Why You Should Ditch the Idea of a ‘Career Ladder’ in Favor of a ‘Career River’

Photo: Getty Images/Luis Alvarez
You’ve probably heard of the concept of a career ladder, and that climbing up its rungs is the direct path to success. But, what if that simply doesn't compute for you? Does not aspiring to be a a C-suite employee, or even desiring to someday want your own manager's job mean you're not destined for success? The notion of professional success only being possible via a singular linear path is one that journalist and consultant Bridget Thoreson challenged in an August Twitter thread. In place of the career ladder, she offered a more flexible metaphor for advancement: the career river.

“The ultimate goal of the career ladder is: reach the top,” Thoreson wrote. “The ultimate goal of the career river is: reach your ocean—a thriving, wide-open ecosystem fed by other rivers to explore.”

Experts In This Article
  • Michele Bailey, Michele Bailey is an author and the founder of the employee-mentoring and wellness program My Big Idea.
  • Zanzibar Vermiglio, Zanzibar Vermiglio is a corporate trainer, executive coach and founder of Zanzibar Enterprises.

Michele Bailey, author and founder of the employee-mentoring and wellness program My Big Idea, is a fan embracing the idea of the career river. She even goes so far as to say the ladder mindset is past its prime, especially now, given that the pandemic has changed so much about how people work and has led many employees to quit their jobs in what's being referred to as the Great Resignation. According to a Harvard Business Review analysis of the Great Resignation, the number of employees aged 30 to 45 who resigned from their jobs increased an average of 20 percent between 2020 and 2021. And a Harris Poll survey of 1,000 adults ages 33 to 40 found that almost wish they’d embarked on a different career path.

According to Bailey, the river metaphor mindset is especially valuable in this landscape, because it lends itself to a sense of fluidity, innovation, creativity, and an openness to possibilities. Clearly, a great many people value those qualities right now. “I think it’s about embracing where we are now for a work-life blend and integration,” she says. “People have had time to reassess what’s important, and they’re taking time to figure out the next steps.”

The question of whether dream jobs even exist—at any point in someone's career continuum—is the topic of the below episode of the Well+Good Podcast.

Below find 4 benefits of embracing the career river mindset

1. It helps you view yourself as a ‘value center’

In an article for automation software company Zapier, Thoreson suggests considering 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.”

Zanzibar Vermiglio, a corporate trainer, executive coach, and founder of Zanzibar Enterprises, adds that the career river mindset enables you to think of yourself as a “value center.” That is, you can focus on where you can bring value to the people around you and the organizations you work for, rather than just how you can get ahead, he says, adding that a river, too, is a value center. It “flows and brings nourishment and nutrients everywhere that it goes. Everything benefits from that river moving wherever it does, and same thing throughout somebody's career,” he says.

Ladders, on the other hand, don't flow. While they serve the person climbing (assuming the person doesn't fall), they don't do so much for the surrounding environment.

2. It allows you to go with the flow at different life stages

The career river approach is common among entrepreneurs, Bailey says, as it allows for flexibility, dealing with obstacles, and considering what’s best for you at that specific stage of your life.

For example, Bailey says when someone who’s used to working long hours decides to start a family, they can more easily shift their career goals. Rivers always flow, whether it’s fast or slow, and they go in different directions, whereas ladders are unidirectional.

3. You can still set and reach specific career goals

The flowing nature of a river doesn’t mean you can’t set specific career goals, Vermiglio says. If you’re going after a promotion, for example, consider how you’ll use that role to make a difference and add value rather than only consider how the shift will benefit you individually. “There are all different ways that your career can move forward and all different ways that somebody can make a difference for others,” Vermiglio says.

For folks who have embraced the career river mindset, growth and development opportunities can come from unsuspecting places. Figuring out what advancement means to you—whether it’s a job title or doing what fuels your passion—is vital when setting career goals that aren't necessarily characterized by climbing a ladder, adds Bailey, who recommends reevaluating your career goals monthly.

What if a career river mindset just isn't for you?

Well, it might not be. Being open to constantly changing directions may be part of the career river mindset, and that can lend itself to uncertainty, which some people handle better than others.  “The river is never smooth,” Bailey says. “You don't know if you're going to go off a waterfall. You don't know if you're going to come to a stagnant pond. You don't know if you're going to dry up in a puddle. So, while the river may be more exciting, I think at times in your life, you want more security.”

Plus, some professional goals, such as becoming a partner in a law firm, require following a more structured, step-by-step approach for reaching them, Bailey adds. So, if you're someone who needs to have some components of a career ladder in your life, whether to provide stability, get you to a necessary place for your personal career goals, or both, how can you incorporate the ethos of a career river mindset into your work life? It starts with introspection. If you have a sense that you're climbing a ladder that isn't fulfilling you or isn't adding value to the world around you, pause and consider coming down a few rungs to get your bearings and reassess. Maybe you'll start your climb again, or perhaps, you'll go find a river to float along.

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Loading More Posts...