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ability to learn is more important than what you know right now – because that information is on it’s way to becoming outdated.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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Comment & Add Your Voice

DesignbyDustin March 15, 2012 at 9:31 am

Thanks for the inspiring post! No one comes to the table smart enough or experienced enough. Walking your own path is so much more exciting than climbing the aluminum ladder. Thanks for the important reminder!


ToddMuffley March 15, 2012 at 10:39 am

Boom! Great read. Nothing is easy, no matter which way you go…but for me, I choose the ladder less climbed :)


1000lifelessons March 15, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Awesome post! I quit my job and starting building ladders 6 mo ago. I started getting stressed out, scared, and ended up with this stupid rocking chair (which I am typing this msg from right now).
All of my friends are busy climbing ladders so I felt reawy reawy ronery (chinese for lonely). This post reminds me that i’m not arone, and to keep on building! (I also have mucho respect for those who built the corporate ladder in the first place. What big balls they must have had!). 
Anyhow, I leave you with my favourite quote of the day: 
“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” 
-F. Scott Fitzgerald


BenHolt March 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

Great post, Joel! Love the Blog of Impossible Things, BTW.  I too know a thing or two about climbing vs. building.
Two years ago, I was making more money than ever working from a cubicle for a telecom company. I had the whole package: salary, bonuses, vacation, benefits, 401k with huge employer matching, but I was spending 50 hours per week at a computer, doing work I didn’t love, making someone else rich. I was chronically depressed, apathetic, and drained.
Last year I quit that job and moved to blogging and building passive income full-time. I say I’m “funemployed” :-)


jakyastik March 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

 @BenHolt Hey Ben, It feel really good to read your example. You see, you have to create your own ladder but no one ever said you shouldn’t follow people who are creating their own ladders and learn from them. 
Creating your own ladder also adds to learning from those rebellious victorious carpenters who built their ladders and thriving.! Like they say “The ladder of success is never crowded at the top.” 
Really looking forward to your “Jump!” Make them tall!

ethanwaldman March 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Great article, Joel. I’m leaving my corporate job in June. I’ve been building my ladder for the last year, and am looking forward to being able to dedicate my full efforts to it.  Cheers!


jakyastik March 18, 2012 at 10:17 am

 @ethanwaldman That’s really cool, Ethan! Excited about your ladder. Ladder of steel, I suppose!

nochnoch March 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm

i think many of us in Gen Y feel this particularly, that this corporate track is so empty and void and has no meaning. we all need to build our own ladder
Noch Noch


FireflyMedia March 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm

What a great post and totally relevant to our times. It’s so true about Building your Own Ladder- making your own reality in a sense. Allowing yourself to be your own boss and to find a place and a job that you excel at and love, and to figure out how to make money at that. Thanks for these great tips and quotes. 


jakyastik March 18, 2012 at 10:11 am

Building the ladder is important. That’s nothing new to say. Successful people like Kevin Rose, Mark Zuke, etc have been building their own ladders from the very college days. Some people get it early, some people get it later. Getting to know that you have to build you own ladder is what matters!


meghandonahue March 19, 2012 at 5:54 am

Build your own ladder. I like it. slowly and unassured (ly) : ) I’m building mine. thanks for a new inspiring set of words.


AnnieAndreHacks March 22, 2012 at 6:42 am

This is great advice but it’s so hard to break those old ways of thinking. It’s hard to convince our family and close friends around us that what we are doing is not necessarily only about money but about a bigger dream or idea.  I’m still building my ladder but it’s taken me years to be ok with the idea of it because the pull of the conventional way of climbing the ladder has been a constant .  Even now after years of living unconventionally i still sometimes go back to thinking maybe i should just go back to the building my old life but fortunately having an online community of other like minded individuals keeps me on the straight and narrow towards my personal goals and dreams. I think if i were to give anyone one piece of advice it would  to get a support group or like minded friends to support you because it’s not easy being different. :)


