I used to play a game as a kid called Chutes and Ladders. You probably did, too. You might have known it as Snakes and Ladders. It’s based on the Indian game Moksha Patam, probably invented about eight hundred years ago.
Chutes and Ladders was very easy to learn, so kids of all ages could play it. Basically, each player rolled dice, advanced their piece, and moved upward on a board square by square. If a player landed on a ladder, the player ascended the ladder, which meant skipping a bunch of squares. If the player landed on a chute, the player had to slide down the chute, which could be a big setback.
The game has a morality theme (as did the original) - ladders represented rewards for good deeds (or states of mind) and chutes or snakes represented punishment for bad thoughts or deeds. Because the game is so easy to learn, it’s ideal for young children, who learn as they play that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished.
Take a look at the game board above.
As a kid, I remember that if you landed just right (square 28 in this case), you rode this really tall ladder just about to the top of the board. But near the goal, if you landed just wrong (the infamous 87), you slid down this really long chute right out of the running.
I’ll let the statisticians decide on likelihood of hitting either one of those two special squares.
THE GAME AT WORK.
Here’s how this plays out in the work world.
You spend (or should spend) quite a bit of time nurturing your career. You go to school. (Again. Still.) You get an advanced degree. A certification or two.
(Or even 29. To digress for 20 seconds: I saw an article with a title that read “The Top 29 Cloud Certifications.” Honest. I first thought they meant there were 29 types of clouds — cumulus, stratus, whatever. I don’t even think meteorologists would count that many. How are 29 TOP cloud certifications even possible? Out of how many? 300? Are they serious? And what if you’re misinformed, and you get number 37, or 45, or 241? Stupid you? Or who?)
OK, enough, sorry. So. School. Certifications. Bits of knowledge you’ve picked up along the way. Everything from a really good presentation somebody did, to tripping over some arbitrary corporate rule, to working for a crummy boss, to apprenticing with a really great project manager, to five minutes with an inspirational leader, to the latest article on the Latest Big Thing, and so on.
So you’re both smart AND experienced. Plus, if you spend enough time knocking around an organization, you’re likely to have absorbed its culture. Which can be beneficial if the organization is striving to achieve some overall good. It can also be a little like absorbing dull poison, in forms like “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” arbitrary controls, capricious financial fire drills, stifling HR procedures, executives off on frolics of their own, insider clubs, backstabbing methods, internicine warfare, tomfoolery, the latest fad, senior management lurch (which, like an anvil on a treetop, tends to mash the thing into the ground), fair-haired wunderkinds, perpetually malfunctioning infrastructure, and the usual assorted jerks, crooks and morons.
ABSORBED CULTURE AND INERTIA.
Cultural absorption has symptoms that look a lot like mercury absorption, by the way. Here’s a list of mercury poisoning symptoms:
- Slow reflexes
- Damaged motor skills
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Symptoms of ADHD (which in the work world is called Aggravated Defensive Haphazard Decision-Making)
(There’s another symptom - intelligence disorders and low IQ - but this one sometimes precedes (and may even enhance) cultural absorption, so not as much a consequence - see “jerks and morons” above.)
So you see, cultural absorption can lead to a wee bit of personal inertia, which you counter through more learning, more certifications, more holding on to the good stuff while jettisoning the rest, and in general, honing your skills and deepening your experience.
This gets you about halfway up the board. You’re near square 37. You think you’re doing pretty well — that is, until some whiz kid gets hired in via an Executive Acceleration Program (never mind its morale-numbing action-creates-reaction counterweight, the Rest-Of-Us Deceleration Program). This kid rolls a “1” and goes right to 38. What this creates among the rest of you unwashed souls is the sincere desire that this kid will hit a chute (62 is a good one, but you’re all secretly hoping for the Big 87) and receive some quick schooling in what used to be called “life’s hard knocks.”
Since that probably won’t happen, your other big bet is to hitch yourself to the whiz kid’s star and hope for a quick ride as an accessory to the crime.
So you pootle along.
Now, this isn’t to say you aren’t respected. You are. But there’s respect and R-E-S-P-E-C-T (thanks, Aretha). Let’s look at an example of how that plays out in our little world here.
In a Dilbert cartoon (OK, this is a snarky article about work, and you probably wondered how long it would take me to bring Dilbert up), Dogbert ponders what he’s best at: “Con” + “Insult = Consult.” Ergo, he’s a Consultant.
(This is one way to leverage your strengths, so ponder what you’re best at and mash a few words together. See what you get. I tried “Write + Lead + Manage + Think” and got “Wrileadageink.” Oh, well. Maybe not.)
So. Consultants. Here’s how this works.
HIPPITY HOPPITY CONSULTANTS.
You know your stuff. You’ve been an architect, a network engineer, a project manager, a product designer, whatever, for long enough that you can hold out at dinner parties until the last eye glazes over. You’re good. People look up to you (and not because you’re tall or on the next floor up). You’re a good team lead, manager, whatever. You get an assignment to find the Next Big Thing (tool, service) that will (sorry, brace yourself) transform your bit of the world.
