There are a lot of ladder references in the corporate world.
We strive to continually advance to The Top.
Advancement is achieved on the Rungs of Opportunity.
And, of course, it’s all about The Climb. At least according to Miley Cyrus.
Maybe you’ve been on the ladder for a while. And you’ve noticed some rungs are missing. They break beneath your feet. Or someone else is blocking your upwards path. And you want to yell Down in Front! Or worse, rather than extending a hand to help you up, they push you off despite the fact you’ve been bolstering the weight of their climb for years and all you want to do is stand with them. Or you’re hanging onto the ladder for dear life while you bonk your head against that glass ceiling directly above you.
Lay down the ladder. That’s right, lay it down.
Wait, you say, aren’t I supposed to Lean In, rise up, reach for the top? Why have I put in all this effort thus far only to give up the climb?
Please don’t stop striving, I would respond. But give a little thought about why you’re climbing and what you think you’ll find when you get there.
Because even if you do reach the top, when you really look around, maybe the view isn’t what you thought it would be. Or you’ll be alone. Or, unsatisfied, you’ll feel the need to go even higher. A continuous, exhausting climb. The message may be if you aren’t always moving ahead, you risk falling behind.
Lay down the ladder.
What if success is not an upward line? What if you can identify success elsewhere?
When I look back at my 25-year career, my most meaningful experiences have not come from climbing the ladder — not from the promotions or the titles or even the little gold statues that impress visitors to my house. Sure, those felt good for a brief time. Like, for a minute. And then, when the novelty of the achievement wore off, I was compelled to reach for the next rung — grip often failing, people above stepping on my hands, people below pushing to get past. A crowded, competitive ladder.
No, what I remember most are not the accolades of achievements but the actions themselves — the people and experiences that punctuated those years. Fixing a script hours before the story is going to air, reaching that “aha!” moment when the pieces of the puzzle have come together. Telling an unknown hero’s story knowing the impact the emotion within will have with all who watch. Advocating for a departing employee to ask for more money from the new offer and hearing her thanks as she returned with a starting salary 10% higher than what she was originally given (full disclosure, I had actually suggested she ask for 20%). And so many more…
These memories have no ladder. They are mere moments in time but they are the most meaningful.
What if instead of thinking of our career as a ladder, we created in our minds the image of a nice leather portfolio, large and secure enough to store all of those meaningful memories. Or an intricate mosaic, each tile fitting together to create a beautiful picture of your lasting legacy.
Is it possible that success is not a trajectory to the top but an ever-expanding circle of the experiences you have, the knowledge you gain and the lives you touch?
Stop climbing. Start collecting.
And what better time to do this than in today’s changing corporate culture. The gig economy allows earning in any number of ways. Portfolio careers support success in multiple arenas. Next chapters provide space for reinvention at any stage. We’ve moved beyond singular titles and a sole definition of what it means to matter.
It was always important to me to extend a hand to help someone up the ladder. Now, I invite them into my portfolio. There is no hierarchy here. Your presence is welcome at any step or stage in your career. Because your story is fascinating. And it’s only just begun.
Lay down the ladder. Your climb is now a collection. Success is only how you define it.
The story is not over. Turn the page, as many times as you need.
Former television producer Valerie Gordon is now the founder of Commander-in-She, LLC, just one component in her proud portfolio. She offers keynote presentations, group workshops and individual strategizing sessions to help clients harness the power in their stories and create successful and satisfying next chapters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.