It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

jungle-gym

I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked-about book, Lean In.  When I was part of a collective of leaders at IDEO grappling with issues related to people & culture, one particular struggle was coming up with an alternate metaphor to replace the notion of a career ladder.   We never quite figured it out, but I’m delighted to report that someone has.  Sheryl credits Pattie Sellers, a senior editor at Fortune, with having conceived of the notion of careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder.  Sounds about right to me.  A few quotes I love discussing this concept:

“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.”

“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.”

Which better describes your work life? Has your career been a vertical ladder (perhaps with a great rear view), or more like a playful and challenging jungle gym?

Ode to Mothering

saralina

I arrived home this Mother’s Day evening to find a card and small vase of flowers waiting on my doorstep.  The sight alone was gift enough, but the real treasure was the poem inside.  I share it here with the permission of my dear friend and writer, Saralina Kamholtz.

We are scooping up stars
and giving them back on freshly washed plates,
Spilling them like apples from our hands
into neat constellations, crispy and sweet.
We are clearing a path
for your feet to go racing forward,
Handing you chalk to build your ladders
to some new heaven stretching out on the pavement ahead.
 
We are sending our voices out,
tucked into pockets,
Stitching flannel lining for your fingers to find
when darkness whispers its cold breath,
and you are standing there, alone,
waiting for the street lamps to turn on.
 
We are laying heads in our laps
at the end of each last summer day,
where we have been saying “go” and “come back,”
with the rise and fall of waves,
Finger knitting stories into your hair
that will carry you through sleep.
 
Most of the blooming things I know of
start as seeds,
sheltered by the fierce and loving hearts of women.
 

© May 2013 by Saralina Kamholtz. All rights reserved.

Reflections on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, mom, and former Director of Policy at the U.S. State Department, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (click link to read the article).  Many of my friends shared the article with me, and it has struck such a chord that it is being brought up in my circles of conversation as simply The Atlantic article.   As in: have you seen the Atlantic article?  What do you think?  So here, dear reader, is what I think.  I think I am lucky to have had my two children while I was in my late twenties.  I had enough professional experience to be considered an asset at work, and was not so well paid that I had much to lose in asking for what I wanted, which was a three-day work week.  At that age, I was still naïve enough to think the world would have an interest in bending to my needs and had the nerve to ask for what I wanted, and not apologetically either. Conventional wisdom at the company at that time was that you could work a reduced schedule if you were willing to step back in responsibility (i.e. give up a management role).  I approached the department head, said I didn’t think that the policy made a lot of sense since the company probably wants people to contribute to the highest levels of their ability, and to continue to develop that ability over time.  Why would you want people who are good at leading to stop leading?  And with that, I asked for what I wanted, which was this:  A three-day workweek.  Compensation in line with work schedule (60% time = 60% pay).  Full benefits.  Retention of current title and role (with a narrowed client list).  Consideration for future promotions.  Full eligibility for annual bonus.  And guess what?  I got it.  It made total sense to me then, as it does now.  Except that now I know how utterly unusual it is for such a proposal to be accepted.  But it was accepted, and not by a touchy-feely leader, either.  He was the kind of guy who had the ability to distill everything down to its raw essence– a person who inspired admiration and fear in equal measure.  His reply to my request was this: “You’re telling me I have a choice between three days a week and zero?  [to which I sheepishly nodded yes] Then I’ll take three.”  It was clear-cut and simple, as he later explained at an all-company meeting.  Given a choice between losing a strong performer and retaining one, he would choose keeping one.  An easy decision to make.

I worked a three-day schedule for a dozen years, and quite often, people outside the organization would comment on how lucky I was.  I was always quick to point out that the company was lucky too:  I was a bargain at 60% salary, and the arrangement benefitted us both.  What pleased me greatly was that my work arrangement did not remain a one-off special case.  Though I pioneered the concept which became known as “part-time professional,” many others, men and women, also opted for reduced schedules.  Some devoted time to raising children, others to graduate school or other pursuits.  It became possible to continue to perform a challenging role at work and to participate significantly in life outside of the office too.

Making work a part of my life portfolio but not my whole pie gave me time to invest in my community.  I participated in boards and committees, got to know my neighbors, and spent long hours seeing the world anew through the eyes of my young children.  Often this involved examining small rocks and marveling at them like treasured jewels or watching highways of ants busily marching from one side of the sidewalk to another.  Later it became answering awkward questions about “family living” (our town’s euphemism for sex ed) while driving the kids to activities after school.   The ability to be engaged in so many ways with so much of life made me show up joyfully wherever I was.  I would like to think that this was ultimately a very good thing for everyone involved: happy woman, happy work team, happy family.

