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Getting off the ladder and onto the jungle gym: A powerful reconceptualisation of career success

​For many of us, “climbing the career ladder” represents an essential component of our grown-up goals. How high the ladder goes may differ for all of us, but it is generally agreed that a singular, linear, upwards trajectory of incremental improvement is expected.
In previous eras, where individuals worked in the same company or industry for decades and success meant working your way through the ranks and retiring with a gold watch, this metaphor was perfect. However, I would like to suggest that this metaphor is no longer an adequate representation of the typical career journey. Further, clinging to this metaphor is reinforcing the fear and uncertainty that accompanies career changes which, in the rapidly changing world of work, are inevitable.

The problem with this metaphor is twofold. Firstly, it suggests that there is a single “right” path, and once you are on it, you shouldn’t get off. Such a narrow view is, in my opinion, limiting and disempowering. Rather than expecting each individual to have a singular focus, passion and purpose, I believe it is entirely possible for each of us to have many offerings to the world.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert uses the analogy of the jackhammer and the hummingbird to capture this dichotomy. Whilst jackhammers thrive with a single focus or passion, hummingbirds flit from one thing to the next in a boundless journey of discovery. Neither approach is superior, and the world needs jackhammers and hummingbirds in equal measure. However, a career ladder aligns with the jackhammer and causes the hummingbird to feel as though they are failing to meet the standards of adulting.

The second major problem with the ladder metaphor is that the only type of career change it can comfortably accommodate is that which moves us vertically. We move up via a promotion or an increase in clients, revenue, or some other meaningful metric to measure an improvement in our position. We move down when things don’t go to plan, and this is typically viewed as some sort of failure. Either way, the path doesn’t differ; merely our position relative to our start and end point on the ladder.

However, the reality of the modern workforce is that change is constant, multidimensional, and often out of our control. As I have previously discussed (click here), most of us in the workforce today will experience many significant career changes, and the complex pathways that comprise a career are not well captured with the metaphor of the career ladder.

Today I had the pleasure of meeting with a new colleague who shared a wonderful alternative perspective with me. She shared with me a metaphor that she heard in a speech recently, whereby the invitation was given to consider the framework for our careers as a jungle gym, rather than a ladder.  

The power of this reframe was immediately apparent to me. The complex structure of the jungle gym, which has no clear path to the top, nor even an imperative to get to the top, is a much more apt descriptor of the modern career. It also opens up the possibility that going in a different direction is not a bad thing. You can legitimately explore horizontally or diagonally – you don’t just have to focus on the vertical trajectory. You can hang upside down to gain a different perspective, or merely enjoy the view from where you find yourself in the current moment. A single, linear path to the top is no longer a prerequisite for success.

Many of my clients are facing an intersection in their career. These changes are often accompanied by tremendous angst. There is fear associated with uncertainty and the potential for many losses: identity, traction, credibility, authority. For some, it can represent an existential crisis. These fears are legitimate and debilitating.

They are also associated with the preconceived notion that a career ladder is the correct path. When you focus on a singular pathway, akin to the career ladder, any obstacle you encounter leaves you with few options: try to go up in spite of the obstacle (often at considerable cost), go back (which is equated with failure), or stay stuck.

Not so with the jungle gym. Upon encountering an obstacle, you can explore the opportunities to move in many different directions, as the broader perspective offered by the jungle gym inevitably includes many alternative paths. You don’t have to get off the jungle gym when you encounter an obstacle: you simply pivot and find another way.

So, whether you are a jackhammer or a hummingbird, I encourage you to consider your career framework as a jungle gym. The journey becomes much more enjoyable when there are multiple options available to you. Making a change, whether self-initiated or as a matter of necessity, doesn’t have to feel like you are on the bottom rung of the ladder again. Rather, the view from a different position on the jungle gym may be just the perspective shift you didn’t know you were looking for. 

If you are approaching a career intersection and would welcome some support to design your next exciting chapter, please feel free to schedule your free discovery call here:

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