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Navigating the Professional Jungle Gym

As the father of two teenage daughters, one of whom is driving and entering her senior year in high school, I oft reflect on the “good ole days” of their toddler years, when Instagram and Snapchat were replaced with juice boxes and jungle gyms. It is against this treasured memory from which I draw one of my most valuable career lessons. As law students, we were taught that our careers ought to progress in a straight forward, linear fashion. Climbing the corporate ladder ostensibly entailed that with each career step we should ascend higher and higher, rung by rung, on the proverbial corporate ladder. And with each progression, we must diligently check off the boxes of our career goals: higher salary, loftier title, organizational equity, etc. We spend our careers checking boxes and climbing ladders.  

For lawyers particularly, and BigLaw lawyers specifically, the path has been blazoned in our heads from our very first day of orientation in college: Complete undergrad, go to law school, take the bar, enter a law firm as a first-year associate and work your way up to equity partner. Sometimes lawyers will deviate from the law firm path and go in-house instead of staying in a law firm, but the path in-house is often viewed as a similar straight line (a.k.a., the “corporate ladder”).

Linear career progression, however, does not always lead to career satisfaction. And it was through my own career dissatisfaction that I stumbled upon this novel concept that hearkened me back to the days when I would take my daughters to the park and watch them indulge for hours in the sheer joy of the playground jungle gym.  

What if we viewed our careers less like a ladder or linear progression and more like the jungle gym we all enjoyed as kids? Instead of rotely checking boxes for the sake of climbing a ladder none of us created, what if we liberated ourselves to take different paths that are not necessarily higher but are more likely to bring us career satisfaction?

Envision a child playing on a jungle gym. She will climb the first ladder and then make a choice—go left and slide down the slide or go right and swing on the monkey bars.  When she reaches the end of the slide or the monkey bars, she returns to the ladder and repeats the process, choosing to either go down the slide again or take a different course of action. Children find joy in the process even though they have to climb back up the ladder to get to a new place or even the same one. They are not focused on getting higher, only having fun. 

Take a step back and consider the last time you had fun at work (and I don’t mean going to happy hour). When was the last time your current role made you say, “I can’t wait to go to work today”? Look at your career as a collection of experiences that create success by your own definition and on your own terms rather than as a predetermined ladder.

Deviating from the path is not always easy and requires some self-introspection and thought before making a move. Consider what you would do if you won the lottery. After the wild spending spree and expensive vacations, you would have to return to reality and be a productive and contributing member of society. Then what?  

Determine what motivates you; what you are really good at; and what you are passionate about.  Then reconcile that with the areas in which you have been trained and have developed expertise. Look for synergies in those worlds. Where are the intersection points? Seek out mentors and coaches who can guide and advise you. Ask questions to those with whom you work to see where they think your strengths and skills reside. Most importantly, you need to decide what success looks like for you. Is it really partnership or is it helping someone else discover career satisfaction as a recruiter?

After you have thought this through, seek out experiences that will add to your skill set and help lead you toward your definition of success. If you have to, volunteer at first, and then work toward making it a full-time role.

You should take different paths that are not necessarily always higher, but instead are ones that bring you joy like sliding down the slide again and again. Having a variety of experiences will help you add tools to your toolbox of skills and knowledge—and ultimately get you further in your career. In fact, in a recent survey commissioned by Cigna, 81% of the women surveyed viewed their career progression as more of a jungle gym. Even Sheryl Sandberg suggests this notion in her book Lean In. People in the corporate world are regularly diverting from the path; us as lawyers have this opportunity, too. Your path may take you to a boutique firm and then back to an AmLaw200. Or your path could lead you in-house to a larger Fortune 500 and then to a small startup. All of these stops will add tools to your toolbox and provide you will need experiences that will benefit your career in the long run. 

Stepping off the path takes courage, but the reward can be well worth the risk. When you blindly follow the ladder and put pressure on yourself to go all the way to the top, you could end up unfulfilled, and even worse, unhappy.  Explore the jungle gym and try different things that will help you be fulfilled in your career. You will end up happier and in a better role than you could ever imagine.  See you on the playground!

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