Why You Should Ditch the Career Ladder

Jump on a lily pad instead!


Words by Paula Coogan
December 21st, 2017

At the age of 25, I seemed to have it all. I had my ‘dream job’ of HR/Employment Consultant, I had the fancy suits, the 5-star holidays, the expense account, the business cards and I lived with my sister and close friend Anna. On paper, everything was perfect! Except it wasn’t. I was miserable, anxious, overweight and having panic attacks on the way to meetings. I was thinking there had to be something wrong with me. This was the dream – this is what I had been working towards for all those years…

I had arrived and now, I needed to leave.

A redundancy situation came up so I left. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was scared. The career ladder that I thought I would be climbing for the next few decades had disappeared and I felt totally disillusioned with my chosen industry. On top of that, my relationship of 6 years ended- abruptly, by text message. In your mid-twenties, you have certain expectations of where you’d be careerwise, relationship-wise, life-wise. All of that was out the window.

The career ladder I had been climbing had fallen to pieces and I felt scared that I was starting from scratch. I was all the way at the bottom, like the game of snakes and ladders and you’re just at the finish line when you land on the giant snake and then drop all the way back down to square one.

I had no idea what to do next but all that guided me was I wanted some time out and to do something that brought me joy. I wanted meaning and fulfilment so I looked at my bookshelves and saw a theme there, I looked at the movies I loved, the conversations I thrived on, and realised that I adored working with people and their potential. I enrolled in a Life and Executive Coaching course at the age of 26, purely for me. I loved it; I had moved from Human Resources in corporate to studying the incredible resourcefulness of humans. Something clicked and I unwittingly stumbled upon a new mindset, a new way of thinking about our careers for our generation.


In his book, The Quarter Life Breakthrough, Adam Poswolsky talks about this new way of thinking as a pond full of lily pads and I adore his metaphor! What I have seen, without a doubt is that it is so beneficial for our generation (Gen Y/Millennial) to approach our career with the Lily-Pad Mindset as opposed to The Career Ladder Mindset.

Let me explain. The career ladder mindset is probably the one you’ve heard of. It’s the idea that you make a decision at a young age about what you are going to do with the rest of your life. You go to college, do an apprenticeship, learn the skills, find a job in that industry, start at the bottom and then work your way up the career ladder.

That’s all well and good, however, the problem is that, at the age of 17, 18, 31, 46 etc., most of us don’t know exactly what we want to do! So making that decision in the first place is a bit scary and for many people, what happens is that they reach a level of ‘success’ in their field – that point where everyone else thinks they’ve got it made but in reality, they’re miserable!

To try and change careers using the career ladder mindset is equally terrifying. Picture this – you’ve spent years climbing up this ladder only to reach the top and find yourself looking longingly at the top of other career mountains. If you want to explore those mountains it means climbing down your current ladder, trying to pick up this heavy, clunky set of skills and experience that you have, stumbling around until you find the new mountain to put your ladder against with no guarantee that the top of that mountain will be any more pleasant than where you’ve just come from. And then with a lot of uncertainty, you start to climb the ladder again from the bottom rung.

On the other hand, the ‘lily pad mindset’ encourages you to picture your career as a series of interconnecting lily pads which allows you to hop between different opportunities. What holds everything together are the roots of the lily pads – your purpose and passion. Your roots may be driving you to do one thing now, but that thing may change in five years as your purpose and passion changes. This means that you should regularly be questioning whether your current lily pad excites you, or is helping you make the impact or contribution you want to make in the world. For me, I thought Human Resources was a waste of time and energy but it wasn’t, it was just another lily pad in my career pond!

I’ve lost count of the number of individuals I have worked with now who were afraid of being judged because of the number of jobs on their CV. Times, they are a-changing! We are the job-hopping generation for a reason and that reason is that work isn’t just work for us. It’s not the same as it was for previous generations. Our work needs to be meaningful and purposeful for us. We are seeking leaders who inspire us rather than bosses who just tell us what to do. Time to embrace your inner frog!

If you were to approach your career as a lifelong exploration instead of an inevitable struggle, what difference would that make to you? If you were to find experiences that allow you to quickly test ideas you have about your interests. Every job, every experience, every place you travel is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, what interests you, what bores you to tears, what you’re good at, what sort of community or culture you thrive in, and what type of legacy you want to leave in the world.

As you hop from one lily pad to the next, you go deeper into mastery fuelled with purpose and enjoyment, you develop more confidence and certainty in your decisions, in your pond and ultimately you cultivate more meaning and joy from your life. Career ponds are the new normal!


Paula Coogan is the founder of The Quarter Life Coach – a vibrant career and life coaching company aimed at empowering women in their 20s and 30s to practice courage, figure out their true desires both personally and professionally and then, to make it happen.

Her work is delivered through several live group programs and Masterminds including Career Breakthrough Mastermind and The Wisdom Circle. She also works one-on-one with clients who are ready for big transitions in their relationships, careers and businesses.