Build Your Own Ladder

Build Your Own Ladder

Editors Note: This is a guest post by Joel Runyon of Impossible HQ.

  1. Graduate college
  2. Climb the corporate ladder.
  3. Get a 3% raise every year that barely keeps past with inflation.
  4. Wait 5 years for someone to tell you’re you’re qualified for a promotion
  5. Stay in line. Don’t cause trouble. Keep climbing and someone else will make sure that everything is okay.

10 years ago, this was still the formula for a good enough living. Unfortunately, things have changed.The old promises can’t be kept any longer. Companies don’t hold on to workers for 30 years. The rapid pace of innovation means your ability to learn is more important than what you know right now – because that information is on it’s way to becoming outdated. In order to survive, you have to adapt.

So things have changed, but the ladder mindset hasn’t. Keep climbing the ladder, you’re told, and ignore that the trade-off isn’t what it used to be. It might not be perfect, but it’s good enough – so you should keep quiet and be happy.

Unfortunately, good enough isn’t good enough. In fact, as average works it’s way to obscurity, it’s costing more and more to settle for good enough, which is worth less and less. But we keep climbing on, convinced that it’s still the best way.


Ask yourself a few questions:

Who’s Above You?

Do you want to become your boss? If you hesitated for one second, stop climbing.

What’s At The Top?

Once you get to the top, what will you get? A bigger salary, more work, and more stress making someone else rich? Is that what you want? If it’s not. Stop climbing.


Refuse to climb any more. Opt-out. Be done. Stop climbing. Take the ladder out back. Smash it into pieces. Put it through a wood chipper and use it for mulch in your back yard. Stop climbing and start building.

Building Your Own Ladder

If you want to do what no one’s ever done, you’ll have to do what no one’s ever done. The ladder you’re told to climb probably isn’t the ladder to your dreams. You might end up with a compromise that you convince yourself is worth the tradeoff, but no one will ever build your perfect job and then hand it to you.

You have to make it yourself.

There’s no more passing it off to anyone else. You have to step up and do it yourself. You can no longer blame the ladder you’re on for not giving you what you want and not taking you where you want to go. If you look up and see you don’t  like where you’re headed, start building it in a different direction.

But there’s quite a few changes in this mentality and you’re going to have to deal with a few differences between your old ladder you’re used to climbing and the new one that you’re building.

Building Materials


Your corporate ladder is solid aluminum. Made up of an average salary for years that steadily increases if you’re nice and play by the rules. Then, eventually, after dutifully climbing upwards at the pace that others dictate, you’ll have a nice little reward at the end and have a nice little retirement party waiting for you, complete with a nice little watch. Neat. But you can be sure that it’s a fairly steady, and that if you don’t make anyone mad, you can climb carefully rung by rung as fast as they will let you go.


When you build your own ladder, you build it with whatever you can. There will be times you’re scraping the bottom of your piggy bank, building your ladder with whatever you can get your hands on. You’ll be dirt poor. Other times, you might actually find things start clicking and making some headway. You might even make some decent money. But you’re always building with whatever you’ve got. Sometime that’s the aluminum to match the corporate ladder. Other times it’s wood, mud, or whatever else you can get your hands on. It’s not always pretty, but if you keep building, you’ll make some headway.



Climbing a ladder is the “safe” choice. The graduated aluminum-made ladder has an A+ rating as decided by popular opinion. Just keep climbing for 30-40 years and everything will be okay. Not only will your company be loyal to you for all that time, but when you’re done, you’ll get a nice fat retirement pension to live out the last few years of your life in comfort.

Unfortunately, reality looks much less favorably than popular opinion on the climbing alternative. With jobs lasting shorter than ever, layoffs everywhere and more companies concerned about creative accounting practices than employee loyalty, the realm of reality would give the corporate ladder a much more humble C rating. Still viable, by all means, but no longer the wonderful actual rating that it’s reputation would suggest.


There’s nothing “safe” about building your ladder – after all, you’re building it, and you have absolutely no experience or qualifications to do so. While the ladder inspectors of popular opinion would say you’re foolish for giving it a shot and rate you with a solid F safety rating, this is good newsYou literally have nothing to lose. When you know you might fall, the only limit on what you can build is what risks you’re willing to take. This raises the ceiling on what you’re able to do and literally means there are no limits to the type of ladder you can build other than the ones you place on yourself. You place the trust in yourself rather than an entity that bases their opinion of safety based on what’s most common, rather that the actual integrity of the plan.


It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy – Steve Jobs.


If you choose the corporate ladder, you’ll have a nice shiny ladder. At first it seems great. Purchased directly from Home Depot made of solid aluminum, it’s safety inspected, freshly painted and all yours to climb. It’s also the same one that everyone else has. Start climbing for the next 30 years and you’ll end up in the same place everyone else does. You don’t get too many options. The track you’re on is the one you need to stay on, lock and step with everyone else at a designated pace, in order to be successful. You’re also replaceable. The same uniformity that makes it so convenient to turn off your brain and climb, means it’s also convenient to go find new climbers with new ladders anytime they want. You ladder can be as safe as possible, but if you get it taken away from you, you’re still falling without a net.


Your ladder is the opposite of uniform. It’s absolutely unique. It can be whatever you want it to be. It might not be as pretty or safe as the store bought ones, but it’s yours. It’s not made out of the standardized aluminum that the other ones are and it’s also not prefabricated and handed to you. But it’s yours. You make it what you want it to be. It takes a ton more work, a lot more effort on your part, and you can climb as fast or as slow as you can build. There are no more speed limits. But the best part is that it it’s yours.

Build Your Own Ladder Already

You’re not smart enough, you’re not experienced enough, and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

No one does when they start.

But as you build, you learn and as you build you adapt, you get better and you keep going.

Build your own ladder. Piece by piece, run by run. Little by little you’ll start seeing what you build. You’ll be amazed at what you can do – but you’re the one that has to do it…because no one is going to build your ladder for you.

About the Author: Joel just left his job and is building his own ladder along with a few other impossible things at Impossible HQ and of one of the many things on his impossible list. You can download his manifesto Impossible and follow him on twitter.

photo courtesy of grant hutchinson

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