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The rungs attached to the ladder of success are slippery, yet I continue to climb. They urge me to keep climbing, but with every step higher, it looks like I’m further away from my desired destination.
I’m losing sight of any vantage point. Where is the top?
Will I ever get there? And how will I know when I do?
And there are lots of peaks to get to, in all areas of life — business, social, and personal highs to achieve.
The struggle is enervating. I can barely breathe as the incessant quest for success, money, validation, if not perfection, seems beyond my grasp.
Sometimes, I feel lost, not knowing my direction in life.
Table of Contents
- 1 Can You See Yourself Climbing to Oblivion, Propelled by Social Conditioning?
- 2 I’m Only as Good as My Last “A”
- 3 Next Step — Corporate Ladder of Success
- 4 Continuing to Grab Ladders and Climbing Up Walls That may not be Right for Us
Can You See Yourself Climbing to Oblivion, Propelled by Social Conditioning?
I see you from a distance. You, too, are on a journey — climbing endlessly.
You don’t look happy, either.
Ultimately, let’s assume responsibility for our emotions, thoughts, and actions. But I’ll get to that later.
We must address the effects of social conditioning. At our earliest conception, we’re exposed to cultural norms, traditions, ideas, beliefs, behaviors, desires, and emotions.
As babies, toddlers, preteens, teens, and as full-fledged adults, this social conditioning may relentlessly saturate our mindset.
We’re told the proper way to behave and the way to live.
We’re offered information regarding the ideal tangible and intangible assets we need to gain.
Others assess our cumulative value and worth, using a societal yardstick and subjective standards.
Our parents, teachers, and other community members may offer praise when we please them. This feels emotionally satisfying, especially if we’re rewarded.
Criticism and censure for displeasing behaviors may serve as a deterrent for future transgressions. Here, we may feel ashamed and self-critical for falling short of expectations.
There is always that dichotomy between rewards and punishment, and both serve as conditioning agents.
Many of us ascribe to do well, immersed in social conditioning, and others may rebel in a counterproductive way, especially if influenced by negative peer conditioning.
“What’s that,” you say?
This has little bearing on your life? You’re your own man or woman — far removed from outside influences.
I’m not sure that is applicable to any human being, in the absolute sense.
But perhaps I’ll speak about my experience although I expect that the life lessons will resonate with many.
I’m Only as Good as My Last “A”
My parents valued education. They valued scholastic achievement, too.
And although they never put pressure on me, their smiling faces scanning my report card grades were enough to keep me motivated. After all, I loved them beyond measure.
I wanted to excel.
I needed to excel.
But for whom? Did I sacrifice everything for my folks, my teachers, or myself?
I would choose: All the above.
My self-worth became integrated with my grades.
This yearning and striving to do well (i.e., to be perfect) never mitigated throughout my (academic) life.
But sadly, during this entire time, I lost any enthusiasm and zest for real learning. I no longer had any sense of curiosity and wonder about the world around me.
The end game became the test scores and overall grades.
After graduating college, I did not read one book in over a year. I had seen enough words on a page to last a lifetime.
My ladder, leaning against this type of “academic wall,” compromised my future work foundation.
I took jobs I was overqualified for because I had enough of being challenged. And without the desire to consume knowledge and excel in any field, I hit a plateau and never rose above the ranks of mediocrity for quite some time.
If I had discarded the ladder and just walked around the typical walls often associated with formal education, I may have enjoyed my school experiences.
Instead of an unhealthy obsession with competition and grades, for example, I could have immersed myself with whatever I was learning… just for the sheer joy of it. Passion would have been a much better gateway toward success than defining my self-worth based on where I ended up on the bell curve.
If I was much less serious about school-related matters, I could have made up for some deficits inherent in the education process.
Confronted with teacher-driven instruction at school, I could have investigated related topics at home on my accord.
While besieged by facts within academic walls, I could have thrown myself into projects trying to sharpen my “thinking outside the box” skills.
Instead of a never-ending desire to please the teacher, I could have just tried to meet my own expectations, and do what I thought best, even if that did not mesh with the instructor’s perspective.
Looking at my grades and transcripts, you would think that I wildly succeeded.
But in my estimation, I was only as good as my last A.
And even when the Ivory Tower bell rang for the last time, that last A never felt fulfilling, and did not serve as a springboard for vocational success.
Next Step — Corporate Ladder of Success
There’s always another ladder of success to climb.
So I soared to the top of the academic ladder… from your angle.
But I knew the glow of a high GPA and a distinguished graduate degree would dissipate.
