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Your Career is a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

Jungle Gym Boogie

. . . look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they're going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job. Don't plan too much, and don't expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.

                                   -- Sheryl Sandberg

As we leave May and enter June, it's that time of year when graduation speakers give us their best advice. (My favorite graduation speech of all time is Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford talk, by the way.) 

This year, it was Sheryl Sandberg's speech at Harvard Business School that caught my eye with her recommendation to treat your career like a jungle gym, not a ladder. That is, to forget the upward climb to the corner office and embrace a more networked career where you are likely to move down a step, then across, then up and then across again. The focus is not on job titles and "building your resume,"  but on developing skills and engaging in experiences that you can take with you across industries and occupational titles. 

 As we go from the 20-year career to a 4-year career, this is advice I think we need to take to heart--especially those of us who remember a time when people had 20-year careers. We live in a hyper-connected, fast-paced world where it's virtually impossible to predict your career trajectory with any assurance. Some of the jobs with the fastest growth didn't even exist 10 years ago, so "planning" for a career becomes even more difficult to do. 

The best we can do to stay on top of things is to be flexible and to focus on developing skills that transfer into different jobs and industries.  As we climb that jungle gym of our work, we need to look for opportunities to re-package our skills and experiences in ways that bring us meaning and engagement, as well as solve problems for our potential employers. 

Career ladders are dead for most of us. We are dealing with jungle gym careers. But at least jungle gyms are more fun.  


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