If you are really focused on expanding your capabilities, your salary is probably a secondary motivation when it comes to employment. Your major motivation is going to be your learning and growth opportunities. The graph below shows how learning opportunities change over time.
At the beginning of any job, you will have many opportunities to learn because everything is new. This section is marked by the green zone. Every day will involve new experiences and learning new things. As time goes on, this tends to level out, as shown by the yellow zone. Sometimes the yellow zone is only temporary and you will be given new responsibilities that will have new learning opportunities–you’ll basically start the cycle over again.
If this doesn’t happen and you remain at a reduced learning rate for a period of time, you’ll move into the red zone. The red zone is particularly dangerous because it means you are becoming accustomed to a lack of personal growth and a lack of challenges. If you stay in this zone for too long, you will actually reduce your capabilities to take on challenging assignments.
So when should you look for a new job? While you are in the green zone, you will be facing a lot of challenges. Some of these will be difficult and sometimes you might even fail. This is not an indication that you should move on. It means you are still growing. One mistake I see people make is leaving jobs where they are still learning just because it isn’t easy.
When you get into the yellow zone, it is time to start re-evaluating things. You need to honestly access the chances of getting different responsibilities that would move you back into the green zone. You also must consider your potential for salary growth. If you are at the high end of the pay scale, continued growth may not translated into growth in pay. When you get to the yellow zone, you may need to sit down with your employer and talk about your future at the company to get a feel for what opportunities might become available if you stick around.
Even if your employer doesn’t have any new or challenging projects, the yellow zone can be a good place to try to take advantage of any educational opportunities. If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, you might look at working on an advanced degree. Sometimes additional education will help give you a new way of looking at your current job and open your eyes to opportunities for improvement that your employer may not think to ask for.
At a previous employer, I had been in the yellow zone for about a year. I had already used the educational benefits to do most of the coursework I needed for a second master’s degree. Finally I sat down with my boss and asked, “What are the new challenges I’m going to get to experience in the next 6 months?” He told me that there wasn’t really anything they wanted me to do other than just keep things running the way they were. A few days later, I submitted my resignation. For me, the challenge was getting things to the point where my department was running smoothly. Simply maintaining the status quo would have been easy. The organization was pretty flexible with work schedules as long as things were getting done, so simply maintaining things would have translated into a lot of free time for me. The idea of not having new challenges scared me because I looked around and saw a number of other employees who were basically on cruise control. They had nice non-stressful jobs, but it had been years since they had ever attempted anything challenging. My fear was that I would become like that.
I took a job with another company where I figured I had about a 60% chance of being able to be successful and a 40% chance of failing horribly. The first few months were extremely difficult, but I learned a tremendous amount. More importantly, I raised the bar on what I was capable of doing. This experience has served me well. There are many small and large successes I’ve had in life that I can directly trace back to the decision to leave the easy job and take one that would challenge me.
What work zone are you in? How long are you comfortable staying there?