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Career ladder too short? Channel ancient hands

We were en route to a mystical destination...with a 35-foot hand-carved spruce tree ladder to transport us through the final stretch. Evoking hope, eagerness, competitiveness and fear, the ladder triggered a vision of heroes long ago, ascending rough terrain. Symbol of something special? You bet.

We're a motley crew, us humans. And no matter the century, we never disappoint.

The ladder from 1930 was designed to bring pairs of people, rung after rung higher. To where? That's only partially relevant.

The why? Now that's intriguing.

The Ascent

I hung back to observe. There was the proud father filming his son's every step, the fearless child zooming ahead to be first, the GoPro camera duo capturing each other, the racer leaping up effortlessly, and the timid whisperer expressing doubt.

Selfie posers halted progress of those behind them, the achiever boasted of past accomplishments, the helper assisted others, the weary panted from their last steps, and the funny gentleman rallied the troops.

Everyone is here, waiting in anticipation for the climb. We looked upward.

And in true American fashion, you could hear:

"Do you want to go together?"

"No, what do you really need me beside you the whole way?"

Yup, those two guys staggered themselves independently the entire trip up.

But the couple in matching bright green coats climbed coordinated as a team.


  • Do we climb together?

  • Do we go it alone?

  • Should we look ahead or below us?

  • Am I in need of support and encouragement to keep going?

  • What are we leaving behind and what are we about to gain?

The Descent

I didn't descend by the ladder. We left by a different path and method.

Why? For flow.

In life, we often only talk about the "ladder of success" or a "career ladder" or "career path" as if there is only one direction under which you move. And that direction is seemingly always up.

But life isn't one dimensional, with one tool or structure in which to ascend. Your career flow can happen in all directions you desire—up, down, sideways.

To rise up, you may need to descend first. So, keep moving.

Ugh. I Climbed the "Wrong" Wall!

Life is about decisions. About learning every day.

“There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering that you’re on the wrong wall.” ― Joseph Campbell

Interesting perspective. But, don't quite agree...

Why not let yourself discover the "wrong wall" more often? What in the world is a "wrong wall" in life anyway? Everything is relative in the moment. Climb up and down repeatedly. Fall off the ladder. Skip the ladder. Take some risks. Just get yourself moving and learning every day.

Figure out your intent, lean your ladder, and go for it! Organizations who move quickly and take risks offer plenty of walls onto which you can leave your mark, scale higher, peer over with curiosity, and jump off.

The Views

I stepped off the ladder at Mesa Verde, Colorado, to admire the scenery, landscape, sounds, air and to take a peek down where I'd been earlier that day.

Amazing how beautiful all views are at each height. So important to notice.

Whom do you see when you look down? What kind of image do they see upon looking back up at you? What contributions and value do you leave along the way? Consider the various perspectives when you're a leader of a group or making a shift across teams.

Road Map to Career Achievements

Are ladders absolutely necessary? No.

Are there other ways to climb? Yes.

Is it easier to see the path and do you have a more structured experience with a ladder? Of course.

Ladders create visible steps—concrete goals toward an intended direction, which is comforting in times of ambiguity. Ladders provide a measurement of progress in chunks. The climber has the ability to see new perspectives in small phases the higher the elevation. And "seeing" leads to wisdom. Let's face it, ladders help you advance higher at a steady pace.

Your peers observe you too. They learn your character traits in handling the ascent alone or in sync with a partner. What you say along the way and how you make others feel is lasting on your climb higher.

There are the "before and after" decisions, viewpoints and preparations, but the climb is the journey. You can choose to look back down or only look forward. The choice is strictly yours as well as whom you bring along the way.

Who designs the ladder though―you or someone else?

Creators of Ladders

People who have the vision for new heights do so because they know there is way to get there. They are architects, dreamers, inventors and prove to the world anything is possible. Maybe this is you? Or maybe someone before you? These creators can help provide stepping stones and development for you.

