You know about the jungle gym career metaphor, right? The one that twists a career ladder into a less predictable, non-linear series of steps (and swings, crawls, etc.). Jungle gyms are indisputably more fun than ladders. They offer us choices and adventures. According to Pattie Sellers, the Forbes editor credited with creating the jungle gym metaphor for professional women, we should, “Forget the ladder; climb the jungle gym.” Sellers challenges, “What good is a ladder when the world is changing so fast and unpredictably–and who knows what tomorrow’s ideal job will be? Think of your career as a jungle gym, sharpen your peripheral vision, and look for opportunities all around.”
Sounds like good advice. And, with creativity and risk taking having long been heralded as essential leadership skills, the jungle gym image fits well with executive storytelling. Perhaps someday soon, we will even see Brookstone launch a line of “jungle gym” accessories.
But let’s be honest, the jungle gym icon can also conjure up childhood vulnerabilities like fear of failure, being different, and the desire to be liked—fears that are nearly as relevant in our careers as they were at recess.
So how do we as leaders jump on the jungle gym and never look back? Consider these reassurances:
Any direction can be good. In contrast to a ladder, which offers upward progression or downward regression, jungle gyms are comprised of multiple paths from various perspectives. Choosing may be daunting, but there’s always a chance to change direction.
You don’t need a complete plan to achieve your long-term vision.
While decision-making is key to maneuvering on a jungle gym, your path can emerge as you progress. The lessons you learn will help you make decisions that are best for you. Exploring will reveal what areas you want to pursue and those you want to avoid.
Trust your gut but push yourself beyond what is comfortable
Remember that nauseating tickle that would seize your stomach as your swing hit its maximum height and then stopped before dropping down? Wasn’t that when you knew you were swinging as well as possible? Wasn’t that feeling of soaring the goal you were striving for? Challenging ourselves (without being reckless) pays off.
Options make recess (i.e., life) more fun.
Even for those who prefer minimal change, keeping your options open can be beneficial for professional success. According to Sheryl Sandberg, “The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment”.
I’ll see you on the playground!