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  • Writer's pictureSandy Burgham

A reflection about career ladders

In my early years working in the advertising sector, my colleagues and I obsessed on whether we were to be called an account executive, account manager, account director or group account director. When I went to London, and the ad agencies were bigger, there were also junior and senior prefixes to some of these levels. The titles clearly outlined the chain of command much like the military from which such hierarchical structures have derived. Salary bands were roughly aligned to titles (unless of course you were female...). That we were not only trapped in patriarchal values but unwittingly reinforcing it through our active participation, was way beyond our comprehension - we just wanted to get ahead. Because ahead was always better than behind or where we were. As soon as we nailed the promotion, we could ditch one lot of business cards and reprint the new ones. Bugger the rainforests.

Has life moved on since the 80s? Hell no. A few months back, my collaborator Jenny came across an advertisement for a new high-end property development that looked to attract just the ‘right’ mix of people to buy into it. The copy declared something like “two units already sold to a pilot and a doctor” and then “further unit under contract to architect”. Such a simplistic expression of classism was shocking to the point of laughable. Would there ever be an advertisement boasting “two units sold to a nurse!” or “under contract to an office worker!!”?

Admitting that one opts into status, giving some human beings more value over others due to job titles, can be a bit embarrassing or shameful. But it is an underpinning of western society that many inadvertently continually reinforce. Probably you do too. We often play a game in our workshops where we ask the people in the room to rank the group by way of social status. It is excruciating and no-one really wants to do it. But it is helpful in revealing what job titles have status and the value that status has in a capitalist system.

A friend told me recently that his lovely step-mum was praising the talents of his brother, remarking that really “he is so smart he should be a CEO”. A CEO? … Of what? Are CEOs always smart? Are pilots, doctors and architects always the most brilliant neighbours? Why would you want to live in a compound with a pilot, doctor and architect? And importantly why in all honesty do people, including many we come across, have an ambition “to to be a CEO”? Often it is the title that is sought more than the reality of the job.

In more recent years I have noticed an upturn in people who say to me “I want to be an entrepreneur” or introduce themselves as “an entrepreneur”. I have no issue with people running their own businesses but a keenness to identify with the label of ‘entrepreneur’ hints at a particular addiction to a type of status. Entrepreneurs are people who are prepared to take risks to make a profit. And perhaps they are more readily forgiven if the venture fails. Because ‘dem the breaks’ with entrepreneurialism. It infers a type of creative energy and quick-fire smarts. I can understand the attraction of leading something and creating something out of nothing but to what degree is one’s ego attached to the status that is tied up in the label ‘entrepreneur’?

Whatever happened to the idea of simply earning a living?

There is a shift that has happened over time. Generation X, currently in their 40s to mid 50s, are the generation that created the work/life balance construct. They needed some of that having had careers forged through the birth of neoliberal capitalism where individualism and competitiveness are the name of the game. And Xers were just slightly too late into the property market to really benefit from the rock bottom prices boomers bought at. As a result they have been inadvertently trapped climbing both property and career ladders. And ladders have become the guiding metaphor for life.

But while metaphors simplify complex ideas, they can also trap us in over-simplistic ways of thinking which in turn imbues meaning into the metaphor. There are many other ways to conceptualise one’s life that are far less linear - a nautilus shell or a tree or some other inspiration from the natural world. So while one might assume that Joseph Campbell’s ladder is real and we just have to find the right wall i.e. the right job, to lean into, this is not what Campbell meant. Joseph Campbell’s lifelong work was about the spectrum of human experience. He is famous for also saying “follow your bliss” but don’t misread this as pondering your ideal job that comes with an impressive or at least understandable job title. People try to think their way into the next ‘career move’ using the same level of conscious maturity that got them into the current one. Campbell was about something different - he was committed to promoting the human journey that was as much about spiritual enrichment as anything else. He encouraged listening to what was whispering to you at a deeper instinctual level. He proposed it was human nature to initially resist the call of the soul - that was actually all part of it. Counter-intuitively the journey that Campbell was fascinated by was one where you didn’t actually know where you were going, you just sensed and responded - a journey where you noticed your own process of curiosity as well as your responses to discomfort.

Sensing and responding to our own curiosity has led Play CoLab deeper and deeper into adult development and how this correlates to organisational development. Along the way we have each been profoundly impacted by the work we serve. I can’t explain what I do for a living. I don’t have a job title, and we are still working on how to even explain the work of Play CoLab. There’s no elevator pitch as such. All I know is that around ten years ago when I disentangled myself from a high-status role with a fancy title, I just had an idea that I wanted to live a life where there were no work/life balance constructs. Instead I wanted to feel like I was really living my life rather than working at it. I came up with work/life/play as a starting point mantra to ensure I did more than working and doing domestic stuff with the family. I wanted every second of my life to seamlessly and joyfully serve the same thing but I had no idea what that was or what it might look like. It was playing with life in this way that led to Play CoLab and now I feel totally surrendered to wherever Play CoLab takes me. Ten years ago it felt scary, then it felt liberating, now it feels normal.

So what about you? How might you respond to the poet Mary Oliver's provocation:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
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