Asking my boss for a demotion was the best career choice I ever made

Finding time to breathe.
Finding time to breathe.
Image: Kristina Alexanderson/Flickr via CC BY 2.0
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“You’re having a histamine reaction like when you have a food allergy,” the doctor told me. “That swollen spot on your face is called an angioedema.”

I had woken up in my Brooklyn apartment to find a patch of itchy skin rapidly expanding north of my left eyebrow. In the hours I’d waited for the urgent care clinic to open, the hive swelled along my forehead and over my eyelids. I looked like the actor Mickey Rourke, if he’d run out of money in the middle of another plastic surgery spree.

After discussing and eliminating a wide range of triggers including food and environmental allergens, my doctor and I arrived at an inconvenient truth: I was allergic to my job.

At this point in my life I was successful, well-paid, and respected. I managed a strategic planning department at a large metro ad agency. We made TV spots and websites. I enjoyed turning complicated material into simple ideas that got consumers’ attention, but managing people was where I found real satisfaction. I loved helping my team do better.

In short, I was a 53-year-old single, ambitious New Yorker. I often peered over the top of my eyeglasses and asked people to “tell me more.” My work ethic was a mixture borrowing from both the have-it-all attitude of Baby Boomers and the work-life balance of Generation X. I padded my 45 hours of paid work each week with grad school classes at night.

I came to the agency on an indirect path, following a North Star of constant reinvention. I’d worked in TV news production, afternoon soap opera writing, digital game development and cocktail waitressing. I started in marketing as a creative director, but lightning struck when I heard a famous strategic planner talk. I wanted her job! The transition to strategy wasn’t easy, but I re-climbed the agency ladder, eventually making it to the top rung.

And yet, nothing ever seemed to be enough. I fed off the agency’s high-stress culture and strived for perfection in every project. In the process, I found myself emptying the gas tank every single day. I gained 15 pounds. I self-medicated each afternoon with peanut M&Ms and each night with Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches. I transformed my vacations into staycations to catch up on sleep. I struggled with maintaining my sobriety.

One late night at the agency, I found myself weeping in a bathroom stall in the ladies room. This wasn’t some teary-eyed break down or cathartic crying jag. I was bawling hysterically, my clenched fists pressed to my forehead in desperation. I questioned the meaning of work and life.

After the hive incident, I told my boss I couldn’t run the department anymore. I needed to take a step back. I wanted to be demoted. He stared at me, shocked. But I was firm. Three chastening months later, I found myself a member of the team I had once managed.

Voluntary demotion isn’t for everyone. It was interesting to see who congratulated me on stepping down and who couldn’t even bring themselves to make eye contact. I felt embarrassed, fearing they thought I couldn’t cut it in the big leagues. The truth was, I had burned out. The pace that I set for myself was unsustainable and that was nothing to be ashamed of. It didn’t diminish what I had accomplished on the job.

In a welcome postscript, I was laid off several months later, with a decent severance package. While a few years ago such an event would have sent me into a frenzied tail spin, my new and improved perspective allowed me to take it in stride. I began the new year with a less anxious approach to finding work. Interestingly, my outlook was a source of confusion for hiring managers busy climbing their own corporate ladders. When I said I wanted to work on a lower rung so I could focus on my job as part of a team, they acted as if I was speaking a foreign language.

The pressure is off now. I feel better, less burdened, and definitely happier. I’m still hard-working and curious, but I’m less apt to shift into hyper-drive. I’m still searching for the perfect mix of fulfillment and challenge—I may always. But at least now I don’t have to worry about breaking down in the bathroom. And the lack of hives is nice, too.