I read Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People a few years ago. It’s a fabulous book. Among other things, it taught me how to think about my work in the world and about how I spend my time. There is, however, one idea that makes me roll my eyes every time I hear someone quote it. And people like to quote it a lot. Stephen Covey warns that you don’t want to climb the ladder of success only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall. I have two problems with this statement. The first one is this:

There’s no wrong wall!

Okay, I recognize that he’s telling us not to get so caught up in our busy-ness that we never stop to ask ourselves if we’re actually moving in the desired direction. But the implication is “Man, you’ll screw EVERYTHING up if you don’t figure this stuff out.” (Though I doubt very much if Stephen Covey has ever called anyone “Man.”) There’s just fear at the core of it. It mostly serves to freeze people for terror of “doing it wrong.”

Maybe at the time you begin your climb up that ladder, the most conscious you’re able to be puts you on that particular ladder. You don’t know at the time that your perspective might change. Maybe at that time the whole reason you do anything IS to make money. (Or to get approval or to please your Aunt Letty.) You want all the material things of this work as a venture capitalist. (And I promised in my Blog Intro I wouldn’t be writing about venture capital.) Along the way you learn lots of stuff — all about the venture and the capital. You grow. You expand. You do everything “right.” You think you’re on the right track. And let’s say you get to the top of the ladder and say something like, “Zoinks! I’m realizing I don’t even LIKE being a venture capitalist!” (And again, I doubt you’re talking like Scooby and Shaggy if you’re a venture capitalist.) Money ceases being motivating enough. Maybe you feel empty and sad lots of the time.

Well, here’s the thing. You get to choose where you’ll go next. You can either see Stephen Covey standing there shaking his head at you and saying, “You see? You’ve ruined everything. This wall was all wrong. All wrong.” — or you can decide to go deeper and shift gears, and let the lessons of where you’ve been take you in a new direction. Your motivations have changed since you got on this ladder. That’s all. Is it daunting? Yes. Can it be confusing? Yes. Will you have days where you wish you had never begun that climb in the first place? You betcha, Scooby. But you’re not in the wrong place. You’re in a decision place. AND you have many things that can never be taken away from you — all of the knowledge, wisdom, and insight you’ve gained. So, with all of that on your side, you re-evaluate your direction. I wish more people would do this. It opens the whole world up.

My second problem with the idea is this:

There’s no wall period!

The idea of the wall implies that there’s a THERE to get to. Even if you did everything right in the Land of Covey and you wanted to become the CEO of Everything, and then you did, in fact, become CEO of Everything, then you begin that next process. You don’t ever get somewhere where you sit back in a lawn chair and say, “That’s it! I did it! I’m so glad I picked the RIGHT WALL!”

If you ever find yourself in a life situation that’s not going well for you, remember this: Wrong is a lame word. It’s a bad translation of any situation. My belief is that we’re here on Earth to learn and grow and help each other learn and grow, and since you’re bringing you with you wherever you go, you’ll always have situations that are going to need to change or shift for whatever reason. (And you get to decide the reason, too.) The universe presses up against you in order to shape you. There’s no wall. Only you.

The whole illusion is that there’s a way to figure out the EXACT right thing to do that will never cause you to question, never bring you to a place of frustration, and make you feel safe and secure forever and ever. That’s called a Muggle.

Here’s the secret: you get to decide. You get to decide what you want to do. And you get to decide when and if it’s the direction you want to stay in. You get to decide whether you call it the “wrong” wall, or whether you get to look at it and say “it was a nice wall for a while, but I think I’ll hitch a ride on that guy’s stilts there until I get over to that bridge and maybe I’ll walk along that bridge until the hot air balloon picks me up and carries me over to that mountain top and I’ll see what the clouds have to say once I’m there. I’m tired of ladders anyway.”

