I’m not a fan of ladders. While I wouldn’t describe myself as afraid of heights, they aren’t my thing either. And as I age I grow increasingly afraid of falling.
What I’ve learned to be more debilitating than a fear of heights, however, is the mindset that one should view their career path like a ladder. Work hard, do the right things, catch a break or two and you can climb all the way to the top job. So goes the metaphor.
Truth be told when I was starting out the career ladder seemed like the perfect way for an ambitious person like me to think about their growth. But along the way I was fortunate to be exposed to ideas and people who helped me see otherwise.
The late Steven Covey, author of several best selling books including The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, wrote that there’s nothing sadder than climbing the career ladder only to realize you leaned it against the wrong wall when you got to the top. Sometimes the view isn’t what we expect. And by then too much precious time has been wasted.
The other problem with ladders is that there’s only two directions to go: up or down. The first usually being much more desirable than the second.
Fortunately I learned a much better metaphor for career growth from a senior sales executive at Time Warner Cable. She said if we have to compare our careers to some sort of climbing apparatus, the jungle gym is far superior to the ladder.
First of all jungle gyms are much more fun to play on than ladders. They’re sturdier and less likely to tumble in a storm. Jungle gyms offer multiple options for movement: up, down, left, right, diagonal, etc.
Within the context of our careers, these are great attributes. You always want to find work you enjoy. And no career is free of challenges, so the sturdier your foundation the better.
And lastly, and perhaps more importantly, if you see your career progression in a strictly linear fashion you’re likely to be disappointed. Sometimes the best move is to go laterally or take different assignments, which on the surface may seem undesirable, to learn new skills or work with different people. If the path immediately above you is blocked often those type of moves can catapult you to the next level.
The next time you’re looking for inspiration when contemplating a career move, walk past the ladder hanging in the garage and head to the playground.
Originally posted on March 2, 2020.