Rethinking Careers: Get off the Ladder and Go on a Journey

Contributed by Mark Bonchek and Jacqueline Jones

Jacqueline Jones_Kaplan

While the speed of change and innovation in our world is in unprecedented overdrive, our notion of careers has been stuck in first gear. We need to update our thinking and use new tools to better meet the needs of employees and employers.

The dominant mental model for careers is a ladder. New graduates gain entry level positions, then steadily climb their way up the ladder of their chosen profession. At each rung, they gain skills and experience. And with each promotion, they step up to take on greater responsibilities and higher pay.

The goal on the career ladder is simple: keep moving higher. The risks are clear. Miss a step or overreach and we risk falling back down. Too much time on the same rung and we start to wonder if there is something wrong.

The ladder model of careers infuses our approach to career planning. We choose a ladder (a profession), figure out what rung we are on (assess our skills) and how high we can go (assess our potential), and then keep looking and reaching for the next rung (finding a job and getting a promotion).

The problem with the career ladder is that it isn’t working for employees and employers.  As Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha point out in their book “The Alliance,” companies simply can’t promise the stability required for the career ladder to succeed.

The world of work has become full of broken ladders.

Mark Bonchek - photo - Print (2) (1)According to Gallup’s latest study on the State of the Global Workplace, only 13% of employees worldwide are truly engaged at work. In other words, only about one in eight workers — roughly 180 million employees in the countries studied — are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.

The bulk of employees worldwide — 63% — are “not engaged,” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes. And 24% are “actively disengaged,” indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers. In rough numbers, this translates into 900 million workers not engaged with 340 million actively disengaged around the globe.

On the career ladder, engagement comes from knowing that your effort on this rung will get you to the next. But on a broken ladder, you can’t go up and you don’t want to go down.

People are increasingly fearful, frustrated, and disappointed in their careers. They don’t know if they are on the right ladder; if they are learning the right skills; if they will be recognized and rewarded for their contributions and accomplishments; and if the next rung will even be there when they are ready to take the next step. No wonder more than 60% of Baby Boomers feel they need new skills to advance their careers.

Inventing a new definition for “Careers”

If you look up the word “career” in the dictionary you will find two definitions. One is a noun and the other a verb. The noun is the familiar efinition of “time spent in a profession.”

But the verb also seems apt. In this other definition, “to career” is “to move in an uncontrolled way” as in a car on a road. “Uncontrolled” unfortunately describes many people’s work experiences and career planning all too well.

In different ways, both of us have spent the last decade exploring this new definition of work, both personally and professionally. We have seen the changing nature of work, the skills and mindset required to succeed in the digital age, and the strategies that can help people be more successful and fulfilled.

Our conclusion is that a new definition of career is needed–one that is more active than just “time spent in a profession” and also less random and chaotic. This new definition needs to give people a greater sense of purpose and a higher level of engagement. We can’t keep pretending that the world is predictable, or that job satisfaction will come from merely looking up and reaching for the next rung on the ladder. A new mindset and model is needed that sets aside the ladders and focuses on something else—the journey.

We believe your career is not a ladder but a journey.

Where ladders are about steady climbs, journeys are about unpredictable adventures.  Where ladders are about taking careful steps, journeys Career Journey (1)are about seizing spontaneous opportunities. Where ladders are about sacrificing today for a better tomorrow, journeys are about enjoying the experience in the moment.

Ladders are linear and directed at goals. Journeys are multi-dimensional and infused with a purpose.

If the old world of work was about ambition, the new world of work is about intention. Discovering one’s purpose gives rise to intention and opportunity. The opportunities give rise to a sense of appreciation and generosity, which attracts people around one’s intention. By staying true to your purpose, you remain on track and open to new opportunities, enjoying new roles along the way.

The world of work may too unpredictable to have an itinerary for your career journey, but it is well suited to a never-ending adventure.

We recognize that people aren’t accustomed to thinking about careers as a journey. As one career professional told us, “careers are just a sequence of jobs.” But our own experience suggests that careers can be an opportunity to contribute one’s unique talents, express oneself, forge meaningful relationships, and discover a greater purpose. But like journeys in the physical world, we need the right tools.

Before the smartphone, travel guides and agents were the secret to successful journeys. Today we use tools like Google Maps, Yelp and TripAdvisor to discover what’s around us or set new destinations as circumstances change. Then we go to OpenTable or Expedia to book our actual reservations.

In the world of careers, today we are too focused on the job and not the journey. It’s as if we had Expedia (which books our trips) but not TripAdvisor (to help us know where to go).

We need tools that help us discover our purpose. Identity our strengths. Acquire new skills. Explore opportunities. And even reinvent ourselves. It’s the reason Kaplan has collaborated with LinkedIn, Gallup and the Chopra Center to create Career Journey, a free online resource to help students and professionals map their career journey and navigate the changing world of work.

We live in a time of accelerating and unpredictable change. The ground beneath our feet is constantly moving. It’s not safe to be climbing ladders. We need to think of careers as opportunities to contribute our talents purposefully. It’s time to shift our thinking from ladders to journeys.

Mark Bonchek is the founder of SHIFT Academy (, an unlearning organization updating leaders’ thinking for a digital age. @MarkBonchek

Jacqueline Jones is the executive director of strategic partnerships and innovation at Kaplan University (

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