Lean In: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

“… ladders are limiting—people can move up or down, on or off. … 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.” 

—Sheryl Sandberg

I read this Lean In chapter from my preferred window seat somewhere in the skies over the north Atlantic. I was on my way home from Lyon, France and heading into my second round of jet lag for this trip.

Given this chapter’s title, I figured the subject would be relevant mainly to women in careers where there is a ladder to climb and who aspire (or need a nudge to aspire) to reach the top or as far up as they can go.

I was right. Sandberg is unapologetically committed to seeing more women in top level positions across the board. This chapter is full of invaluable advice on how to keep advancing in the workplace—plenty of smart advice I wish I’d had when I entered the workforce full time.

But I was pleasantly surprised (and expect you will be too) to discover how relevant this chapter is to everyone else. So don’t count yourself out if there isn’t a ladder where you work or you happen to be in a season of life that doesn’t include a job or you’re feeling sidelined at the moment for one reason or another.

I think there is something for all of us in realizing “It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder.”

Sandberg’s Take

Historically, the ladder has been the traditional metaphor for moving up in the workplace. But as Sandberg notes, all that is changing today (for women and for men) in favor of the jungle gym. This metaphor is especially applicable for women whose career paths do not necessarily follow a straight line. Women often change jobs because of a husband’s job change and/or women make career choices to accommodate the different interests and seasons of their lives.

Consider the evidence.

“As of 2010, the average American had eleven jobs from the ages of eighteen to forty-six alone. … the days of joining an organization or corporation and staying there to climb that one ladder are long gone.” (p.53)

Sandberg prefers the jungle gym approach because it offers greater flexibility and more choices than simply the next rung up on the ladder.

Her own career didn’t follow the ladder’s linear trajectory, and she admits she didn’t map out her career path in advance. It would have been impossible to imagine working for Google and Facebook or anything Internet related when she started out because they didn’t yet exist. Computers were housed in large secured rooms with data stored on heavy magnetic tapes. Besides, her future boss, Mark Zuckerberg, was only seven years old when Sheryl graduated from college.

With a physician father and a civil rights activist mother bent on tikkum olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”), Sheryl dreamed of working in government or a non-profit. Her own jungle gym career path went from her first post-college job as research assistant to World Bank’s chief economist Larry Summers (including an eye-opening stint in India). She was planning on law school, but with the advice of a colleague switched to Harvard Business School. She became a consultant at McKinsey & Company in Los Angeles, returned to D.C. as special assistant then chief of staff for Summers, her old boss who was Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Department. Then on to Silicon Valley as Google’s vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations and ultimately to her current position as Facebook’s COO.

Hardly a straight up ladder. But one of the key points is that the zigging and zagging required her to step out of her comfort zone to tackle new challenges and acquire new skills. She doesn’t repeat the adage “fake it ’til you make it,” but this chapter gives clarity to the concept by talking about “stretch assignments” that offer opportunities for personal growth.

At this point, Sandberg sounds a lot like an ezer-warrior:

“An international report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements. This difference has a huge ripple effect. Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.’” (p.62)

In this new world, women actually have more opportunities.

“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 ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.” (p.53)

My Take

Having been self-employed for years, I don’t ordinarily think in terms of climbing to the top. On the one hand, I’m my own boss. I set my own hours, choose my own projects, and schedule my own deadlines. On the other hand, I’m also my own support staff. I arrange my own meetings, do my own filing, clean my office, empty my wastebasket, and get my own coffee.

This chapter reminded me that my own career/ministry path was much more like a jungle gym than a ladder. My academic degrees are in Sociology and Biblical Studies, but I never dreamed I would actually use them. I entered the workforce post-college without a vision or a plan or any thought of ladders. Why would I? In my Christian subculture, I had been taught that the workplace was a temporary inconvenience for women to be endured until “Mr. Right” emerged out from the mist. He would bring home the bacon, and I would manage the home front.

As it turned out—I never did stopped working. My knight in shining armor did show up finally, but he was not quite what I had in mind. He actually thought work was a good thing.

I’ve worked in hospitals, dental offices, banks, and churches. I’ve been a secretary, office manager, technical writer, software developer, entrepreneur, author, and speaker. My migration from ministry into computer technology paved the way (and paid the bills) for our four-year stay in Oxford while Frank earned his D.Phil. I had my own business as a software developer, and my first client was Oxford University. After that I had more clients than I knew what to do with.

At the time, like Sandberg, I couldn’t see an obvious logic to the trajectory that took me from one job to the next. Rarely was strategy involved. But in hindsight, the dots are remarkably connected. One thing I have learned over the years is that God doesn’t waste a thing. Ups and downs, twists and turns, successes and failures—by God’s grace it all gets put to good use.

I say all this to underscore that for most of us, our lives follow a winding path filled with remarkable opportunities and unexpected challenges, changing seasons and family commitments, disappointments, successes and tough choices. The jungle gym is an opportunity for our faith to grow—where God challenges not only our skills but also our ability to trust. The jungle gym world is where we learn to embrace his purposes and adapt to changing circumstances by shedding fear and taking risks. These are opportunities for growth—whether we reach the top or can’t detect an inch of forward progress.

