Climbing Your Own Ladder: Thoughts on Fulfillment

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with good friends about big dreams. These are the kind of conversations I live for: I love hearing other people explain what they are pursuing, and why they are passionate about it, and how they are planning on getting there. Talking to people who are smart and inspired to effect big change has always inspired me. However, these conversations tend to have an underlying anxiety. While some of that anxiety certainly stems from worrying about whether or not we’ll be successful at accomplishing the things we want to accomplish, the question that seems to be haunting everyone is more immediate.

What in the world we are supposed to do in the meantime?

The World of Work (and Ladder Worries)

Because of the pesky need for this thing called money, many of the smartest people I know have ended up in entry level jobs that aren’t using all of their talents. While this situation isn't fun for the entry level employee, I will personally go so far as to argue that many entry level jobs aren’t even created to use your talents. Entry level jobs are there to test whether or not you are committed to climbing the ladder in a particular field or at a particular company… because that climb is going to be a long term commitment. They are a test for your employer, but also for you, to see whether or not you want to invest the time (and they want to invest the resources) that will be required for you to climb a particular ladder.

Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable to worry about whether or not a ladder that someone else has created moves you toward the things that you personally want to accomplish. So how do you know if it does?

We are all making an educated guess about what experiences will move us toward the things that we want (and what we want may change along the way). I think that educated guess can be made better by considering what you could learn from any given experience: even if you don’t see how things will line up longer term, often, they just do. You don’t have to pick the right ladder from the very beginning, but you do have to start somewhere… so start with the experience that will teach you the most.

Building A Flexible Ladder

As we all know, I’m a planner. However, in the going-on-four years since I graduated college, my plans have changed so many times that I’ve lost count. At this point, I’m wary of making set plans about the next rung on the ladder to what I want to be doing with my life. So I created a new strategy, which is very simple… just climb.

Take an action, even if it you don’t see how it fits into your long term plan. Define something you want to do, even if it is small, and take steps toward that one thing. Read a book, learn a language, start a blog. If you can’t define anything that you want to do yet, then work in as many different jobs as you can, talk to as many different people as you can and travel to as many different places as you can. Just climb.

These days, my ladder has a lot of options and I’m not entirely sure what order the rungs will come in, but I do know (vaguely) the things that are at the top. I also know that all the things I’ve learned from all the different experiences I’ve had were essential in deciding what I even wanted to put at the top. So don’t discount any experiences, even those entry level jobs… they are all part of the climb.

Work Isn’t the Only Place to Climb Your Ladder

I may break with my fellow millennials a bit here, but I’m a proponent of working after college. If you don’t know what you want to do, I think that making some money and gathering up work experience is a good place to start. You don’t have to work for someone else forever, but work is generally an excellent learning experience and can set you up to move onto quite a variety of second rungs on your ladder (graduate schools like work experience, other employers like work experience, entrepreneurs benefit from having work experience… you get the idea).

While I’m a work proponent, I know from experience that it is extremely difficult to find a job that matches my own ladder exactly. Expecting a job to cover every interest, goal and aspiration you have… at the same time… is asking quite a lot of any job, especially if the things you want to do in your life and the things that you are interested in are pretty varied.

So I’m going to have to say it like it is, for all of our sakes (including mine): making sure that you are climbing your own ladder is your responsibility, not your employer’s.

Work keeps us busy and takes up a significant portion of our time, and when you are managing projects and keeping up with deadlines and getting to work on time with business attire on (hey, sometimes even this can be an accomplishment) it is easy to go home at the end of the day and watch TV. It is also easy to just chill on weekends, because hey, you earned it!

While there is nothing whatsoever wrong with some R&R, those hours of the week when you are not at work are very important to making progress on your personal ladder. Whatever your job is not teaching you, these hours are the time when you can be learning it. Whatever you are not experiencing at work, these hours are the time when you can be experiencing it.

Finding Fulfillment in the Climb

Ultimately, I think that one of the hardest things about committing to a ladder - even one that you built for yourself - is how long it takes to climb. Because of the time commitment (which for your biggest goals and aspirations may truly be your entire life), it is so discouraging to find yourself in a job that you feel isn’t moving you up your ladder. It’s also brutal to try to get to the next rung on your ladder, but fail (miss that promotion, get rejected from school, not get that job you applied for, etc.)

While I want to be as encouraging as possible, I also want to be honest: if the top of your ladder is the only place where you’re going to be fulfilled, then you need to build a new ladder.

Right now.

Your whole life is going to be spent climbing… so you better like the rungs of your ladder, not just the top. You don’t have to know the specific order of those rungs, but think about the types of knowledge and experience you’ll need to acquire to reach whatever is at the top of your ladder: are you going to enjoy acquiring that knowledge? Are you going to feel challenged and inspired while gaining that experience?

The primary reason that I’ve been able to back off on worrying about the order of rungs on my ladder or even being able to strictly define the exact job at the top of that ladder is that I’m loving the climb. Sure, worries still cross my mind, progress is slow and I fail (regularly), but I know that I’m on the right track because the hustle to learn relevant lessons both at work and outside of work is fulfilling.

When you find that thing that you’ll be happy to pursue for the rest of your life, you just know...

And I’m wishing you that type of fulfillment on your own ladder.

Happy climbing!