I visited cliff dwellings from 800 years ago built by the Ancient Pueblo peoples who inhabited the extraordinarily high and treacherous locations from 1190 to 1300 CE across a 10,000 mile region throughout the Southwestern United States. Born from subterranean environments starting in 600 CE, treasuring mud layering and richness of the ground, the Ancient Puebloans pivoted drastically to living in cliff dwellings situated in natural sandstone crevices created by the ancient sea bed in North America.

Why the extreme shift to new heights? To survive. And to advance their lives. To create a better life and to harvest better crops. To live in communal areas protected from the elements. Their careers as farmers, cooks and mothers depended on their new locations to keep them safe. As in business or life, we must do the same.

To climb and grow in their new roles and new environments, Ancient Puebloans invented footholds and handholds directly in the sandstone. They didn't need a tool but climbed hand-over-hand to the upper mesa crops and back down to ravines. They carved elaborate, lengthy staircases too in rocks to cover greater distances. Wooden ladders were used to descend or ascend into kivas or into second or third floor cliff dwelling housing. Ropes were handmade for accelerating drops and climbs. The Ancient Puebloan people knew how to get to where they needed to, despite any setbacks, challenging paths or extreme risk in the process. They had faith and believed in themselves. And their new homes where water seeped through limestone, fire burned brightly, and turkeys could be protected.

And they did it all with their own hands, building and climbing every day.

They were visionaries, designers and innovators. Successful risk takers.

What Can We Learn?

The Hopi tribe is one of the 21 tribes descending from the Ancient Puebloans, so we're fortunate to benefit from their wisdom and knowledge still today.

"People without faith in themselves cannot survive"―Hopi Tribe

If you too are on a 35 ft. ladder, decide if it's time to keep climbing, get off, or find a different climb. Your journey matters so you decide how to move. Does your career ladder feel too short, too limiting? Maybe you need to design your own handholds and go your own way. Trust yourself, your strength, and where you're trying to go. Lean on the people, infrastructure and solutions to get you there. A career coach can help if you feel stuck. Most importantly, believe you bring value and keep moving to find the right opportunity.

"Time isn't used, it's experienced"―Hopi Tribe

There is no set amount of time for students or employees to develop. Take advantage of every minute of every day and carve your own career journey by learning, growing and taking on challenges. Life is about opportunity, about being present and in the moment each day. It's not about the ladder rung you're on, but the momentum you're building with each step you take.

"You must live your life from beginning to end: No one else can do it for you"―Hopi Tribe

Take responsibility and more will be given to you. Your career is about your contributions, your value to an greater cause and the relationships you build along the way to help you serve your teams, clients and organization. Your personal brand stems from how you live your life. And your life is woven together from multiple experiences in jobs so don't worry if you're first job isn't the dream goal.

"One finger cannot lift a pebble"―Hopi Tribe

Pool your resources, your own initiatives to build your career. Think about your own talents, people, or tools surrounding you. Don't go it alone but recognize that in the process of building, many hands are helping you, particularly as you climb. Collaboration, cooperation and compromising at times will get you there as much as your own determination, drive, and will. These are key traits for future leadership.

The rain falls on the just and the unjust"―Hopi Tribe

Sometimes you may feel a victim of a merger or acquisition or downturn in the economy. You're not alone. Regional or global causes and effects, including global market trends or changes in industries, happen as businesses or economies evolve. Whether you're a top performer or not, these variables impact everyone the same. You'll want to develop a source of inspiration from within that keeps you going despite the swirling change around you. With change, comes opportunity.

"We are the ones we have been waiting for"―Hopi Tribe

The power of YOU. Seize the moment today for you, your team, your company and your dreams. Whether you're an entrepreneur or manager or employee, you hold the power to make a difference in the market, in the organization, and in the world. Don't wait to be told what to do or think someone else has the answer. You are the answer to your own destiny as you climb, descend and travel.

What will your hand print be on your career journey?


Photographs 1-4 in the article were taken at Mesa Verde National Park and Petroglyph Point (c) 2015 by Joanne Markow. Hands photograph by © Vernon Wiley

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