Climbing the Ladder

Sometimes we get to the top of our ladder and find it is against the wrong wall.
Joseph Campbell

When this happens the question really becomes “Now what?” We chose this ladder with care. We were sure that when we got to the top of the ladder, that the world would be our oyster. We would love the view from the top. Yep, now that we have made it to the top, life will be easy, smooth sailing.

Wait ... what happened to the life on this wall?
What happened to the life on this wall?

Why didn’t someone tell us that it isn’t just about the ladder, the wall matters too!

But wait, I knew that when I started! I chose this wall with care. I was passionate about getting to the top of this particular wall?

Who changed the wall when I was climbing it?

The more likely answer to this is nobody. The wall is what is always was, and will be for a long time to come. It’s the climber that changed.

As we climb the ladder, and usually this is something that happens in our professional lives, we have dreams and expectations. We have goals that are important to us. Most times, we arrive at the top and we feel great satisfaction that we have achieved what we set out to. We are rewarded in many ways, often financially and hopefully in authentic enjoyment.

But gradually, the lustre might come off to the extent that we find ourselves standing alone at the top of a ladder against a wall that holds no appeal. Yet we stay there doing all of the things that got us to the top but now cause us more stress than joy. We know intuitively that we have the power in us to make it right. We know we can figuratively climb (or better yet slide) down the ladder and pick it up and find a new wall.

But more often than not, we don’t.

Have you ever noticed the tendency of us humans to choose the certainty of an unsatisfactory situation over the allure of a satisfying but uncertain alternative? We actually choose an unhappy situation because it is a situation that we are familiar with. The unknown has that much power over us, even one with the possibility of increased happiness or fulfillment.

This is the core of why change is so difficult to effect in organizations. It is also key with respect to how we manage our personal satisfaction with our jobs.

In her book “Working Identity” Herminia Ibarra discusses this latter topic at length. What she has discovered is that when people are unhappy with their job, and feel that they need to do something different, they usually start by making a plan. They engage their existing network of contacts, they research similar roles in similar industries and otherwise try to keep most things the same while “escaping” from the current role that is no longer providing them the satisfaction that they long for. What happens is we either find ourselves a job just like the last one that grows stale quickly, or find that we are stuck looking for a blinding glimpse of the obvious as to what we should do next. By doing so we define ourselves a static and unchanging being.

A fresh new wall!
A fresh new living wall!

Herminia suggests that the opposite is true. We are an aggregation of many possible selves and we learn in a very iterative, layered approach. The key to finding a new role is in experimentation. We need to try things out in smaller steps, using creative means such as joining new interest groups that will start new networks, volunteering in non-profits that allow you to try new things, signing up for training or going back to school to engage in new areas of learning.

By doing these things we get to bring life to many of our possible identities by experimenting with new knowledge and roles, we learn new things and new applications of what we already know and we build new networks of people who can help link us into completely new opportunities.

What is interesting to me as a leader is to acknowledge that this is how effective job change, and the growth that is incumbent with a great opportunity, happens for my team members. Our company is growth oriented, and there is always opportunities. Beyond that, it is likely true of most organizations that it is important that we develop our people and retain our top talent.

If a leader is aware that our team members have multiple potential satisfying career paths and that the way that they effectively engage one of these alternative paths is through experimentation, wouldn’t it make sense to try to create an environment where our team is encouraged to express their interests and where there is good opportunity to experiment in these areas?

The best example I know of this is Google’s “20% policy”, where employees were allowed to spend up to 20% of their time working on pet projects. They have since rescinded this policy, but other companies who adopted it are still finding in successful.

Does our organization encourage job shadowing, interest interviews, publishing openings on task forces, etc.? Do we as leaders know our people’s interests well enough that we can guide individuals to areas that may feed that interest?

This line of thinking is new to me, but I’m trying to figure out how best to incorporate it into my leadership. Turnover is expensive to an organization, and anything we can do to lessen it is good for both company and people.

What are your thoughts on this? Any ideas on how to build this ability to experiment into an organization?

Published by

Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

6 thoughts on “Climbing the Ladder

  1. I bet your team loves working for you Ian! When parts of one’s job is satisfying, it makes up for the parts that are not so satisfying. I never had a 20% rule like google, but my team knew that as long as they got their job done, they could experiment, as you put it, in their areas of interest

  2. “Have you ever noticed the tendency of us humans to choose the certainty of an unsatisfactory situation over the allure of a satisfying but uncertain alternative? We actually choose an unhappy situation because it is a situation that we are familiar with. The unknown has that much power over us, even one with the possibility of increased happiness or fulfillment.”
    This hit home for me today. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s