Professional Growth, or Equilibrium?

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– Climbing career ladders vs. skating career ponds

Balancing Act

BALANCING ACT/Image: Michael Moffa

Breathing Again vs. Breathing Better

Imagine two very different recruiters: Recruiter A is always on the go, striving to make progress, to do better today than yesterday, to set himself or herself challenges, records and goals that will push the performance envelope, while filling the pay envelope, and to climb higher and faster, toward the ever-beckoning summit of (competitive) success.

Recruiter B is altogether different, and perhaps everywhere rarer in business circles. B’s only goal is to have no long-term goal other than to maintain an enjoyable status quo—no new records to be set, no harder challenges and tests to engage, no progress to be targeted. Instead, B likes things as they are, is satisfied with the status quo, and wants to conduct business the way his or her body conducts breathing—the same tomorrow as today, namely, smoothly and enjoyably, with no requirement that the job results or the breathing be better tomorrow than they are today or were yesterday.  Stability, not progress, is the overarching goal—a variant of early retirement.

Considering Your Opposite’s Style

As a result, recruiters A and B will have very different, contrasting notions of what constitutes “job satisfaction”, “success”, “security”, and “meaningful work”.  What makes this important for you are the following questions and conjectures that follow later and one very intriguing fact: The two styles are very similar to two physiological processes—“homeostasis” and “heterostasis”–that our own bodies use to keep us going and healthy.

But first, the relevant questions:

  • If you are primarily a type A recruiter, how did you end up choosing this as your preferred style?  Same question for type B. (Here, “type A” is a broader concept than “Type A”, the popular categorization of time-stressed, goal-driven, short-fused, impatient go-getters, although it overlaps and includes it in many instances. In this context “type A” means “a recruiter like the one referred to as “recruiter A”, above. The same applies for “type B”.)
  • Have you ever considered switching from your habitual style to the contrasting style or at least giving it a try? If not, why not?
  • What do you see as the costs and benefits of the two styles and the net gain/loss of the style you have adopted?
  • Have there been any suggestions or indications that a style switch from type A to B, or vice versa, would be good/bad  for you?
  • How do you feel about the other style?  Uneasy? Envious? Something else?

Climbing Ladders vs. Skating on Ponds

These are two ways of looking at and creating career goals and outcomes—ways that reflect two key physiological processes of life itself: growth vs. equilibrium. The first—the vertical ladder approach—career goal/outcome and corresponding physiological process emphasize “growth” as an objective or outcome of paramount importance; the second stresses “equilibrium”—maintaining a career or physiological status quo, such as having static but stable client numbers or maintaining an optimal body temperature.  Using body temperature as analogy, it could be argued that the ladder climber, type A needs the challenges that cause a rise in body temperature to a fever pitch, instead of maintenance tweaking to preserve the normal, basically unchanging stable temperature of 98.6 F.

Are You “Heterostatic A” or “Homeostatic B”?

Interestingly and arguably, these two styles approximately correspond to not only “Type A” and “Type B” personalities—the “ladder climbers” and “pond skaters”, respectively, but also to the two fundamental modes of existence, “becoming” vs. “being” and to two vital and contrasting physiological processes, mentioned above, known as “heterostasis” and “homeostasis”, a pair of concepts popularized by the researchers Hans Selye (the progenitor of stress science) and pioneering Harvard professor of physiology Walter Cannon, respectively.

The aforementioned example of increasing body temperature, in the form of fever,  as a response to an acute challenge, such as the flu, is a prime example of heterostasis, a process involving the activation of physiological defense through an adaptive departure from the normal stable state. In the domain of psychology, “heterostasis”, which is not yet in conventional dictionaries, has been derivatively defined as “a tendency to seek new stimuli and challenges that will further growth” (Raymond J. Corsini, Dictionary of Psychology, Routledge, 2001).

Heterostasis is also manifested in having to run faster or longer to get “the burn”—ramping up the response to the challenge of maintaining fitness gains and rewards. By contrast, turning up your hypothalamus thermostat in the winter  to maintain your body temperature or repeating familiar maintenance exercise routines with no new demands, no new levels of achievement exemplify homeostasis, the tendency to maintain normal physiological states by means of corrective physiological negative feedback—much as a household thermostat regulates and maintains room temperature.

If your style and career goals/outcomes are growth-oriented, i.e., focused on becoming better and better, on advancement, on “progress” or on setting new and possibly harder challenges, on having evolving goals of advancement, you are in all likelihood a type A heterostatic ladder-climber who is not satisfied with mere endless equilibrium, and, as a result, will have priorities, rewards, stresses and perspectives that are completely different from the homeostatic pond-skater type B sitting next to you in your office.

Health Risks in Overdoing a Good Thing?

To the extent that there are correlations among having this heterostatic type A style, being a Type A personality (in the clinical sense of the time-stressed, impatient, short-tempered, controlling, competitive, etc., personality) and cardio-vascular disease, a type A  or Type A recruiter may face heart-health issues related to this work and life style.

