Lean In Chapter Four, It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder.

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder”  – Pattie Sellers

I really latched onto this metaphor, perhaps because “Jungle Gyms” are a regular part of my life.

“Young man that table is NOT a jungle gym!”

“Little miss, the couch is NOT a jungle gym!”


Add to that the fact that I spend a hefty amount of time in my current profession visiting local parks and playgrounds and I really felt like this chapter was just for me.

I am an EXPERT at jungle gyms!


Sheryl Sandberg (who I decided I totally want to be friends with in real life) moves the conversation to a more practical place in Chapter Four, while weaving in those earlier themes of fear and ambition.

Here is my favorite paragraph that kind of breaks down the metaphors of ladders and jungle gyms:

Ladders are limiting – people can move up or down, on or off.  Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.  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 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.  The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.  Plus a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.  On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.

If the success/likeability discussion from the last chapter left me feeling helpless and sad, this chapter truly evoked a bit of hope for me.

I have started and restarted careers.  I have switched careers and switched back again.  I have taken time off.  I get this.

I’ll say it again, I am an EXPERT at Jungle Gyms!

I really wish I had design skills because I would love to see what an infographic of my own personal career journey has looked like, but my tools are words so I will try to use those to show a bit what each academic year (I still live by academic years in my world!) has looked like since leaving graduate school:

Year 1: Teaching post-secondary Spanish in three ways: community college, state university traditional classrooms and state university on-line classrooms, also volunteering in a ministry.

Year 2: Teaching post-secondary Spanish on-line and teaching both middle school Spanish and middle school advisory, volunteering in a ministry.

Year 3:  Teaching Middle School Spanish and Advisory and part time vocational ministry.

Year 4:  Teaching Middle School Spanish and part time vocational ministry.

Year 5:  Teaching Middle School Spanish and part time vocational ministry and being at home with my new baby!

Year 6:  Part time vocational ministry and another baby – left Spanish teaching behind!

Year 7:  Part time vocational ministry and on-line teaching (said “Hola” to Spanish teaching again!) and raisin’ those babies.

Year 8:  On-line teaching and stay at home parenting.  (i.e. becoming a domestic goddess)

Year 9:  On-line teaching and stay at home parenting.

I feel like a yo-yo but it matches up with what Sandberg is saying in this chapter.  She herself has been Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations for Google, the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Treasury Department and is now COO of Facebook.  One recent study (2010) found that the average American had ELEVEN jobs between ages 18 and 46.

Even though becoming a stay at home domestic goddess, teaching Spanish and doing ministry seem like randomly disconnected jobs, I haven’t found that to be true at all.   In each area I  teach, serve, listen, mature and make a difference. Professional skills, instincts and ethics I have learned in education I have used in ministry and vice versa.   It’s not three separate ladders, It’s a jungle gym where I have grown in how to relate to people, teach them and lead them. 

Sandberg even jokes about how she had no idea when setting out that she would end up in technology, let alone Facebook, especially seeing as how Mark Zuckerberg was only 7 years old when she graduated college.  You can imagine what is going through my head when I disciple college aged women on “what they are going to do with their lives”.  I mostly just try and listen patiently, smiling knowingly that it will be a millions different things.

Right now is kind of tough for me, I have a couple of toes on the jungle gym and the rest of me is off.  I see lots of other women doing really neat tricks, like hanging upside down from the monkey bars, mastering the climbing wall and flying off the swings, furthering their distance each time.

And so while I sit off to the side, in the grass with my babes, getting their snacks and putting on band aids, I watch these other women.  And truthfully I feel left behind, but also in awe of what they are doing.

To know that I haven’t lost my place on any linear ladder, but that I can find a new starting point when I am ready to hop back on the jungle gym is reassuring, inviting and exciting.

As I mentioned before this chapter had some practical elements and here are two that caught my attention:

1) Emphasize a meaningful life.  Sandberg says her parents focused on that aspect in careers, dinnertime conversations and in supporting her and her two siblings in their endeavors.  She knew she wanted to make a difference and do something she loved, for her that has looked like working in technology and government but that extends to other areas of her life such as how she raises her children and her involvement in philanthropic activities.

I want my paid hours to be meaningful whether they are spent in education, vocational ministry or some other field.  I want my unpaid hours to be meaningful, too.  The nitty gritty of what that looks like – volunteering, homemaking, working in various careers – is just part of the fun and freedom of doing life on a jungle gym.

2) Goal setting.  Cringe.   This is a tough one for me because, full disclosure, I don’t naturally set goals for myself and actually resist them.  But just because we aren’t on a linear ladder doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals of where we want to end up.  At least that is what Sheryl (we are totally on a first name basis now) says.

Here are the types of goals she suggests:

A) Long term goal.  This one has been important for me lately because i am discerning what kind of work I truly want to invest in as my kids get older and spend more of their lives  at school (hooooraaaayyy  and also, waaaahhhhh).  Having in mind the dream of what I would really like to be doing is life-giving for me during this season of making endless amounts of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watching Sid the Science Kid.

B) 18 month goal:  As I discern what my long term DREAM goals are, and even readily acknowledge they are somewhere ‘down the road’, I feel active and intentional knowing I can take some steps right now, even if they are baby steps.   Again for someone like Sheryl who is practically running Facebook this looks so hilariously different from my life, but it is still applicable.

C)  Personal growth:   How can I improve?  Well, the list is endless, really!  I can always be improving my writing, my parenting, my cooking, my use of Spanish and my ministry gifts.

If careers aren’t ladders, then I don’t have to worry what a ‘step down’ means.  Or a step away.  Or a couple of rides down the slide with a kid on my lap.  Phew. 

Since I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t have some closing questions, here are some for the road (or to think about as you fold endless piles of laundry…)

What has your career path looked like?  It is kind of fun to go back and reflect!

What decides how “meaningful” will be defined in your life?

What long term and short term goals do you have for yourself?


4 thoughts on “Lean In Chapter Four, It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder.

  1. Tarah Speck

    Kirsten, I SO wish we lived closer. I would absolutely LOVE to get coffee, sit in a park while your kiddos play, and talk about all of these questions together with you! These very questions have been on my heart for the last year, and I love talking about other people’s thoughts on short and long term goals, dreams, etc. Keep on writing 🙂


    1. Kirsten

      Yes Tarah! If you are ever back in Phx let me know, I’ll drive up 🙂 Thanks for encouraging me to write, that Anne Lamott quote you shared on Facebook a while back was a real turning point for me!


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