Why do some people seem to be continually making progress in life while others stagnate?
How do two people with similar talents, backgrounds, and commitment diverge, with one seemingly sailing through milestones and accomplishments while the other languishes in place?
The difference is the path they take to their goals.
No matter what your goal is, you will hit obstacles along the way. Some of them you’ll be able to power through. But others will remain impassable no matter how hard you try.
Those who are constantly moving ahead have an eye for opportunities, and know when it’s time to change their approach. Those who are constantly getting stuck have internalized the belief that their only option for progress is what’s directly ahead of them.
You can’t climb a mountain by charging straight up it. You need to navigate around the obstacles that would stop you, and find a path to the top.
Wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, you have options for how to get there. When you’re stuck, there’s always another direction you can go that will get you moving again. There’s always progress you can make; sometimes it’s just not in the direction you’ve been looking.
Break Away from the Ladder Mindset
We’ve all gotten very comfortable with the idea of the corporate ladder as a metaphor for career progress. In case you’ve somehow missed it, it goes basically like this:
You start at the bottom of the ladder. Work hard, deliver results, and with time you’ll move up to the next rung on the ladder. On each rung, the pay, recognition, and creative freedom get a little better. Repeat this process until you either die or make it to the top.
The ladder mindset offers a straight and narrow progression to a specific goal. One step, then the next step, all the way up. There’s nothing to distinguish one person’s climb from the next.
Well, here’s some news: it doesn’t work that way out in the rest of the world. In fact, it doesn’t even really work that way in the corporate world. Ironically, people who rapidly move “up the ladder” in their careers tend to do it by shifting their approach, taking on new roles, and going where the opportunities are.
Real progress is messy. It’s not always linear, and everyone’s story looks a little bit different.
Sometimes, you just hit an impassable wall. When you do, you have two options: stay put, or look for another way around. That is the difference between making consistent progress and getting completely stuck.
Making Progress on a Field of Opportunities
If you stay where you are and stare straight ahead, the only opportunities you’ll see are the ones directly in front of you. The ladder mindset gives a one-dimensional path through a three-dimensional world.
When you treat your challenge as multi-dimensional, widen your field of vision, you can see more of your options. A flood of new opportunities present themselves.
What if, instead of a ladder, we thought of progress as a football field? Really, any sport with a goal at each end and a kerfuffle in the middle will do. I’m going with American football.
If players treated the game as a linear progression, a straight line across the field, the sport wouldn’t be too fun to watch. You’d see one guy charge dead ahead with the ball, be blocked immediately, continue until possession changes, and then repeat.
But they don’t do that, do they? Sure, now and then they plow straight ahead, but more often, they look left and right. They pivot, looking for an open opportunity to make progress toward the goal. They pass the ball to a teammate. Sometimes they even take a few steps backward to be able to reach a new path forward.
The yard lines on a football field may give the impression of rungs on a ladder — they even have numbers to show a team’s progress. But that doesn’t mean that the climb is always straight ahead. An endzone is wide, and can be reached from many angles.
Winning a football game isn’t just about speed and brute force to charge ahead. It’s about agility, adaptability, and an open mind for opportunities. Sometimes it’s about working harder, and sometimes it’s about working smarter — most of the time, it’s about doing both.
Making Progress on Your Own Goals
Everyone’s goals are unique, and so are their paths to achieving them. Just because you’re feeling stuck right now doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. It’s time to get off the ladder and look around to find the next step.
You (yes, you, Reader) are awesome. You are a complex and capable person with a unique set of skills, passions, and strengths. If those things aren’t moving you forward from the spot you’re in right now, there’s another place where they will.
The story of your life so far cannot be told as a straight line of one foot ahead of the other, and neither can the story of the life ahead of you. On the ladder, you have only one opportunity – the next one in line. On an open field, you are surrounded by opportunities.
Take a look at some of the most common obstacles that may make you feel stuck, and how you can get off the ladder to start making progress again:
No More Room at the Top
If you’re hitting a ceiling in your current job, you don’t have to stay in that position. Plants outgrow their pots, and you can outgrow your job.
Look around for a new team, a new company, or even a new industry. Or maybe it’s time to strike out on your own. There is somewhere else out there where you can do the work you love at a higher level and find greater fulfillment. There are always other opportunities where you can continue growing, evolving, and making progress.
That’s right, it’s not just for writers anymore. When you do any creative work, there are moments where the juice just. isn’t. flowing. That’s when it’s time to try something different.
You could start from scratch to see your project with fresh eyes; work on something else entirely for a little while to come back with a new perspective; allow yourself a break to settle down and get your energy back. Poke at the problem until you find a way past it that works for you.
The Fitness Plateau
Are you putting in all of the work to reach your next workout goal, but not seeing the same results you used to? It’s probably time to shake up your routine.
Try some new exercises; run some sprints instead of distance; do some distance running instead of sprints; add more weight; take some weight away; do way more reps; do way fewer reps. Whatever you did last week, just don’t do that. Keep your body confused to keep it growing.
Falling Out of Love with Your Situation
As life goes on, we all grow, develop, and change. Things that used to work for us just aren’t working anymore. We stop watching TV shows or listening to music that no longer fit with who we are and what we want, so why should it be any different with jobs we don’t like, relationships that drag us down, or places that make us feel trapped?
Ask yourself what parts of your life situation are no longer working for you, and what you want them to be instead. Most likely, you already know the answers and the changes you want to make, but fear is holding you back. Don’t let it. Take the first step.
Progress toward where you’re going often requires change in how you’re going there. Take risks, ask questions that will help you navigate, make changes to your approach. Look for your path where it is, not just where you are. It’s a big wide world and you can choose your own way through it.