Climb the Right Ladder

Stephen Kellogg

Over the weekend I heard a talk and short performance piece by Stephen Kellogg, an independent musician who was speaking at the annual TEDxConcordiaUPortland event.

Stephen talked about the joy of work. From a young age, he always wanted to be a touring musician, with fans, albums, and concerts. He loves what he does and feels fortunate to have the chance to reach audiences with his music.

One of the things he said stuck with me:

It’s better to be at the bottom of the ladder you want to climb than the top of the one you don’t.

When he started playing music, no one had heard of him and it took a long time to build a foundation. But it didn’t matter that he didn’t have the fans, albums, and paying gigs. What mattered was the chance to do it.

I felt the same way when I started writing. The early work I published wasn’t very good (and the work that I didn’t share was worse!), but it still felt good to be doing it. When I woke up in the morning I immediately thought about what I’d work on for the next few hours. At night I’d go to bed thinking about how I could improve the next day.

When I started doing events, I was terrified—but in a good way. When I got the chance to write my first book, I was thrilled! I too felt like I was climbing the right ladder, even if I was at the bottom of it, and even though I had a long way to go.


Stephen also said that it’s possible to love your work no matter what it is. He talked about a brief job he had as a teenager at a pharmacy. The work was boring and lifeless, but once he connected it to something he wanted—the money to call his girlfriend, who lived 45 minutes away and eventually became his wife—he did it with joy.

I felt the same way years ago when Jolie and I first went to West Africa to live on board a hospital ship. I initially had a menial assignment of moving boxes around and managing a warehouse, but it felt great! I loved it. The joy I felt through contributing to something meaningful greatly exceeded the menial nature of the task.

Whenever I get off track I refocus by thinking about what I’m motivated to do. Most of us complete our best work when we enjoy the investment of time and energy we put into the task at hand. But as I heard the other day, it’s also possible to enjoy it even if it’s not amazing on the outside.

Are you climbing the right ladder?

Do you find joy in your work whatever it is?

Comments here.


Image: Garrett Downen

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  • Jesse Barger says:

    The second part of this really strikes a chord with me. Our new business is in medical equipment service, consulting, and sales which is definitely not “sexy” at first glance. However, we’ve taken steps to still go about running it in a non-conventional way. I feel that regardless of what you do, you can still be creative and artistic in the process.

    Awesome article, It’s inspired me to write on my blog about this topic as well.

  • Sean says:

    Great thought – especially for a Monday! To your second point, even if you’re currently doing something you might not completely love, I’ve found that by doing it really well and “over-delivering”, it leads to the stuff you DO want to do. Then, you’re climbing your own ladder and it feels really good!

  • Matthew Bailey says:

    I feel I am always questioning which ladder to climb but I definitely like the current one the best so far. Being able to write about challenging limiting beliefs and adventure and travel hacking feels so right. Meeting people all over the world has been a great journey as well.

    With the job parts, I have had a hard time in the past but I do typically find things I enjoy with them. Working outdoors as a labourer was great for the fitness and being in the sun. Working in corporate jobs introduced me to do some great friends and I liked the social aspect of it. All of them funded travel.

    It’s a great way to look at work if you don’t totally enjoy it and use the free time to work towards a goal that gets you excited.

    Wish I could have been at that TEDX. sounded amazing.

  • Ariana says:

    I love this. I used to say, “I’m totally willing to pay my dues to be successful. I just want to make sure I’m not paying my dues to the wrong bank.” Great post, Chris.

  • Antonia Lo Giudice says:

    “Climb the right ladder”, isn’t this just the perfect, most simplest way to describe a wealth of wisdom behind a meaningful life? WOW!!!

    During the first 8 years I worked at a big Canadian corporation, I loved it! I felt like both Stephen and yourself have described. I was leading several teams, developing them to exceed their limits and reach their potential. At some point, with a huge structural change within the company, the focus was no longer on the people, but…hmmm let’s just say it was focused on getting the numbers:) I lost the joy of going to work every morning…It lead to my taking a major leap in my life…Now, starting for way at the bottom of the latter, the spark and joy is back. Although, I have loooooong way to go to reach the top again, the actual journey is priceless and exciting!

    Thanks for sharing Chris:)

  • Courtney says:

    Thank you as always for writing what I need to hear. I struggle with currently being in a position I no longer want to be in, but being towards the top of that ladder..and wanting to move into something where I barely even know where the ladder is. You have helped me with my goals and to continue fighting to get to the right place for me, even if it’s not the place everyone else thinks is “right”.

  • Ara Bedrossian says:

    I’m at a stage which I think many may be at also, where we’re looking at the right ladder, we’ve identified the right one, for us, for this time of our lives at least, but we can’t consistently will the strength to pull ourselves up.
    At these times, I like to ask myself this question, and I recommend it to others who are in the same boat:
    “If you don’t do your work towards getting up this ladder, you know how you’re going to feel at the end of the day. Do you want to feel that dejection?”
    And then I do the work, and put in that time. Because, as you say, even if it’s poor work, it needs to get done so you can climb up further and start doing your good stuff, and soon, your great stuff.

