writing / Leveling up hurts

Story about my unnecessary pain on the path to Staff Engineer

I quit the startup before Figma after just 3 months. It’s not on my LinkedIn so you can’t look it up. It wasn’t the right role for me but I went for it, partly due to the higher pay. They offered way more than I made previously, which turned out to be pretty unfortunate.

When I got my Figma offer back at my market rate, I had the inflated number in mind and I was disappointed. I tried asking for more but I didn’t have a strong argument since my other offers were all at the same market rate. I felt underappreciated but I liked the Figma team so I accepted and got to work.

As time went by, feeling undervalued stuck with me. At Figma, we had a fixed salary for each level and I was hired at L3. As time passed, I felt I deserved a higher salary and thought maybe I should be L4 or “Staff Engineer”.

That’s when the inflated compensation hurt me. Instead of focusing on my contributions and the craft of software engineering, I fixated on the level and dollar value Figma assigned to me, leading to resentment.

Looking back, it’s both funny and sad. I wasted so much thought and emotional energy grumbling to myself about how unfairly I was being treated. When I raised my perceived grievance and listed why I deserved a promotion, I never actually listened to the response. All I heard was the “no” and felt unappreciated. I wish I’d listened more closely because it would have saved me so much self-induced suffering.

Eventually, I said “f— it” and gave up on getting promoted. It was more like an act of rebellion than a zen moment of insight. I genuinely thought it was futile to try to get promoted so I decided to just do the best work I could and not care about the recognition. With that decision, I let the rain cloud I’d been hiding in drift away and I was finally able to move forward with my career.

Principles of leveling up

Growing means taking on more ambiguous problems, which can be uncomfortable. It means trying to wrap your arms around bigger and bigger problems and saying “I got this” even though you’re not sure. It feels like your mind is racing, keeping track of a million details and new things keep appearing. It doesn’t feel like lifting heavy weights or going for a long run. It’s like panicking treading water and barely keeping your head above the waves until one day you realize you’re navigating the same currents but are no longer exhausted and overwhelmed.

Thinking about leveling up in terms of the next promotion instead of personal growth is a painful path. It has been rough for me and everyone I’ve seen walk it. By its very nature, you won’t know what it’s like to perform at the next level until you're there. Watching peers won't give the true understanding. The failure mode is thinking we deserve a promotion when we’re not ready. The death spiral starts when you start trying to check boxes on a level rubric instead of embracing ambiguity. Then you’re spending your emotional and mental energy on a level doc instead of the actual work to get promoted.

Once you’re in the death spiral, there are a couple ways out. The first is to quit and find a new job, which depends on your circumstances. If you’re intent on staying, then you’re left with two options: grind through the resentment until you get promoted or mentally reset yourself to focus on the work. Either way, you will eventually grow and advance, but one path is more enjoyable and has less heartache.

Key takeaways

Engineering levels correspond to how much ambiguity you can handle.

You can’t assess whether you’re at the next level yet because you’ve never been there before.

The only productive path is focusing on the work itself.