There Is No Ladder, And Other Lessons I’ve Learned About Goal-Setting

I’m a ladder climber.

Academic ladders, professional ladders, social ladders, athletic ladders–I will work the system to get higher and higher.

I’ve not done it particularly well or with a master plan the way some folks do. But the drive to prove myself worthy of another step up has dominated how I approach life, work, and play.

In high school, it was paramount to me to be the 1st chair trombonist—to climb over the other players to get to the top.

In college, my goal was to be in charge of the weekly worship services on campus and also to be the top student in the religion department. Oh, and to be drum major—that was important, too.

In my over-before-it-began graduate school experience, I realized that I had no idea how to climb the ladder and that I maybe hadn’t even been on the right ladder in the first place. So I quit.

Quitting graduate school led to working in retail—where the siren song of promotion after promotion kept me from seeing that I was climbing a ladder I didn’t even want to be climbing in the first place.

When I started my business, I found myself on a new ladder and looked to others to figure out what goals to set so I could start climbing.

Every achievement someone else made was a rung on the ladder I could use to move up.

At this point, you’re probably either nodding along thinking, “Yeah, me too,” or you’re thinking “Woah, that’s messed up.”

Maybe you’re thinking both. It’s taken a lot of work to get to the point where I can say both.

Anyhow, a little over 4 years ago now, I started to question all the ladder climbing. I started to wonder how I could do things differently. Then, I didn’t have much of a grasp on specifics—I just had a persistent inkling that I needed to recalibrate.

These past 4 years have been full of reflection, analysis, and awareness-building. While I’m more sure than ever that I don’t want to climb the ladder anymore, I know that my default mode is still to try to ascend. My identity is still tightly wrapped around each rung.

This past weekend, I listened to Brene Brown interview Sonya Renee Taylor, author of The Body Is Not An Apology.

And a line from that conversation has stuck with me—boring itself into my very being. Sonya said:

“The ladder is real only because we keep trying to climb it.”

To this point, my recalibration has been to try to ignore the ladder. To keep my eyes on my own paper and ignore how others are getting further ahead—making more money, growing bigger teams, speaking to larger audiences, running faster, lifting more weight, growing bigger quads (I know, I know…).

But ladder-climbing is so entrenched in me that I didn’t realize that I was still seeing the world as a hierarchy.

It was a hierarchy I was trying to detach myself from, but a hierarchy nonetheless.

But what Sonya was saying is that…

there is no hierarchy.

There is no higher or lower. There is no better or worse. There is no stronger or weaker.


(Which is not to say there is no difference in who has access to power—but that is a conversation for a different day.)

Climbing the ladder has driven the choices I make. It has set my goals for me. It’s made my plans for me.

What do I do next if there is no ladder to climb?

I realize, at this point, it sounds like I’m in the midst of an existential crisis. I’m not.

The truth is that I’ve been wrestling with this for years and that this is a new—and extremely important—layer to that ongoing search for myself and what I want to create in this world.

I think this idea—that there is no ladder—hit me with particular force because we’ve all been experiencing this Great Reset.

We’ve all be recalibrating, reexamining. We’ve all been taking stock of what’s truly important to us, to our businesses, to our families, and to our communities.

I hear it in the conversations I facilitate in our community and with our mastermind groups. I see it bubbling up on social media. I witness it in direct messages and virtual coffee dates.

Some of us continue to try to wait it out until a familiar structure, a familiar order of things returns. (And honestly, I think many of us fall into this group in our moments of greatest stress and anxiety.)

Some of us are actively working to create structure that doesn’t rely on the ladder.

What I have come to realize over the last few years is that:

Climbing up the ladder is only one way I can orient my life and business.

When I see that the ladder isn’t real (or when I see it for what it is—a system of control & oppression), I can choose from an array of orientations that serve me better. I can orient myself toward greater resilience. I can orient myself to my sense of adventure. I can orient myself toward uncertainty or systems or visibility.

Each of these orientations (for myself or for my business) is infinitely more expansive, creative, and satisfying than constantly orienting myself up the ladder.

So what does this mean for the nuts & bolts of how I lead myself and my business?

Well, first it starts with goal-setting.

Or, rather, it starts with a lack of goal-setting.

You see, I simply have not been able to detach goal-setting from ladder climbing. You might be able to. I have not (yet) been successful.

So I stopped goal-setting.

Instead, I make commitments.

Instead of being results-oriented the way a goal is, a commitment is process-oriented.

If a goal is the destination, a commitment is the compass.

My commitments give me orientation for how I want to approach my strategic priorities for my business, the projects I want to bring to life, and the work I do every day. My commitments help me make decisions and guide my problem-solving.

This year, my commitments have Embrace Uncertainty, Question Normal, and Expect Success. They’ve guided me through hard decisions about our offers, led me to create more inclusive content, and helped me follow through on campaigns when I usually would have thrown in the towel.

These commitments have helped me develop new habits and retrain my brain.

And all along the way, I’ve been able to celebrate the progress I’m making in the process—instead of waiting to achieve some result and climb up an imaginary rung.

What I’m learning is that I might never be able to rid myself of the call to climb the ladder—it’s woven into the very fabric of our culture here in the United States—but that doesn’t mean I have to structure my life around or plan for my business using it.

I can create a structure and plan that isn’t dependent on the ladder to give me purpose or validate my worthiness.

I can anchor myself and my business to a deeper expression of my humanity and find my reward in the small ways I choose to act every day.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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What Type of Goal-Setter Are You?

What Type of Goal-Setter Are You?

I've explored goal-setting and planning with small business owners, creatives, and independent workers for over 12 years now. That means I've observed many different types of goal-setters. Some confidently choose a new goal and get to work. Others rebel against...

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