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On Ladders and Life

"People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall." - Thomas Merton

Anybody else's palms immediately break out into cold sweats?

When we’re young, well-meaning adults will often ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Growing up is serious business you see, and you better know what you want to be. I have a memory of this from when I was five years old. There was an entire lesson at school dedicated to thinking about and writing down what we wanted to be. I wrote that I wanted to be a carpenter, because that’s what my dad did (he owned a cabinet-making business, which is roughly the same thing when you’re five years old). My dad was a superhero when I was a kid, and so of course I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

Some people know what they want to be when they grow up from an early age. Yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Richard Koch, entrepreneur and investor, who knew at the ripe old age of nine that he wanted to be a millionaire. Good for him. I wasn’t one of those people.

Life continued on and I continued to do the things that I thought I ought to be doing. Life is easy when you’re young – those same well-meaning adults tell you what to do and where to go, and you nod your head and follow along. For the longest time, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I was simply living life moment to moment, doing my absolute best in whatever direction I was pointed. Until all of a sudden, I came of an age where I had to make a choice about what to do with my life. I still had no idea what it truly meant to live with intentionality. So, I followed the path that I had been told was a good one to follow. “Boy, go get an education and get a good job.” The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence of society channeled me down the same well-trodden road that many, many others had walked before.

I put my ladder up against a wall, and I started to climb.

It didn’t take long to realise that something was amiss. Hadn't I done all the things that you were supposed to do? I didn't know where to turn and so, I turned inward. I began to explore who I was. Most of my twenties was spent exploring myself outside of the box that society had built for me. After a decade of self-exploration, I’m happy to say that I’ve found what I believe to be a path (or, potentially, the path) that I was born to walk. But here’s the challenge – I’ve managed to quite successfully climb the ladder that I had set against that original wall. In leaning into what I may have been born on this planet to do, I need to start from scratch. I need to set a new ladder.

I’m here to say that that’s not all bad.

I believe that our journey through life is meant to be one of adventure. It is designed to have twists and turns. Much like a game of snakes and ladders (to really hammer home the ladder analogy), we should not be surprised when we fall a few steps backwards or jump a few forwards. This is the magic of life. It is not linear.

Life is one big game of snakes and ladders

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is great power in climbing one ladder your entire life. You could scale a great height by doing so. But the greatest tragedy is that you could spend your entire life climbing a ladder that wasn’t yours to climb in the first place, and to only realise this at the very end.

In my pondering, there are a handful of key reasons that might hold somebody back from taking the leap:

  1. It’s scary. Making a move into the unknown is hard. Who knows what could be on the other side? We’re wired to be attentive to dangers, potential or real. And so, we give considerable weight to the potential downside without considering that maybe, just maybe, taking that leap might be the best thing that ever happened.

  2. You’re good at what you do, and it satisfies an external measure of success (money, fame, power, and so on). Fair point. But are you truly, deeply happy with who you are?

  3. We care what other people might think of us. Our friends and family have a huge bearing on our life’s path. The people around us can lift us up and propel us forward. But like crabs in a bucket, they can drag you down as well; often, unconsciously so. In my experience, people often disguise their own fears in the form of “advice”. To start climbing a new ladder, you might just end up upsetting a few people along the way. But that’s okay.

  4. We have responsibilities. The struggle is real. I know it is. You have bills to pay and mouths to feed. But where there's a will, there’s a way. This is not an empty platitude. If something is meant to be, then you will find a way to make it happen. But it’s on you.

  5. The sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy “describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.” Often this is referred to in terms of investing. You can apply the same logic to your life. Why continue doing something that you don’t like to do if you’ve found something better? As Natasha Beddingfield famously sang, “Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten.” How you have lived your life up to this point does not have to define how it continues.

Well, when you put it that way...

I’ve struggled for years with my sense of purpose, searching high and low for that thing that just made sense. And now, I feel fortunate that I’ve discovered relatively early in life what could be my life’s work. It’s scary and I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Some people might think I’m crazy. And life will probably be uncomfortable for a while. But I’m so excited to lean into this new path and find out where it leads.

My hope in writing this is that somebody, somewhere will be going through this same battle. If that’s you, I want to leave you with one final thought: If you know that you are scaling the wrong ladder, you are not bound to your current story. And if you are yet to find your true path, keep searching.

It could be worth your life.


Aug 27, 2023

I wasn’t expecting that! But one thing I’m learning is to always expect the unexpected with Jono!

Some great reflections here. And yes achieving a reset can be scary but once you do it you look back you realise “Was there really any other way?”

These are the sort of reflections that are usually expressed as a form of regret but much older souls. So - continuing the investment analogy - the younger & earlier you realise you want to change your path, the longer you have to enjoy the metaphorical riches & rewards from of new journey.

Sep 07, 2023
Replying to

I really like that response of "was there really any other way?". It's so true. Thanks for your thoughts.

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