My dream was to write and play music. And part of the process of doing that has involved many times where I’ve said, “This was my dream. But I’m totally unhappy right now. What’s wrong here?” And it felt like a wall, for sure. But it never was. It was a call to change the HOW of my life, not the what. And if I ever stop doing music or writing, then I will change that as well. But I won’t buy into the belief that I have done the wrong thing all these years. I’ll change directions. I’ll become the CEO of Everything. (And I will probably say “Zoinks” on occasion.)

So, my advice is set your intent, pick a wall, lean your ladder, and get the hell going. And replace Stephen Covey’s thought with the words of Miles Davis: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

19 COMMENTS ADD A COMMENT
  • Lawrence

    Well, I enjoyed your post and some of the comments.
    I have looked at the world from many perspectives over the years and also see problems with this metaphor and other similar ones like”wrong jungle.”
    I see that you are a teacherand so assume that you use metahpors from time to time.So you probalyknow that metaphots have a place and purpose, but they also have limitations.
    The ladder on a wall is a perfect representation of a ladder on a wall, but when we use it to demonstrate an idea through metaphor, we have to build a context around it. It is the context that guides the reader/listener to the intended message.
    The ladder works for Covey’s metaphor because it gives the reader an image with limitations.
    If you have ever been on a ladder, you know how it feels, you know that you are limited to up or down with little option for sideways movement except at the top or bottom. Therefore it is better and easier to see a need for change at the top or at the bottom. Also, theoptions are different at the top and at the bottom. So sometimes it is better to go back down to change direction and sometimes it is better to keep going up.
    These are just some examples of insigth that I get from this metaphor.
    Another concern is that a ladder ‘s normal use it for someone to go up, do a job and then go back down. Since I know that Covey did some work requiring ladders when he was young, I imagine he was thinking a little about this fact. So I sometimes adjust it to my needs: If the goal is to repair your roof, dont put the ladder on your neighbors house.

  • George Super BootCamps

    I’d not thought about the wall and ladder success thing like that before, but now you present your idea like that I think I agree.

    All progress is good, but at the same time, progress in the direction you want is better…

    I found your site when researching where Covey had said that line. My research was for a blog post about being successful in weight loss, and I (eventually) finished it and published it here: http://blog.superbootcamps.co.uk/2012/fat-loss/100-fat-loss-weight-loss-tips-strategies-tip-3-factors-leading-to-fat-loss/

    Keep up the good work,
    George

  • Jen Hansen

    A few more thoughts…

    Your argument is essentially:
    The best is the enemy of the good. – –Voltaire

    It’s not effective to wait until you can do the best possible thing (or know what the best possible thing is) in order to move forward. You can do good things now that will help you gain clarity on what the best thing to do is. The key is to be flexible and constantly aware of when you need to make a change to follow what you’ve learned about what is the best direction for you.

    However, whatever you can figure out now through introspection about what matters to you and what your principles are, the more direct you can be about your approach and how to get it done most effectively.

    I think going both directions is the most effective. If you know what you want, do top down planning (7 Habits). If you’re in discovery mode, you do bottom up planning (GTD). Then in areas of great clarity you are very focused on the results you know you want. And in areas of discovery, you are moving forward in positive directions to gain more clarity about what you want.

  • Jen Hansen

    I love everything you’ve said. It’s very true. It just goes to show analogies only work if they make sense to you.

    I think you’re making goals the wall. The analogy only really works if you make your principles the wall. Your goals (career, projects, etc.) may change based off of what you learn and discover but your principles should not. For example, if you value meaningful, close relationships with those you love and you find yourself deep into a career that keeps you from developing the deep relationships that you care so much about, then you’re up the wrong wall.

  • Nicole Clark

    I always come back to this post whenever I’m feeling at a loss and need a reminder that I get to create the life that I want. Well done!

