January is over. I promise this isn’t a ‘new year, new job’ post.

But it is about your career.

“Your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder” – Sheryl Sandberg.

The first time I heard this analogy was during an interview. The woman I was talking to was at a crossroads in her career. She was looking for something a little different, some kind of change.

The conversation we were having was not an unusual one. In my quest to really get to know people, understand their motivations and what they’re looking for in their next job, I often find myself deep in conversation about ‘what next’.

I’m not a career coach (although I can recommend one if you think you need to have these conversations with someone more qualified than me) but I am immensely interested in what makes people tick, aligning personal and professional values and happiness at work.

Getting back to the interview, for this woman, it turned out that her ‘what next’ was taking a step back from the general management level role she’d been in for the last few years and getting back to her roots ie being more hands-on with the communication and stakeholder engagement work she loved.

She wasn’t looking to change careers completely, just take a different direction in the jungle gym (rather than a step up the ladder).

The jungle gym analogy really got me thinking about my own career journey.

I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture theatre at QUT, circa 1999, listening to a panel of previous graduates talk about their careers to date, the graduate recruitment programs they’d fought hard to win places on, the big firms they’d worked for, the international offices they’d worked in, and their career aspirations for the future.

I was inspired. I wanted to climb said career ladder. I wanted to live overseas. I wanted to earn good money and have an impressive job title. I was 20 years old and I really hadn’t given much thought to WHY I wanted these things. But as a classic overachiever, I knew ‘career’ was important.

This burning desire to climb some kind of imaginary/conceptual ladder lasted no more than three years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still the driven, ambitious and focused person who was sitting in that lecture theatre 18 years ago. But I abandoned the ladder and have been happily exploring the jungle gym ever since.

Given what I do for a living, this next statement might seem a little strange..

I’ve never really given the true meaning of ‘career’ much thought. I simply thought it was something I wanted and needed to be successful and happy. And perhaps that is true.

But as I was writing this post, I decided to look up the definition of the word ‘career’:

(noun) – an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life, and with opportunities to progress

(verb) – move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way

Its definition as a noun is very familiar. Something that occupies us for a period of time and offers opportunity to progress. We could explore/debate what opportunity and progression really mean, but I’d rather stop and think about the word career as a verb.

To move swiftly in an uncontrolled way.

This sounds like me. I like to move swiftly. Perhaps too swiftly most of the time.

What if, instead of being on a quest to move swiftly (usually in an upwards direction)… we were more mindful about what we spend a significant period of our life doing?

What if we started our working lives asking ourselves the very questions most of us start asking after 5 or 10 or 15 years of climbing ‘the ladder, chasing more money and a bigger job title (and getting burnt out and exhausted in the process).

What if we put aside the idea of the ladder, and think of our working lives as a jungle gym? A fun, varied space in which to climb, scramble and explore. Without the concept of ‘up’.

I’m not suggesting you quit your corporate job and spend your days in the playground or join the circus.

I’m suggesting that before we reach for the next rung on the ladder, we take a moment to think about what it’s all about.

PS. I’m not a career coach. I’m a recruiter dedicated to marketing and communication people.