One of the most powerful career metaphors used in the twentieth century was the career ladder. Start at a low rung of your profession and company as a young person, the theory went, and you could move up over time, just as if you were climbing the rungs of a ladder. It was a great metaphor for times dominated by large corporations, economic growth, and employment stability—such as the period after World War II.

However, times have changed. Although the concept of a career ladder still has relevance in some settings, it makes less and less sense as a way of thinking about many careers. Downsizing, flatter organizations, and rapid organizational, economic, and technological change have all taken rungs out of many ladders—and pulled career ladders out from under many people in the middle of their careers. Whatever a typical career looks like today, it very often isn’t a ladder.

People have tried to come up with new, more fitting ways to describe what careers are like these days. Cliff Hakim, author of the book We Are All Self-Employed: The New Social Contract for Working in a Changed World, put forth the concept of a “career lattice” as a replacement metaphor for the career ladder. Movement on a ladder is limited to going either up or down; in contrast, Hakim notes, a lattice allows movement in a number of directions, including sideways. That kind of conceptual framework for thinking about careers, he indicates, is more appropriate than a ladder for an age in which people move around between various projects.

Mary Catherine Bateson, in her book Composing a Life, suggests that women’s lives and work, in particular, are frequently not like a quest for a goal or a ladder one climbs. Instead, she observes, modern women’s lives are often more like improvisational art—like a meal made out of ingredients already in the house or a patchwork quilt composed from a number of different fabrics. Although Bateson is writing especially about women—and the way their work often incorporates both work outside the home and family commitments—she notes that, in our era of rapid change, both men and women face the challenge of lives marked by interruptions and change.3 And indeed, people who change careers voluntarily or are downsized from jobs due to industry shifts are often, as Bateson’s metaphor suggests, doing a form of career improvisation, creating something new out of various elements of their work lives.

Another very useful metaphor for career transitions comes from the authors Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, who wrote a book on life change called Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life. These authors use the metaphor of carrying luggage full of things as you go through life; they point out that you can unpack your bags by deciding what components of your life you want to keep and what parts you want to leave behind—and then repack again by rethinking your priorities.4 The image of unpacking and repacking is a very helpful way to think about today’s turbulent career progressions. With this metaphor, each new project or job is seen as a new stage of a journey, not a rung on a ladder.

For career-changers, though, I think another career metaphor is particularly useful. Have you ever picked fruit? Think for a moment of that experience. Now imagine your life as a fruit-bearing tree, perhaps an apple or peach or orange tree. Every new direction you explore—whether a new job, a new kind of education or training you obtain, or a new hobby you pursue in your spare time—is like a branch of your tree that experiences new growth.

On many of the branches—in school, in each job you do, and in volunteer activities and hobbies—you develop new skills. Those may be specific skills such as a new language or computer program, people skills such as supervising or managing people, or organizational skills such as working with diverse groups of people or planning projects. Every time you learn to do something new, you’re adding a new skill or competency. And each new skill is like your tree bearing a new fruit.

Now imagine you are picking some fruit from a tree—not gathering the whole harvest but just picking some fruit for eating or cooking. You don’t restrict yourself to picking from only one branch of the tree, do you? Instead, you probably gather the best fruit for today’s purpose from various branches of the tree. Something similar happens in career change. I find the fruit tree metaphor so helpful because I observed that many successful career-changers were, in fact, starting new careers using the “fruits” of a variety of branches of their lives, rather than just the primary skills from their most recent jobs.5 Whether they are applying transferable skills from previous work in a new venue (something we’ll discuss more in chapter 10), using knowledge or values they gained in childhood or from their family background, using skills or contacts gained outside of work, or returning to skills they used earlier in their career, many career-changers draw on knowledge and competencies they already have when they make a career switch—even a seemingly dramatic switch.

Accordingly, as you contemplate career change, it’s important to consider not just what skills you’ve used in your work recently and developed there but also this question: what important parts of you have been missing from your most recent work?