However, it must be stressed that although various studies report significant positive correlations between “low anger control” and cardio-vascular disease or hypertension, critics argue that the correlations among all of the Type A traits are not so clear-cut. Hence,  being future goal-oriented, a ladder-climbing heterostatic type or “becoming” oriented in and of themselves are not generally agreed-upon markers for heart-health risks or hypertension.

What is also worthwhile to note is that to the extent that physiological heterostasis plays an important, albeit transient emergency role complementary to normal homeostasis, there may a question to pose to recruiters who psychologically have made heterostasis permanent, rather than temporary—e.g., in endless pursuit of higher levels of performance and achievement, as though gripped by a never-ending fever. That question is whether they have opted for a life style based on too much of a good thing, by making the heterostatic “growth” mode permanent, rather than occasional, and in so doing whether they have plunged themselves into something like a permanent crisis mode and exposed themselves to any risks.

(Analogies between this question about being in a permanent heterostatic individual growth mode and debates about the wisdom of endless economic or population growth should be obvious.)

If permanent, unceasing “career heterostasis” is an unhealthy aberration, it would be akin to making what should be a temporary  physiological“fight or flight” response a permanent, rather than emergency posture in the office or at home—which, as I reported in “Zebra Stress Management for Recruiters”, demonstrably correlates with elevated health risks, such as hypertension, ulcers and cardio-vascular disease.

Mixed Functions, Mixed Types

Even though the two pure types— heterostatic ladder climbers and homeostatic pond skaters—are easily sharply distinguished conceptually, in fact, these are not mutually exclusive in their operations and can therefore be mixed in various proportions and aspects of your work, just as every organism blends them. For example, in a bout of the flu, temperature will advance to the level of a fever, in order to heterostatically fight off a virus—but only as long as necessary, i.e., temporarily, while heart rate may, as a result of homeostasis, remain unaltered.

Hence, having a long-term homeostatic, equilibrium job base, e.g., with fixed and stable hours,  that is supplemented with interspersed occasional heterostatic spurts of growth and moments of Type A behavior would perfectly parallel the behavior of a healthy body and its physiology.

Career Ladders and Two Kinds of Ponds

Recruiter A wants to move vertically and  climb ladders; recruiter B wants to move horizontally and skate an unchanging pond that is large enough to be interesting.

However, to the extent that both A and B can be described using a pond  metaphor and as pond dwellers,  recruiter A, the  heterostatic Type A, “becoming” achiever, is much more likely to have “bigger challenge hunger” and strive to be some kind of fish (preferably a big one) in a big pond filled with very big (rival) fish, even if it means starting out and possibly indefinitely remaining a small fry. On the other hand, recruiter B, the homeostatic pond skater, looks forward to effortlessly gliding over a much smaller pond, in and over which he or she can, comparatively, enjoy “being” a reigning big fish or at least becoming one without nearly as much effort as would be required by emulating  heterostatic recruiter A.

When Your Job Mimics Your Body

Just as your body’s physiology will, when required, complement its normal homeostatic functioning, e.g.,, maintaining O2 levels, with emergency heterostatic activity, e.g., elevating your body’s temperatures, on the job, you may attempt to homeostatically maintain hours worked per week, i.e., endeavor to keep them constant,  while heterostatically ratcheting up your income, your client numbers, your geographical range of operation or your network size—thereby redefining new “equilibria” (stable equilibrium points or states) for yourself, from which to launch your next heterostatic advance when the need or urge arises.

The disanalogy with heterostatic physiological processes is that some of the results of your efforts, e.g., a larger number of clients, unlike body temperature after a fever, do not fall back to earlier levels, but hopefully remain permanently elevated.  However, what should taper off like body temperature and the processes that elevated them is the level of effort that was required to create those new achieved highs, even though some lesser effort may be required to maintain and sustain them. Hence, if the key work parameter is effort, then it should increase and subside just like body temperature during and after a case of flu. If it never does, then your efforts will have become permanently heterostatic—which represents an abnormal prolongation of that kind of process and activity.

Heterostatic Becoming vs. Homeostatic Being: Einstein’s Observation

Viewed commonsensically and intuitively, it stands to reason that the type A, Type A ladder-climbing growth-oriented heterostatically-driven recruiter is also more likely to be “becoming-focused”, always with at least one eye on the future and progress, rather than “being-focused”, the latter designating a focus on the present and the goal of keeping it as pleasant as it has been, again, like maintaining one’s breathing or blood pressure just as they are, when one is satisfied with them as they are.

This is the distinction reflected in Albert Einstein’s observation that Americans are much more preoccupied than Europeans are with becoming, at the expense of being (satisfied living in the now, in the moment). The type B, Type B, pond-skating, equilibrium-oriented, homeostatically-regulated recruiter is, in progress-preoccupied America, going to be harder to find.

Unless, of course, all the type A recruiters switch, keel over or quit from stress or worse.

Read more in Career Goals

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).