  • Phillip Cook

    I feel that both of you are right in a way. Mistakes are inevitable, it’s what we decide to do with the mistakes. Think of just a few of the famous movie stars/sports heroes/politicians/leaders of countries that seemed to have it all at least it seemed like that until the good/bad rewards they were making over many years finally sprouted. Adultery, cheating, infidelity start with simple thoughts being fed one day at a time. Imagine if they would have starved those thoughts how much better they would have been after climbing up certain ladders. Yes, they made it up the ladder alright, only to find out that they have money, but no morals, riches but no family, wealth but no happiness.
    A happy family takes effort, a happy marriage takes time, great friendships take nourishment. I think success is measured greatly by the help we lend to others starting with the ones closest to us. Life takes some balance and it is possible to be wealthy and maintain standards at the same time.
    It might be interesting to note that Stephen R. Covey is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a.k.a the Mormon Church a.k.a. the LDS Church. I am also a member of this church and have heard this quote mentioned many times in religious settings. It also might be helpful to know that there is a scripture that has been used alongside this quote which states, ” What doth it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36 KJV of the Bible).
    Even with that said, what if you made it to the top of the ladder and found yourself on the wrong wall so to speak? It takes time to go up a ladder and it takes time to nourish other parts of life. Maybe one can decide to leave his ladder and focus on other aspects of life. Or he can choose to spend a little more time working on those things that last, like relationships with family, friends, and neighbors. I think the ladder reference wasn’t meant to be an all encompassing analogy but it does help make a point.

  • Elizabeth

    I am a new reader. I find your style and perspective generally energizing and uplifting.
    Dismay.
    When we use name-calling as a tool of persuasion (“You can either see Stephen Covey standing there shaking his shiny bald head at you and…”), the remaining ideas can be called into question.
    Elizabeth

  • Terry

    I concur with Josh. It’s important to discern ones calling and to move in the direction you feel God may be calling you. Life is full of adjustments. No matter how big or small you should follow your calling. It may be a tiny position somewhere, but if that’s God’s plan for you, it will bring on greater joy. Look at Saint Therese of Lisieux “The Little Flower”. She found great joy in her life doing little tasks for God.

    Terry

  • iletitgo

    Christine-
    I love this post! You put words to what I was feeling. I am getting out of the mindset that every single choice I make has life-or-death consequences. I just wrote about it in my own (new) blog. I’m learning to be more gentle and forgiving (or perhaps accepting) realizing that choices are only opportunities to learn, and define what you do or don’t want in your life. I am now undergoing the process of reading all your posts. It will probably take a while, but every post has been so helpful.

  • Christine Kane

    Point well taken, Josh! However, I’ve noticed in my work as a teacher, that people can take this concept (of which you have a clear understanding) and use it as an excuse for inaction. (which is what inspired me to write this.) Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Josh

    I think you missed the deeper point. You see S. Covey isn’t talking about CEO-Land. He’s talking about life. Many high-profile people get to the “Top” (Hollywood, Music, Etc) only to relize that what they thought they would feel like when they “made it”, ended up being EMPTY (see Britney Spears and Kirk Cobain as examples). Many others (CEOs, Artisits, Sports Icons, etc) get to the top only to relize “emptiness” and they crash. Some that make it to the top figure it out…(Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Etc) that serving others is the only true way to find that lasting inner peace and add to the greater good of others, thus “the RIGHT Ladder.”

    Most people don’t make it to the top. They either quit climbing (status quo), or keep jumping ladders (jobs / relationships), looking for the “right feeling”. Those that find it, know, and ARE happy. Those that DON’T find it, say that there is NO Ladder.

    Josh

    • Megan

      Brilliant. A brilliant response.
      There is a wall. A very real one.

      Those who choose inaction don’t have principles.

      I sure didn’t.
      Until I fell off the wall, hit the ground with a resounding thump that knocked some sense into me.

  • Paul

    I just want to say thank you for writing this. Exactly what I needed to read right now.

  • Christine Kane

    Thanks Jordan! (Great name, by the way!)

  • Jordan Mercedes

    Thanks for this very important insight and encouragement. It’s good useful stuff.
    -JM