Climbing The First Ladder

From Stephen P. Smith:

It is vital to be conscious of the things that you are working on, it’s terrible to climb the ladder and discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall!

Being careful and specific about defining your work and your goals will get you going in the right direction and regular, values-based reviews of your work will keep you going in the right direction.

It’s funny how you can go your entire life without hearing something to then hear it twice in the same day. Until last week, I was unfamiliar with Steven Covey’s idea of “leaning your ladder against the right wall,” the idea that you need to know what you are trying to do in order to optimize your efforts. Then I see it from Steven in a discussion here on the blog and from again Merlin or Dan on the Back to Work Podcast. For those who are curious, here is the source quote:

If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.

Stephen R. Covey

There is no doubt that there is truth here, but perhaps it is more important to think about the ladder than the wall at the beginning. When you’re just starting to get your act together and are beginning to wonder about what you really want out of life1, there is a temptation or even a pressure to come up with some overarching game plan. To know exactly where you want to go and start climbing some giant ladder against a seemingly unscalable wall to get there.

It doesn’t matter which ladder you want to climb if you have no skill for ascending. It won’t matter what you hope to accomplish if you don’t build up a fundamental set of skills that can aid in any endeavor. Any effort you take will likely be wasted if you don’t start by building a sound foundation. For some this comes naturally; for us, it’s going to take work. We have to start, not by choosing a wall, but by learning to climb. We have to lean a ladder against any wall and begin, just to discover that we can climb it.

That first ladder, the one where you begin to develop the skills that build your confidence and set the stage for whatever you want to achieve. It helps you to identify what you want (and really don’t want) to do. Others will disagree and say that your purpose should come first and they could be right. But here’s the thing… It’s not that you can’t succeed if you haven’t tackled your demons and challenges, it’s likely that you wont aim all that high.

Being specific is great once you get good at working. Before that, worry less about doing something and just try to accomplish anything. It builds confidence and helps you develop your skill set. Once you do, that initial success will take you farther than you can imagine, it will get to a place where you can be intentional. It will get you to the point where you can see all of the walls, pick one and climb.


  1. And for the record, this can happy at any time, in your teens or even in your 40s, so don’t even start to tell me that it’s too late.  

2 Responses to Climbing The First Ladder

  1. Clarity is a wonderful thing. There was something nagging me in the back of my head when we were having this discussion, something along the lines of “…it’s not about the ladder…”

    This, then,is the distillation of the conversation: “Any effort you take will likely be wasted if you don’t start by building a sound foundation. For some this comes naturally; for us, it’s going to take work. We have to start, not by choosing a wall, but by learning to climb. We have to lean a ladder against any wall and begin, just to discover that we can climb it.”

    Build a sound foundation = learn skills and collect tools Climbing the ladder = Mastery and experience Gaining altitude = recognizing landmarks and re-assessing the direction you are going

    Climb that ladder. You can always change the wall mid-way up.

    Good stuff for a mental exercise this morning. Thanks for sharing.

    • That sounds about right. Solidify, Assend, Adjust. Just feel like I’m starting to get serious about the climbing. Probably took me longer than most to get the foundation down, but it really makes a huge difference in how high you’re likely to get.

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