Sheryl Sandberg contributed many valuable insights to professional women in her book, Lean In. The one that hit me most squarely was her analogy of a career as a jungle gym instead of a ladder. Truer words have never been written, and I think this is a major contribution to the discussion of work-life “balance.”
The current mythology of success defines our career journey as a climb up the ladder. The ladder represents many things – all artifacts of the hierarchically structured industrial age economy (which, by the way, is being radically restructured as I write). The higher we go on the mythical ladder, the more money, influence, power and respect we get. This is why when women (and men!) “opt off” the ladder to pursue a more “balanced” life, the mythology defines them as unsuccessful until they acquire those same top-o-the-ladder treats via other means.
But what happens when you take away the ladder analogy and replace it with something resembling a jungle gym? A more integrated, geometric structure that offers progression in many directions, just not all at once?
When the analogy shifts, so do the definitions of success.
In a jungle gym analogy, many of the same kinds of success are attainable, but not in any particular order. Our personal journey to find them becomes an individual search for “what’s next” in multiple directions instead of what’s next on a defined path. Our path becomes our own and our definition of success does too.
I noticed this personally when I opted out of the ladder in my 30’s. I had checked the box on many of the “success criteria” the ladder had to offer me. Going higher held less of an interesting challenge to me that branching off into an unknown, where I have in fact grown more as a professional and a person. Here is what I’ve noticed along the way about the realities of climbing the jungle gym (and I believe these also apply to those still on the ladder if they want them to):
Are you on the ladder or the jungle gym? What’s your experience and where are you going? Please share!
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