Leaning Your Ladder Against the Right Wall

Everyone wants to succeed at something. And most of my clients and the people I speak with know a lot about success. They’ve done well, continued to excel, and keep advancing up the ladder as we’re told to do all of our lives.

But have you ever stopped to think about what wall your ladder is leaning against? So many people are just following the logical progression of their resumes and not really thinking about where that will lead them. Instead, they continue along with the same habit of progress and advancement that got them to where they are and that they’ve always assumed is the best path.

Advancement? Check. Achievement? Check. Fulfillment? Not so much.

I speak with so many people who get to the top of their ladder and realize it’s not all they thought it would be. Or that it’s really not at all where they want to be and they knew it all along but just kept moving and now they feel trapped and alone up so high in the wrong place.

A Sad Tale

I recently spoke with a woman who had been practicing law at the same law firm for 22 years. By most people’s definition, she’s a success. A partner at a great, large law firm any lawyer worth their salt has heard of, and highly regarded within her firm.

But when we dug a little deeper, she really wasn’t happy. Here’s what she actually said to me:

“Every year, I just assume I won’t be here by the end of the year. But here I am. 22 years later in the same office at the same firm. I get good reviews and people love to work with me…but I’m not happy.”

When I hear that…I just can’t.

Why? Why do people do that? Well, I know a bit about why after working with so many similarly-situated people, so let me break it down a bit:

The Coping Creep

This is so freaking common. People just settle in. It’s not terrible, but it definitely isn’t great, so they just let it ride.

If you know anything about me, you know I’m not one to tell you to drop everything and go find your purpose. I don’t think that works. And yes, I know that sometimes work will suck.

But. Generally. You shouldn’t want to change your job every year. This is what I call the coping creep.

You settle in and think life is good enough – let it ride. And then, 22 years later, you’re still there. Not doing what you want to do and assuming it won’t last much longer. And trapped by the income and status you’ve achieved (the higher up you get, the harder it is to get hired in a new role or profession).

It’s crazy. Life often demands a bit of coping. A bit of being happy with what you have and not needing to progress. But at certain point, the happiest people can balance being happy with what they have with doing something to get to where they want to be.

When you let the coping creep settle in, you’ve essentially given up. You can’t be coping with your job and have goals. The two don’t go together.

And the truth is, we all need goals. They focus our attention and make us happy (at least according to the best psychologists on the topic). So, when you’re coping, you’re not working towards a goal, which makes being happy really hard.

Issue one.

Fear of Giving Up

Issue two? The fear of giving up or changing gears.

I hear this ad nauseum: Well, I knew I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t want to just give up or I thought I’d just be a failure if I called it quits and tried to find something else.

Whew. I get it. I did it. It’s hard.

I’m a believer in sticking something out if you committed to it. I don’t think you should just quit at the first sign of struggle or when something gets uncomfortable at all.

I practiced law for nine years before I quit. I knew within 6 months of the practice it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. But, I tried some different settings (two very different in-house positions) and thought about many other options I could stick with as a lawyer. But after the exhaustive research, it just wasn’t right for me.

And that was so hard to admit.

Really. Spending $200K on a degree and nine years of your life doing something (12, if you include law school) is really hard to give up. I was giving up more than just a job or even a career. I was giving up an identity. Ever since I was little, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. My whole life.

But how could I see that as a failure if I knew the identity I was holding on to wasn’t accurate? To me, the really tragic thing would have been to charge ahead with the midwest Protestant work ethic so deeply instilled in me and wake up in 20 years realizing I had spent most of my life doing something just because I started it.

While I’m not a big “live your life according to quotes” person, this one from CS Lewis sums it up quite nicely:

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive”

And you don’t even have to do an about turn. Everything that you’ve done so far is worth something – and not JUST a lesson in what you don’t want (though that is helpful).

You’ve developed transferable skills and contacts and general knowledge you can capitalize on in your new career. All it takes is a shift of perspective and finding the right thread to connect your new path.

But, trust me. It’s there. If I can find a thread between being a commercial attorney and a career coach, I KNOW you can find a commonality between whatever you’re doing now and what you want to be doing.

A lack of creativity

This is related to feeling like you have to give everything up to really get what you want, but is slightly different. Simply put: most people lack creativity when considering other options.

Some of this comes from merely not knowing what’s out there. If you’ve been in the same or similar type of work for several years, this is to be expected. To combat it, get out there! Read, engage in outside activities, and talk to people about what they do! It will help spark your creativity and might even make you happier in general.

But some of it comes from being too literal: “I have an accounting degree. Therefore, I must account.” Not so. Your accounting degree can be used for so much more, and we all know your degree has very little to do with what your talents and skills are anyway.

You need to think outside the box and shift your viewpoint from myopic to expansive. If you’re having a hard time with that, ask your friends, your family, mentors, strangers on the street – anyone! And, if none of that works, hire a professional!

Seriously – it’s easy to get trapped in a very narrow viewpoint, but once you start to understand that there’s way more out there, you’ll be rewarded and see all of the possibility out there. Don’t define yourself by your job title, define yourself by your experience and talents.

Ready to Shift your Ladder?

If any of this rings true, get ready to shift your ladder. It’s not worth it to sit in safety. I’m not encouraging you to give everything you’ve worked so hard for up. I am encouraging you to figure out a way to capitalize on it in a deliberate way that will leave you more fulfilled in your career.

It will be a bit scary, for sure, but it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think with the right support!

If you’re ready to shift your ladder, start here. It’s a great way to see what you’re missing and if support on this journey is right for you!


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