How Remarkable People Zig Zag to the Top

Helen-Anne Gable

In Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestseller, Lean In, she urged her readers to abandon the notion of a “career ladder” and instead think of their careers as jungle gyms.

“Ladders are limiting,” Sandberg writes. “Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”

Sandberg’s career has been filled with zig zags. It wasn’t a straight climb up the ladder to her current role as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer. Instead there were steps up, steps down and steps to the side.  

Sandberg’s zig zag is common among the most remarkable people. Successful people are those individuals who accept each personal obstacle as an opportunity. People who creatively respond to life’s challenges will ultimately succeed.

Life never seems to follow the perfect plan we develop oh-so-carefully in college.  We have to develop that unique ability to accept what is thrown our way and come out looking unfazed and on top.

This can be difficult for “Type A” people who pride themselves on controlling their environment and their reaction to it. Type A individuals exhaustively plan and organize, utterly convinced that if by setting parameters, they can follow a well-constructed linear path to success.

Unfortunately life is never linear. This lesson is best learned early and often.

In my 20’s, I heard men and women outline, in great detail, their timeline for marriage and the exact personality of their future –hypothetical --  spouse, as if they were filling out an application to business school.

I, too, had my own plans.

Those plans included working in the Reagan White House and Defense Department, where I enjoyed a front row seat to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  At 24, I moved west and joined Intel Corporation when it was a $1.5B company.  I learned that to best communicate with key executives, I had to identify objectives and produce measurable results. I did this seamlessly in my early twenties, so proud that my life was proceeding according to plan. I was climbing up the career ladder, step by step, without any obstacles in my way.

It didn’t stay that way forever though, it never does. While my husband, Jim, and I were pursuing entrepreneurial dreams in Silicon Valley, Jim was diagnosed with a life threatening disease.  On the day a venture capital firm transferred funds to Jim’s startup, he was on the operating table removing a massive tumor which resulted in multiple surgeries and long term medical challenges.

For the first time in my career, it wasn’t just a straight climb up the ladder. I had to learn how to manage this difficult personal challenge with my desire to have a fulfilling career. I began to zig-zag around the jungle gym, instead of climbing up the ladder.

Life changes taught us to rely on the strength of our partnerships and forced us to creatively streamline our approach to work, resume management and life. Throughout the last 17 years of managing illness and work, we learned:

  • Take the opportunities around you and make the most of them.
  • Develop a best of class professional personal team to serve as resources in whatever project in which you involve yourself.
  • Leave a deliverable at every step you take. The things you build speak to your impact on the world around you.
  • Proactively help others succeed. Your personal team will grow stronger if you look for opportunities to help your friends up the political, professional and philanthropic ladder.
  • Never give up, but always be willing to regroup.

These lessons served us well. Today, I am President of a CEO-led foundation, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), a group of companies that eliminated 6.4 trillion calories in the U.S. marketplace.

I wouldn’t be here today – in a meaningful job I enjoy – if I had simply followed the plan I mapped out for myself in college. It’s the challenges and the zig zags that make us the people we are.


Lisa Guillermin Gable: Award-Winning CEO, Presidential Appointee, former US Ambassador and UN Delegate

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