BenHolt March 22, 2012 at 7:55 am

 @AnnieAndreHacks I can identify with your struggle. My personal challenge has been with my family, and my in-laws in particular, understanding and believing in what I’m doing. The thing is, I *know* the conventional path is not the only way, or the safest way, and I fully believe in what I do. I’m going strong for sure, but sites like Illuminated Mind keep my engine fueled. Peer support is of immeasurable value. Are you a part of a mastermind group? If not, have you considered it?

candicemajor March 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

I like structure and security. I thrive on those two things. But I do realize that there are times when you just have to break free. But this concept is just so hard, not to mention frightening,  to do. So, at the moment, what I do instead is “bedazzle” the ladder. From afar, it still seems that I am following the norm, but if you look closer, you would actually see how my ladder is starting to look less like the others. In the future though, I do hope that I completely get the chance to create a ladder of my own. Oh, and Mr. Runyon, thank you for the way that you have presented your ideas. The visual picture your descriptions gave me was really helpful and made your article not only inspiring but also fun to read.


AliaA March 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm

@candicemajor Here’s the thing – if u genuinely “thrive” on structure and security, then u shouldn’t feel pressure to break that for another way. I’m all for inspiring people to find their own path but the whole point is to do what makes u happy and be yourself. There r people who love routine and operate extremely effectively and contentedly that way. And thank God because we need them just as much as we need any other kind of person in this world. The key is to make sure whatever u choose to do comes from love and not fear. If you’re doing what u love (rather than doing something because u fear the alternative) then you’re ok.

AldenTan March 29, 2012 at 1:45 am

For real! Build your own ladder by getting out of the matrix! I love how you liken the ladder to be made out of aluminium, pure genius.
Too many people are afraid of getting out of the matrix to build their own ladder. If you ask me, the ladder given to them may be stable, but you can’t get a good view from it. If you build your own, you can soar. You just got to take it step by step. 


thegirlinorange April 9, 2012 at 3:46 am

It’ always funny how we want something for our future selves and invest lots of energy and time in it and when the time comes, more often than not, our future selves say, no, thank you, but I didn’t ask for this. (aka, wanting to be the boss you hate)


kingneece1 April 9, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Our University of Alabama patented personal solar desalination product (U.S. Made) uses no electricity, can be taken anywhere and extracts pure water from any contaminated water source. It removes radiation, fluoride, salt, pesticides, bacteria, dirt and other contaminants from any water source.


Bruno Coelho October 4, 2012 at 12:53 am

“What do 70% of successful entrepreneurs have in common? They all incubated their business ideas while employed by someone else.” from

Loved your article about The Ladder concept Joel! Even yesterday I was thinking about this concept for my own ladder at The Rabbit Way.

Like the HBR article suggests: we can build our ladder while standing on the Corporate ladder. We must remember that we can’t stand with both feet on each ladder for ever…

And I also agree with the previous comments before me about how HUGELY important it is to surround ourselves with people on the same journey. Like I say: surrounding yourself with the best will bring out your best! What better way to do this than in Trailblazer/Paid2Exist? :)


BenHolt March 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm

 @jakyastik Thanks for the good wishes for “Jump!”
I definitely believe in modeling (let’s be honest: “copying”) others to accelerate the process. It’s still important to see what works for me, but the stories of others give valuable insight!


AnnieAndreHacks March 26, 2012 at 3:29 am

 @BenHolt Hi Ben,
Yes i’m part of 2 mastermind groups and  absolutely love them. I moved to the south of france with my husband and 3 kids where i’m working on my personal goals so i have nothing to do except climb my ladder and i love it. It removes me from my day to day life and takes out completely the conventional element which used to surround me EVERY single day. 


BenHolt March 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

 @AnnieAndreHacks That all sounds amazing! I love hearing people’s stories about living what they love.
Regarding mastermind groups, I’m looking at putting one or two together. Would you mind if I picked your brain for 10-15 minutes, on Skype or a G+ Hangout, about what works and what doesn’t? If you’re interested, just email me at ben at Whether “yes” or “no”, have a blast in France!


candicemajor March 30, 2012 at 7:31 am

 @AliaA  @candicemajor I’ve honestly never thought of it that way. Your explanation makes me feel better about who I am. Thank you so much. 


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