Since I left my job a few weeks ago, I have had a lot of time to think, to feel, to consider. Probably best of all, I have had time to watch several episodes of Ken Burns’s series of the National Parks several times. It is amazing how much I hear and feel each time I watch these.
Most telling, however, has been reconnecting with people, listening to people, about their current situation, about our collective experience of the recession. I have no idea what is going to happen to me in the next few weeks or the next few years. But I can say I am healthier already because I left my job. Listening to the circumstances of life many people I know are experiencing, an inescapable image keeps appearing in my mind.
In my book, The Most Important Lesson No One Ever Taught Me, I write about the ladder of goals and expectations many of us are taught as kids. When I present this in my talks, it leaves the audience either silent or nervously laughing.
Get good grades so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can borrow the money to buy a car so you can get married so you can borrow the money to buy a house so you can have kids.
There you go. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this as such. But all I need to do is listen to people and I hear this over and over again. I did what I was supposed to do, but life doesn’t feel the way I thought it would. And now people are stuck on this ladder. I have heard the term golden handcuffs many times lately, but I think this ladder is a better metaphor.
The inescapable image in my head is Ladderland…where people are all on these ladders, many of them on the top rung with nowhere to go. And slowly it has dawned on them that life is more than climbing this ladder. Life it seems to me must have forward movement in it. So what do these denizens of ladderland do? They start walking with their ladder as if they are on stilts, scared of falling over, but more afraid of climbing down and walking.
I picture the ladderland hierarchy being determined only by how tall someone’s ladder is and how much higher one person is than another. They call this a meritocracy as if they knew what constituted merit. Worst of all, I also suspect that some of the higher ups got there by knocking over the ladder of others. If you have the power to knock the ladders of others over, then you also have the power to make the rules. And too often, too many of those people have the ability to make the rest of us believe that it was our fault, that we deserved to be pushed over. Too small to matter.
And I have a feeling, a sense, that too many of us have reached the top of our ladder. We’ve gone as far as we can upward. I picture an entire society asking “Now what?” Too many people do what their higher ups (those with a taller ladder) tell them to do because they know those higher ups will push them over.
I myself decided to climb down and walk, to look around, and what I see is vast opportunities. As I walk by, I see people stuck up in the air afraid of falling over, but not afraid enough to climb down and join me.
I am not saying I am right or know better. What I know is what I hear people tell me about their lives. I know what that feels like. I’ve been there. And I know there is no ladder tall enough to reach the stars, or the moon, or the sky, but there are places on earth where we can feel them. That is enough for me.