Like Sandberg I hope many more women will aspire and work to reach the top. Reality tells me that not all of us will summit. Which is why I hope this chapter will serve as a powerful reminder never to hold back no matter what God is calling us to do—but to lean in and embrace the callings he gives us with gusto.

So What’s Your Take?

So how does your career history reflect the jungle gym metaphor or not? What have you learned? Do you think of advancing upward in your career? Why or why not?

Lean in with your comments!

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    8 Responses to Lean In: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

    1. Srehry Rcoose says:

      In high school I worked at Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut and a floral shop. Three months after high school graduation I went into US Navy to become an aviation mechanic. My goal was to pay for college with the GI Bill. While in the Navy I met Jesus who changed my life and eternity. After the Navy I went to college…at first to study Psychology but soon found my self switching to a Biblical Studies focus. After 2 years in college I found my “Knight in Christ's Shining Armor”. We married and I continued my Biblical Studies while working part time at a Montessori School. One year later we started growing our family. Since the end of 1999 I have been a homeschool parent. Everything I learned from previous jobs I use now at least on a weekly basis. In high school I learned food service. In the Navy I learned to fix things and work hard physically. In college I found that I could learn independently from any book. Through it all the Lord continues to teach me to work hard and trust Him. God's plan is perfect!


    2. Carolyn says:

      I can well believe homeschooling mothers draw on everything they've gained via the jungle gym. Thanks for posting your story Srehry.


    3. All my siblings and I were expected to earn a higher degree (and I know my parents were proud of the MA in Christian Education I earned), but it was made clear that the primary reason we women needed our degrees was just in case – just in case we never married or just in case we needed to support our families. Like most Christian women, I ended up managing the home front. While I did serve in ministry all those years, I have only just used my degree to earn actual cash in the last two years. So, my life certainly didn't follow the ladder metaphor.

      I was challenged by Sheryl's statement, “If I am afraid to do something, it is usually because I am not good at it or perhaps am too scared to even try” which takes us back to chapter one and her question there. I resolve now to try some things I have never done before and have been too afraid to try.


    4. Donna Wilson says:

      Carolyn, you are so correct: “Nothing is wasted in God's economy.” I was a highschool teacher while my husband was at GCTS (and took seminary courses at night). When we went on staff with InterVarsity doing media production I thought I left teaching behind. But today I oversee the development training for our staff. Never dreamed those skills would be tapped again.


    5. Carolyn says:

      “I resolve now to try some things I have never done before and have been too afraid to try.”

      “Never dreamed those skills would be tapped again.”

      Love these comments! So encouraging.


    6. Phyllis Thompson says:

      About three weeks ago my daughter called from the emergency room of the hospital, saying, “It's going to be all right, but [granddaughter] Kylie (age 8) just fell off the jungle gym and cut her chin. We are here for stitches so she won't BE ABLE to climb again for a couple of weeks now!” Indeed, she is “back on the bars” as school ends and I couldn't help thinking of that real life parallel as I read this chapter – my favorite so far! The life lessons key to the metaphor are several – especially when other people are on the gym with you: you're going to have to stretch and take risks to keep going higher; you may fall and need stitches of love and comfort BUT you WILL BE ABLE to go at it again, with more wisdom and skill; and, unlike the linear ladder, the jungle gym's view is ever changing and panoramic which is the glory of its approach!

      I don't think I've ever held a job where I felt 100% qualified when I applied – in fact, I was rarely 60% qualified when I interviewed. And the only one I ever failed to get was where they felt I was “overqualified and would never stay longer than a year!” I cried at the time and even called them back to say, “Are you sure about this?” but they were right on both counts.

      My first job post undergrad was as an AA to the President of a top interior design firm for which my sole technical qualification was one college design class to fill an elective but which uncovered a passion for the field that I have used in renovating our homes many times. When I left, my boss said I was the best AA he'd ever had in spite of the fact I couldn't type worth a nickle! The previous gal was an extremely quick and flawless typist, but what I could do was problem solve quickly and that ability turned out that was far more valuable to him than my slow typing was a problem. I left there for a “rocket ship” opportunity that was only a six month position in the world of politics. In the interview, I told that future boss that, at the end of 6 months, if I were any good, he'd find another place for me; if I were bad, he needed to get me off the payroll anyway. I climbed jungle gyms around that world for 4 years until I followed my new husband to FL and a position in the music business. That boss mainly hired me so he could say his AA had worked for the previous guy but he got more than he bargained for as I was certainly not afraid of him and his VPs LOVED that he'd met his match! I've subsequently been an entrepreneur for 33 years now and still stretching for higher rungs and better views but, like Sheryl, have yet to spot a tiara. Sandberg is giving “golden advice” here – single job criterion is “fast growth” (apply that personally as well as professionally!) and her life dream/18 mo plan works no matter your age and stage! I agree with you, Carolyn — this chapter “will preach” to everyone!


    7. Carolyn says:

      Phyllis, your post is priceless! Kylie takes after her Grandmo. What a great story. Thanks for contributing and for staying on that jungle gym!


    8. Pingback: Lean In: Working Together Toward Equality | Carolyn Custis James

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