Energized, you set to work. You set your minions to work. You research, evaluate, do requests for quote, proofs of concepts, pilots, all the good stuff that goes into a quality decision. Plus, you know the company. You know what’s best for the organization, its people, the infrastructure, what will work in the culture, all that stuff. You’re grinding along on that Chutes and Ladders map, you hit some ups and downs on the way, and you’re just about there. (”There” is defined as the Big Meeting with the CxO, where you’ll dazzle with your closely reasoned recommendation and be the champion of the New Wave.)
You’re at 83.
Enter the consultant. Comes through the door with a brand-new toy, rolls a 28 (I know, that’s not even possible — unless you own Consultant Dice), zooms to 84, rolls a 16 (special dice again, dammit), and inserts the new toy right into the CxO’s brain.
All your work is shelved as “incredibly valuable, and we’re so grateful to you for your effort.” Well, somebody might say that.
This happens all the time. Sometimes it’s not even a consultant. Sometimes, the CxO (ever wonder if the “C” means “Clueless” instead of “Chief”?) encounters a 200-word article saying, in essence “This Toy Good, That Toy Bad” and decides, on the spot, to implement This Toy. There’s not even a ladder on the board for that one.
THE THRILL OF THE OUTSIDE SOURCE.
So, Shiny Consultants and Shiny New Toys. Let’s call these phenoms the Magic of the External. Doesn’t matter what form, whence the origin (could be a golf game or a quick read on the toilet or a Zoom call among friends, who knows?). It’s just the thrill of the outside source.
Why does this occur?
That’s a whole other, more serious exploration, but maybe two quick reasons: (1) Cultural absorption, and (2) Forest for the trees. The first we explained a bit above. The second is about that notion that if you’re in the trees, you can’t see the forest. How can you see the big picture when you’re part of the landscape? In other words, you’re so good at understanding how the business ticks, how could you possibly know how to fix it?
Yeah, I know. A paradox. I hate those, too, but they’re everywhere.
Plus, you don’t have a marketing department, a brochure, and a “schmooze the client” expense account at your disposal.
It’s kind of like a long-term relationship. The closest person in your life advises you over and over again on something you should or shouldn’t do, and it isn’t until a friend or some random article you read or something else comes along and knocks your head sideways that you say (from your tilted head), “Hey, you know, I should…”
This is why there are so many relationship counselors.
That’s how you feel here. Somebody else has instant creds. Somebody else has an opinion that, out of the blue, is magically better than yours. Somebody else writes an article, has a bunch of alphabet jargon behind their name, came from the right college or the right part of the country or whatever, and they’re in. And you’re not.
OUCH. WHAT ARE WE LEARNING?
I have a lot I could say here, but I won’t, for this reason: You can find every type of motivational speech, book, video, animated gif, meme, whatever you want. You don’t need more of that from me. Besides, when you put your heart into something, only to have it all set aside, the last thing you need is somebody telling you to be all that you can be. At that particular moment, that’s going over like a lead balloon, and whoever tells you that needs to take a ride down one of those chutes, preferably right off the board and into the great beyond.
You also don’t need me or anyone else to tell you to assert yourself, to have the protest meeting where you pick apart the Shiny Whatever, etc. You’ll know whether that works or not. Because shredding the CxO’s Toy is often a sure-fire way to shredding your career. Whether you can pull it off depends on the trust you’ve established with the CxO and other senior leaders. And that’s something only you can assess. The dice are yours to roll.
The worst thing self-help folks do is tell you how to play Chutes and Ladders when they’re not on the board with you.
The reason? Chutes and Ladders is different in each organization, though the rough outlines are the same. Matter of fact, the game is likely unique to you, your personality, your brand, your SWOT, your place in the organization, its culture, its personalities, its direction, and so forth. That’s you being social in a social web. Play the game long enough and you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. When to roll the dice and when to take a pass.
Through all of this, though, know your worth. If you don’t, go figure it out. If you stepped on the wrong square and hit a chute, you’re better for the landing, because you’ll know how strong you are, if only because that landing hurt so much. Remember, rough landings rarely hurt more than what you can endure. And learning helps you heal.
If all you do is climb ladders and find safe routes to the top, the minute you step on a land mine (and you will), you’ll land all the harder. That’s why failures on the way up are so important. Trust me. I didn’t do enough of it in my own career, and I regret it. If you don’t take risks, don’t roll the dice and land on the square — Neutral, Chute or Ladder — you pay for it later, when you look back and can’t be sure you did all you could.
Play your best game. Try to do things that land you on ladders, and do what you can to avoid chutes. Others playing the game will seem to land on all the right squares. Oh, well. That’s their game. Your game is yours. Remember: you can play someone else’s game only so long. The longer you play a game that’s not your own, the squares will shift beneath your feet. The longer you play that way, the less you’ll know who you are.
And that, my game-playing friend, is the ultimate chute to nowhere.