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Busting the career ladder myth

Career rivers: a better framework for your professional journey

By Bridget Thoreson · October 4, 2021
Hero image of a woman kayaking down a river between mountains

Something seemed very wrong with the way I'd been taught to think about my career progression. Like so many of us, I'd heard professional journeys described as climbing a ladder or following a path. But as I moved forward in my work as a journalist, I wasn't moving in a straight line. The field I was pursuing, called audience engagement, was relatively new. I certainly hadn't taken any courses on it in college, and two of the companies I would later work for didn't even exist when I graduated. How was I supposed to know which path to take when it was still under construction?

I also didn't see the ultimate goal of my career as reaching the top of the food chain. I have no desire to be a CEO. And I kept meeting talented professionals, people I admired greatly, who viewed the twists and turns of their careers as a drawback, not a benefit. With an apologetic air, they would talk about how they explored different areas of their work and how they struggled to come up with a simple, clean story to explain their resumes. 

So I started telling students to consider their careers, not as a linear progression straight up or ahead, but as a river delta—a fertile area to explore that flows toward an ultimate objective. 

The looks of relief on their faces as they realized they don't have to commit to a one-size-fits-all path clearly showed me that there's a better story we can use for our work in today's information economy. And to be honest, I wouldn't want to work in a field full of exact duplicates who travel from point A to B with no deviations. It's diversity of thought and experience that drives creativity and innovation.

So let's consider what happens when we free ourselves from trying to reach the top of the ladder, and instead carve our own paths as a career river flowing toward our ultimate objective: the ocean. When your professional destination is no longer a lonely perch but a thriving, wide-open ecosystem fed by the work of others to explore, every twist and turn in your journey changes from a liability to a strength. 

Join the career river community for a weekly dose of inspiration at careerriver.substack.com.

Finding your flow

Bridget by the Chicago River
By the Chicago River, September 2021. (Photo credit: Bridget Thoreson)

A secret I only fully realized recently: I am not a robot. Some days I have more energy than others, or I'm better able to think of the big picture. And my work history also has periods of great change and some slower spells. Could it be that I don't need to move through my career at a steady pace, rung by inevitable rung? 

Instead, I've come to accept that everything happens in its own time. Rather than feeling stuck on a career ladder when I haven't shifted roles for a while, I can rest secure in the knowledge that a river always flows, no matter how slowly. As long as I'm learning, I'm moving toward my ultimate goal, or ocean. For me, it's not about climbing to the top. We can each define our own destinations. Once we do, it becomes clearer which choices will help us reach that ocean.

This also helps with career changes. On a career ladder, you might "lose" a rung or have to start climbing again at a new organization. It feels like a step back. A river's curves and changes in direction are all part of the journey. What came before informs what flows after. This takes some of the pressure off job-hunting decisions, too. While a career ladder has only one direction, a career river can create a delta of many different paths, all equally valid to pursue. Not only is it ok to shift directions, it's expected. We need to give ourselves the freedom to explore what matters to us instead of locking ourselves to one inflexible path

Navigating obstacles

When I first tweeted about the career river, one of the commenters shared a therapeutic method used in occupational therapy called the Kawa Model. This model uses a river metaphor to see how clients want to live their lives, and includes considering the circumstances that block your progress as rocks in the river. 

Bridget's initial tweet

If you embrace your career as a river instead of a ladder, you're better able to confront these obstacles. When you reach a ceiling on the career ladder, the only way you can keep going is to shatter it. When your career river encounters an obstacle, you can go around it, or over it, or carve through it. You may be able to get past what's blocking your way quickly, or it may take some time, but in either case, you have several ways to get where you're trying to go. 

Not only does this give us more options when our progress becomes blocked, but it also acknowledges the effort and time it takes to break down barriers—and how beautiful the results can be. After all, there's no Grand Canyon without the Colorado River. 

Importantly, too, this reminds us that it's possible to keep progressing even when we're stalled or in free-fall. A career ladder that falls is broken. A river becomes a waterfall, and then keeps flowing. 

Cooperation, not competition

I'm not the lone wolf journalist you see in movies. I wasn't interested in winning Pulitzers or breaking the big investigative story solo. (Nor was I one of those rom-com heroines working at a magazine who never seems to file a story.)

Artwork from Bridget as a child about how she wanted to become a reporter.
My childhood career ambitions did include becoming a reporter, but, to date, I have not had my camera stolen by an Olympian. (Photo credit: Bridget Thoreson)

In fact, I only became a reporter so I could one day be an editor. What I was most interested in was working with others to make our entire newspaper better. Today, I work on collaborative projects among many newsrooms to create more meaningful and impactful journalism. 

So a career model that celebrated stepping on others or pushing them aside to reach my goals never felt right to me. Working with others is central to what I do and what I care about. No river is truly alone: it's fed by many tributaries along the way and contributes to other rivers in turn. Every time rivers join together, they become stronger. 

My career is richer—not weaker—for having others contribute their expertise. 

Ready, set, flow

The stories we tell ourselves matter. If, like me, you need a better framework for describing what you value in your work, here's how you can begin pursuing your own career river:  

  • Identify your ocean. What will your legacy be? Knowing where you want to contribute will help you visualize what you can do to get there.

  • Embrace variety. Accept that your career will go through fast and slow periods, and explore the many different paths available to you. 

  • Navigate obstacles. Sometimes it might be better to just go in a different direction than try to clear what's blocking your way, and that's fine. What matters is that you can keep going. 

  • Find strength in collaboration. Who has contributed to your career? How are their contributions still present in your work? And who can you help along their own journey? Look for those heading to the same ocean to strengthen your career, and see how you can support others. 

A career ladder creates no value except for the person climbing it, while a career river feeds an entire ecosystem. I'd rather live in a professional world of rivers, where we all can go with the flow together.

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