If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you know that my major criticism of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” is that she didn’t provide enough realistic advice for regular folks trying to balance work and life, and I like other books better for such actionable advice.
However, I did relate with much in the book, especially one particular point that I believe is great career –and life – advice for women and men alike: Realize that it’s a jungle gym out there. In other words, think about your career – and your life – not as a ladder, but rather as a jungle gym where you can create your own path to the top and to achieving happiness.
Sandberg writes: “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.”
The vast majority of successful women I meet have taken this “jungle gym” route to navigating their careers, and as many of you know, I’ve had a varied career myself. My professional bio will tell you that I studied accounting and was a CPA, but it will not tell you the wonderfully amusing stories of the farmers that I worked with in Oklahoma, or that I took a couple of years off when my children were young.
It will mention that I was a lawyer, but it will neglect to mention that I worked my way through college as a legal secretary and paralegal. If you go even further back in time, I’ve had stints in fast food joints, cleaning Laundromats and washing dishes.
Climbing around the jungle gym – even if I never get to the top – has afforded me some spectacular vistas along the way at many different socioeconomic stratums, and each step of my varied path has led me to my next one in unexpected ways. In fact, if I didn’t take this “jungle-gym” approach, moving from law and accounting to the financial industry, I obviously wouldn’t be where I am today.
You see, I worry that often in our ever-increasingly complex world, we become too narrow in our focus. It takes so many years to become adept at certain areas – whether medicine, computer programming, law or science – and if you want to make it to the top of that profession, specialization is de rigueur.
So, it can be hard to think about, and pursue, outside-the-box opportunities that may be your best bet toward career – and personal – fulfillment. One of my favorite authors and philosophers, Bertrand Russell, wrote an essay entitled “Useless Knowledge,” in which he makes a powerful case for why the circuitous route, i.e. the jungle-gym approach to life, if you will, results in the most fully human experience.
He writes: “What is needed is not this or that specific piece of information, but such knowledge as inspires a conception of the ends of human life as a whole: art and history, acquaintance with the lives of heroic individuals, and some understanding of the strangely accidental and ephemeral position of man in the cosmos, all this touched with an emotion of pride in what is distinctively human, the power to see and to know, to feel magnanimously and to think with understanding. It is from large perceptions combined with impersonal emotion that wisdom most readily springs.”
In other words, the true power of climbing the jungle gym is gaining the varied knowledge and experiences that can bring us real wisdom and satisfaction. The jungle-gym advice in “Lean In,” I believe, is a call for us all to be open to new experiences and opportunities, both professionally and personally. I’d like to think that Sandberg means that in climbing the jungle gym, each of us in our own way, can find “fulfillment” in the broadest sense of the word.
Sources: Linked to throughout post
Sue Thompson, CIMA, Managing Director, is Head of the Registered Investment Advisor Group, overseeing the firm’s iShares and 529 sales efforts with registered investment advisors, family offices and asset managers. Sue is a regular contributor to The Blog. You can find more of her posts here.