But as I have gotten older and experienced other workplaces, I have been less likely to ask for what I want.  I wonder how much our demons of self-doubt as women get in the way of us standing up for ourselves.  George Bernard Shaw said that the unreasonable man “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”   I think I was more brash in my twenties and figured the world should bend to my needs when I suggested a three day schedule and got it.  I was more comfortable being “unreasonable.”  As I have gotten more seasoned, I have a better sense of the long odds and risks associated with bucking convention.  Plus as I have advanced in salary and title, the stakes have gotten higher.  I have much more to lose.  So despite the expansion of my influence and status, I am less apt to use it. How unfortunate.

It seems to me that the question we should really be asking in the perennial debate about “having it all” is how we might make it easier for each of us to contribute to the very best of our abilities, and in a measure appropriate for the portfolio of activities which compose our life.  We seem to be mired in institutionalized systems and structures which fail dismally at meeting the needs of people.  If we are to change that, articulating our needs and having the nerve to be unreasonable might be precisely what is call for.  And even better if we do so with the head-held-high confidence that doing so will be a gift for everyone.

If Dr. Seuss had been an accountant

Most of us at some point embrace the notion that we should let go of childhood dreams and settle for the conventional and safe.  Along the way, we begin to believe that it is selfish to follow our hearts.  We start to think it makes sense to abandon our love of writing and illustrating and that the responsible thing to do is to get a job in finance or accounting.  Is it really responsible to abandon your dreams?  If debit-left-credit-right lights you up, then go for it. Grow up and be a Certified Public Accountant.  But if your heart is elsewhere, honor that.  Passion is an indicator and a path marker, much like the emergency evacuation lights onboard an aircraft which illuminate to lead you to the exits.  When we find an activity which brings a brightness to our eyes, and an energy to our living, we are wise to lean into it and follow that path.  Doing what we love is a way of living in harmony with our hearts, and it honors both who we are and the people around us.   Putting our true talents to use can be glorious.  How might we better nurture that divine spark of passion in ourselves and each other, and find the courage to lead with our hearts?

I for one am glad that Theodor Geisel did not grow up to be an accountant.  I doubt we would gather around at bedtime to look with triumph at the tax savings achieved for Mrs. Williamson if Theodor had become a CPA.  But lucky for us, Theodor grew up to be a writer and illustrator called Dr. Seuss.  He had the courage to open a window into his imagination and transcribe it with pen and ink so the rest of us could see what he saw.  What a gift!  He even left us a story to remind us that the same possibility is open to us.  We pick our path.  We choose our contribution.  We have brains in our head.   And feet in our shoes.  And we can steer ourselves any direction we choose.  So… let’s make like Dr. Seuss and get on our way!

© March 2012 by Pam Daniels. All rights reserved. References to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! ©1990 by Dr. Seuss, published by Random House.

World Math

Sometimes we pretend that the world can be divided.  We talk about the “real world” as if it is some place you can go visit or avoid if you so choose.   We distill the stories we hear and daily experiences of life through our own filters and leave out what does not fit into our container of reality.  Or we live so neatly in our own tight circles and minds that we forget that there are other experiences, other daily realities, other vantage points, and that each is real.

Good designers and artists tend to remember this and act upon it.  A friend who does landscape design comes to mind.  She volunteered her time crafting the school garden and in the process of contemplating her design, she would squat down to see the playground and garden beds from the kindergarteners’ point of view.   I was surprised to see that the arms of the benches, seen from the top as simply curved arms, are actually circles.  I can no longer spend time on that corner of the school lot without seeing things differently now.  I’m always tempted to lower my stance, get down, and see it the way the kids do.

The more grown up you get, the harder it seems to be to forget basic math—that the world is the sum total of you + me + the next person + the next person, continued indefinitely.  Our individual voices form the chorus of our communities.  Our personal behaviors aggregate into collective actions.  This is true in families, towns, schools, corporations, and entire nations.  These organizations are the sum of the people in them and the choices they make every day.   The real world is all of it.

If we are to continue working together to address the challenges of our time, we need to remember world math.  What can each of us bring to the equation today?

© June 2010 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.