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Your Career Is Not a Ladder: 2 Mental Models That Foster Success

In today’s ever-changing professional landscape, the traditional notion of a career ladder no longer holds true. Gone are the days of steady upward progression and predictable promotions. The dynamics of the modern workplace demand a fresh perspective, one that embraces alternative mental models for achieving success. In this article, we will explore two compelling frameworks that can revolutionize your approach to career growth: the J-curve and the sleep, creep, leap pattern.

The J-curve, introduced by seasoned startup executive Molly Graham, challenges the conventional notion of a linear career trajectory. Graham highlights the inherent risk in pursuing a J-curve approach, wherein individuals bet on their ability to transfer existing skills to entirely new environments. It is a bold choice that requires courage and resilience. By taking the leap, you embark on a thrilling roller coaster ride, with your seniority, pay, and sense of security taking a temporary but significant dip. The initial phase may be characterized by feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and even incompetence. However, as time progresses, you realize that these challenges were mere side effects of the learning process. The J-curve propels you to unimaginable heights, exposing you to opportunities you never dreamed of. Of course, not all leaps lead to growth, and some may result in the realization that a particular role or path is not aligned with your strengths. Nonetheless, Graham advocates for embracing this approach, urging individuals to shed the safety of the ladder and embrace the excitement and growth potential of the J-curve.

If the idea of free-falling along the J-curve feels too daunting, there is an alternative metaphor presented by artist and author Austin Kleon—the sleep, creep, leap pattern. Kleon stumbled upon this insightful concept while observing the growth of prickly pear cacti in his garden. He noticed that during the first year, the cacti prioritize establishing a strong foundation by anchoring their roots. This phase is followed by a period of dormancy during winter. However, in the second year, the cacti emerge from dormancy and begin a slow but steady growth both upward and downward. It is in the third year that the cacti truly flourish, reaching their full form and potential.

Kleon believes that the sleep, creep, leap pattern applies not only to botanical life but also to personal and professional growth. The initial stage involves the subtle germination of an idea, often hidden from our conscious awareness. We may not even realize that something is taking root within us. However, as time progresses, the idea begins to creep, blossoming and growing with our nurturing. Finally, the idea bursts forth, fully alive and ready to be embraced. This metaphor allows us to perceive those seemingly uneventful stretches of our journey with fresh eyes. Rather than feeling stagnant, we can understand that we are quietly laying the groundwork for future explosive growth. Just like the cactus, we need to invest time and effort into building strong foundations before we can bloom.

Both the J-curve and the sleep, creep, leap pattern offer valuable alternatives to the traditional career ladder. These mental models encourage us to let go of the expectation of steady upward progress and embrace the unpredictable nature of professional growth. The pursuit of success is not a one-size-fits-all journey. Each person’s career trajectory is unique, resembling a distinct squiggle on a graph. By adopting these new frameworks, we gain clarity and confidence in our path, knowing that every twist and turn is contributing to our personal and professional development.

Your career is not limited to a ladder with rungs to climb. It is a dynamic journey that can be better understood through alternative mental models. The J-curve challenges us to take calculated risks, embracing the discomfort of uncertainty for the promise of exponential growth. On the other hand, the sleep, creep, leap pattern urges us to appreciate the periods of seemingly slow progress, recognizing that they lay the foundation for future success. Let go of the ladder and explore these innovative frameworks, for they hold the key to unlocking your true potential and propelling you toward the career you aspire to have.


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