Trapeze Artist Or Ladder Climber?

Jim Lawrence, CFO of Unilever said, “It’s not a corporate ladder; it’s a corporate trapeze. You jump from one swinging trapeze to another. If you’re lucky, you catch a new trapeze as it’s about to go up, and then swing to an even higher one.”

My life and career has been a non-linear journey rather than the typical point-to-point trip.  To put this into a more visual context (the only way I can truly grasp concepts) think of a trapeze artist versus a ladder-climber.

The ladder climber ascends the ladder one rung at a time, holding on to both sides of the ladder as he/she ascends to their destination, occasionally giving in to their paranoia and looking down to see who is coming up behind them.  And, of course, they are always looking at the backside of the person above them.  What a great place to live.  Trapped somewhere between envy and fear.

The Trapeze Artist, on the other hand, swings through the air, high above the ground and then lets go, supposing that there will be another trapeze to grab before gravity takes over.  And, it is usually done without the security of a net between the artist and the hard cold reality and the sudden stop of the ground below.

There ARE some trapeze artists that work with a net.  The net being a trust fund, an inheritance, other people’s money or (from a corporate perspective) you are the boss’s child or have a golden parachute.   If you have that kind of net then, if you miss a trapeze or two, the landing is soft, you bounce and you get to start all over again.  No harm, no foul.

On the other hand, the person that works without a net works with the knowledge that there may not be a next time.   This knowledge brings a sense of urgency and efficiency to the game.  I also believe that the trapeze artist has such a low threshold of boredom that just the thought of spending years climbing a ladder (figuratively of course) would do them in.

The adventure is in the swinging, the letting go, the flight, the mystery, the serendipity, the randomness, the risk and the variety of it all.  Some of us know no other way to live.  It’s not a career death wish by any means.  It’s who we are.  We can’t seem to change.  The occasional flight to who-knows-where is a part of our business DNA.

Even when presented with a great ladder, we may give it some thought and may even try a few rungs.  But somewhere along that linear rise we will look around, something will rise up in our spirits and we will jump off and look around for an available trapeze.  We just can’t help ourselves.

And, if you are a ladder climber, that’s fine.  But just know that if it were not for the trapeze artists, running the risk of free flight, there probably would not be a ladder for you to climb.  Think Steve Jobs.  Do you know that Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.  Did that stop him from taking to the air?

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