“The most common metaphor for careers is a ladder, but this concept no longer applies to most workers… Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder,” writes Sheryl Sandberg, who attributes the metaphor to Fortune magazine editor Pattie Sellers.
“Ladders are limiting – people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.
The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfilment. Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”
“A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career,” continues Sandberg. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today…”
“When I graduated from college, I had only the vaguest notion of where I was headed… Throughout my childhood, my parents emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life. Dinner discussions often centered on social injustice and those fighting to make the world a better place. As a child, I never thought about what to be, but I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. …
I hoped to change the world…. I always believed I would work at a non-profit or in government. That was my dream. And while I don’t believe in mapping out each step of a career, I do believe it helps to have a long-term dream or goal. A long-term dream does not have to be realistic or even specific. It may reflect the desire to work in a particular field or to travel throughout the world.”
“With an eye on my childhood dream, the first job I took out of college was at the World Bank as a research assistant to Larry Summers, who was serving a term as chief economist… Larry then generously arranged for me to join an India health field mission to get a closer look at what the Bank actually did.
Flying to India took me into an entirely different world. The team was working to eradicate leprosy, which was endemic in India’s most remote and poorest regions. The conditions were appalling. Due to the stigma of the disease, patients were often exiled from their villages and ended up lying on dirt floors in awful places that passed for clinics.
Facts and figures could never have prepared me for this reality. I have the deepest respect for people who provide hands-on help to those in crises. It is the most difficult work in the world.”
“I headed back to Cambridge. I tried to stay socially conscious by joining the highly unpopular Nonprofit Club. I also spent my second year studying social marketing – how marketing can be used to solve social problems.”
And then there was an interview with a high-level Silicon Valley executive who told Sandberg that “her company would never even consider hiring someone like me because government experience could not possibly prepare anyone to work in the tech industry.”
Undeterred, Sandberg contacted Eric Schmidt, who she had met several times while working at the Treasury, and who had just become CEO of a then relatively unknown company called Google.
The job Google offered her sounded less prestigious than those she had applied for elsewhere, but when she voiced this concern, Schmidt told her: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”
In other words, the potential for growth is all that matters, whether it’s in the company as a whole, within a division or team, or in a position with a high demand for your skills.
I have seen these principles at work in my own career, though on a much smaller scale.
What about you?
Are you climbing a career ladder
swinging on a career jungle gym?