certainly heading in a very different direction.

What the economic downturn has highlighted for so many people is that their job - from office work to owning their own business to being a professional - hasn’t been keeping up with their level of evolutionary development. In other words, your job (or career) might have been fine for the level you were at when you started out. But now you realize that you’ve progressed into a higher level, and your work is no longer “working” for you. That most workplaces are rigid and favor the Conformist attitude doesn’t help in a society where many people are at Achievers, Humanitarians and Self-Actualizers.

Those of us who are struggling to make a mortgage payment or secure health insurance might find it hard to believe that a crisis of meaning in your job can be just as serious a problem as the more practical economic issues. Each developmental level, however, has its own problems, and - I suppose due to the configuration of the sympathetic nervous system - they are perceived with similar pain and angst. Remarkably in a poor economy, I find many people are thinking of leaving their work to find something that will make them happier, if not richer.

So what do you do when you have transcended your career? I think there are three healthy alternatives, although I am sure that other creative solutions exist.

The first choice is to stay where you are, but try to bring a higher level of consciousness to what you are doing. Martin Luther King said that if you are a street sweeper, endeavor to be the best street sweeper the world has ever known. The Bhagavad Gita gives similar advice, telling us to fulfill our roles free from attachment. It’s pretty tough to do. When we were living in restrictive environments where choice and change were limited - like traditional Indian culture or the deep South - it was probably the best one could do.

In our society, where there is apparently a great deal of opportunity for change, it seems like a less appealing alternative. Besides, your career might be furthering values that conflict with your new sense of yourself, and you can’t keep doing something you don’t feel is right - it’s hard to be a Humanitarian Repo Man or a "Megalomart sales associate" Achiever. Still, it is an alternative. You might bring more Humanitarian team-building efforts into your Achiever work environment, for example.

Many people take the second choice, which is to keep your present career, but find expression for your new values and new world view in your “off” hours. Financial tycoons take a week to go to a yoga retreat, and factory workers go to sit zazen in the evening. This alternative usually works well as a kind of transitional technique, but eventually the stress of living in two worlds becomes too much, unless combined with the first choice.

The third choice is to make a move to a new career that fits with your new values. This is generally a pretty scary move, and until you find a new set of friends and coworkers to support you, it is also likely to feel very lonely. Your old cohort will usually offer no support - after all, while each level can see the perspective of those below, they know little or nothing of the levels above.

Your Conformist friends will try to convince you that you are taking too big of a risk in moving into an Achiever environment. Your Achiever friends will tell you you are “throwing it all away” when you decide to move towards a Humanitarian career, and your Humanitarian friends will tell you that you are abandoning the cause if you begin to move towards Self-Actualization. In fact, because they cannot see the levels above where they themselves are, there is often the perception that you are moving downwards. For example, Humanitarians will think that you are “selling out” and becoming an Achiever when in fact you are not focused on prestige and material gains but on fulfilling your own unique potential as a Self-Actualizer.

None of those three alternatives represents an easy road. Any of them, however, beats the unhealthy alternative of trying to smother your own urge for growth and development, which can be done, although at a very high cost. People push their new development out of their minds, telling themselves that it foolishness and pipe dreams that are calling them forward. They keep doing the same old thing, ignoring the inner voice that wants change. In this way, they wind up putting something of a tourniquet on the new limb of their personality that was developing, eventually causing it to blacken and fall off. But the scar remains for all to see, and I suspect they get a very bad case of phantom limb syndrome.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember if you’ve realized that you have transcended your career is that you are not alone. So much of our experience in the past few decades - from the globalization of everything to the environmental crisis (and now financial) to the explosion of interest in spirituality - has been pushing us up the developmental ladder. Most workplaces, however, have remained entrenched in a fear-based and very limited view of the world. For many people, it is as though they leave the 21st century each morning to go work in a 19th century environment of conformity, restriction, and isolation.

The great discontent that we are feeling about work and career is part of the process of change that is occurring on a global level. That won’t make your personal choices any easier, but it will make it easier to understand that not just you but many of us are undergoing this transformation.

Armand Diaz, Ph.D., uses a variety of coaching strategies, including astrology and Spiral Dynamics to help people through significant life changes. Armand has published in a number of astrology journals, including The Mountain Astrologer, and he has also been published in ReVision, an academic journal. He completed his doctorate in Transformative Studies at the Californian Institute of Integral Studies, where he has received an Esalen Institute scholarship for his work on psychic-mediums. He can be reached at by email, or through his website,