Indeed, the “What have you done lately” world fixates on current job status. Sure, you can ascend and stay at the top of a wall if you’re a former President, CEO, attorney, doctor (fill in any high status job), but you’ll probably get more mileage with people if you’re presently in that job capacity.
Money, power, status, and all the other so-called worthwhile entities in this life depend on career, or so it seems.
It only reinforced this perspective when I took on some menial jobs. I did some market research (glorified telemarketing); I became an administrative assistant at a financial institution (typing, running errands, and making appointments); and I landed another job at a festival (primarily serving others).
I heard the murmurs of “unrealized potential.” I caught wind of criticism and put-downs about my vocational choices. (My mom, however, never wavered with her guiding principle: pursue happiness, above all else, and everything else will fall into place.)
But I felt I needed to grab another ladder of success to elevate my overall position.
I secured a job as an actuarial cost analyst. It seemed to serve as a natural extension to my mathematics degree.
But I felt that the career would provide the accoutrements of success — in prestige and wage.
Although I had no desire to learn recondite tax laws and apply financial theory, I did so for nearly 8 long years.
The occasional, “You must be smart,” helped me to endure a job I loathed. The paycheck also provided the impetus to stay.
I did not feel smart, particularly in my decision to keep a job that engendered tears on a Sunday night.
But climbing a ladder where you’re only supposed to go in one direction does not give you the opportunity to look at other paths.
And the higher you get (I passed several grueling actuarial exams), the more ingrained the rationale becomes to not go back down the ladder.
Look above. This is what you see and feel when you get to the top of the wrong wall.
The wall itself was in shambles. I’m referring to the wall of financial prosperity and others’ accolades and respect. These rewards become almost irrelevant when severe depression and anxiety rear their ugly heads.
My life felt “walled in,” and I could not reach the path of personal fulfillment and happiness that I craved.
It was only after making self-actualized choices, and seeing myself and life with greater clarity, that I’m finally feeling better about my place in the world.
Continuing to Grab Ladders and Climbing Up Walls That may not be Right for Us
I’m not alone. I just recognize that I’ve been indiscriminately and aimlessly climbing for years. I’ve reached the top of some of these walls, only to realize that they’re the wrong walls… for me.
I’m not just alluding to vocationally based ladders and walls. There are a myriad of them in every sphere of life.
Evaluate your unhealthy obsessions to give you an idea of what ladders of success you may need to discard and walls to avoid.
- Perhaps you’re fixated on your appearance, and wonder how you measure up (the ladder leaning towards social acceptance).
- You wonder why you don’t have as many friends as someone else, or why you seem more introverted (social acceptance and personal “shoulds.”)
- You feel others are better off than you, and you have to rise above them (comparison with others).
- You obsess over something you say or do, and could have done better in your estimation (perfectionism).
- You’re desperate to win the game of life and “have it all” (ladder leading to nowhere).
Instead of climbing ladders, resting on faulty walls, condition yourself to engage in the healthy process of self-reflection, and then take congruent action.
Before Anything Else, Examine Your Life and Other Takeaways
Lay down that ladder and just sit.
Assess what is important to you — what is truly significant to you.
Quell the voices outside and calm the voices within.
As I mentioned earlier, the life you’re leading is tantamount to the thoughts and feelings you experience and the decisions and choices you make.
Stop blaming society; stop blaming conditioning influences. You’re more than the product of society. (You can also limit such conditioning by turning off the TV set, staying with others who are supportive and non-judgmental, and questioning and taking stock of your own preconceived notions.)
You’re now at the helm and you must assume responsibility for the direction of your life.
You must consider your passions, interests, and aptitudes. Weigh pragmatic concerns as well (food and shelter are admittedly important), but try to think beyond that scope.
Do not let ego, as Nietzsche warned, drive any climb. I’m not alluding to the positive ego that helps us navigate our surroundings. I’m wagging a finger at the negative ego that makes us insecure, overly critical, and hyper competitive, driving us toward actions that are not life affirming.
In addition, be grateful and count the blessings you have, right where you are. Perhaps you’re not even seeing minor successes, because you’re on the never-ending quest to secure larger… and larger… and larger ones.
Get involved with the process of your life, and not preoccupy your thoughts about the outcome of any endeavor. How can you possibly enjoy the journey when there is only one result that is acceptable to you?
It’s time to envision floating, rather than climbing. Not that your efforts are any less diligent with the former.
It’s just easier to go with gravity, hear yourself think, and see more available options as you float the tributaries of life. Have faith that you’ll get to where you really need to go, ascending your personal ladder of success.
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