  • Jo Warwick says:

    I loved this and it was so on point for me – such simple yet true words to be climbing the ladder I want to be climbing. I have actually spent too much time finding the joy in things I didn’t want to be doing – making the best of a bad job but I am now on a journey of climbing up MY ladder – the one I was meant to climb. I tried a few others and it was a struggle often and hard work – now the climbing doesn’t seem so hard because it is what my heart really wants to be doing. However I accept though I needed to climb a few other ladders first to get the skills and experience to prepare me for my RIGHT ladder .. 🙂

  • Karin Worth says:

    Thanks for this uplifting post. Currently starting over at the bottom of the ladder that I’ve always wanted to climb after leaving the cushy-ness of a different easy one. Thanks.

  • Kristina Thorpe says:

    I’ve found almost every ladder in my life serendipitously. The few I’ve climbed most successfully, I’ve stepped up each rung mindfully.

    Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the gratitude and joy had by mindful climbing. (:

  • Erin McNaughton says:

    I’ve been following Stephen Kellogg for about 7 years, so I love that you’ve mentioned him. It’s easy to tell when someone is genuine and doing what they love. It’s even better when you see the the lyrics about relentlessly pursuing your dreams, hopelessly falling in love, and being the best father possible translate to real life. I’ve seen him perform several times and he could not say “thank you” enough–to his band mates, his wife, his daughter, his fans, and the past challenges that brought him to where he is today.

    Those who most strike a chord with us tend to be those who are passionate and grateful for what’s going on in their lives, whether conventionally seen as “good” or “bad”. And it doesn’t matter if their work is in music, quantum physics, or entrepreneurship–you can feel their conviction. Finding your right ladder and reveling in each rung towards the top, towards your dreams seems to be the surest path to success and contentment.

    I’m currently not on my right ladder, and need to find to courage to step down from my current safe but limiting place and hop onto a new ladder, even though I’m not looking forward to the initial risky and uncomfortable steps.

  • Joan Harrison says:

    I can so relate to this article Chris. I have just started a site and wake up early thinking about my subject.
    It is an incredible feeling to be able to reach so many with the knowledge I have, instead of sitting one to one in a therapy situation. The down side is the work involved in trying to get yourself noticed; this can be positively painful and distracts from the real work. Some days I feel so confused with the amount of work that needs to be invested, but the passion keeps me going. Thanks for the reminder about where I need to be – at the foot of the right ladder.

  • Anita Chase says:

    This was a great reminder for today. I have always been a performing musician as well, but the last few years that has been pushed aside for other things, such as my day job. I am doing well at my day job, but I feel it is making me very complacent and tired. I have decided to send in a proposal this week to cut my hours so I can refocus on doing what I love, even if it doesn’t have the same financial security. I have enjoyed learning and growing at my “pays the bills” job, but it is time to reconnect with my passion and wake up again!

  • Janelle says:

    Yes! I’ve been preaching this all morning; it feels good to get an affirmation from AONC.

    Just this morning I declined an opportunity for a year-long consulting contract that I didn’t want in the first place. I was scared to say no, but it all came down to the fact that I know the trail I want to blaze and going back to being a contract employee is not part of that vision.

  • Dean King says:

    Good stuff. Living authentically is a marvellous goal, but sadly something that eludes many people. It’s a regular theme in my therapy room, often dressed up as something else, which is an amazing parallel irony.
    There are so many pressures to be something other than true to oneself and one’s dreams.
    As the British band The Levellers said, ‘there’s only one way of life, and that’s your own.’
    Thanks for the nudge towards Mr Kellog.

  • Natalie the Singingfool says:

    I was trying to explain the “climbing the right ladder” idea to someone yesterday – I wish I had that metaphor on hand at the time!

  • Pat Larsen says:

    People always get discouraged by the amount of work it will take to become “good” at what they know they love. Stephen King talks about how much work it takes to become a writer. Robert Greene has great insights in his book, “Mastery” and then Seth Godin outlines the hard parts very well in “The Dip”.
    Really- you need to go after it, stay motivated, find inspiration and motivation- and just stay with it long enough to get good.
    Thanks for the great post.
    I’m learning to be a writer now and the discipline involved is daunting but so worth it to be able to think, express and communicate well.

  • Caroline Frenette says:

    It really is all about attitude.

    I used to have this conversation with one of my employee who hated cleaning the store (it was beneath her to have to clean anything). I tried (unsuccessfully) to remind her that it’s all about the energy or attitude that she brings to it: crank up the music and dance while cleaning the floor!

  • Karen Renee says:

    As I look up the ladder I’ve chosen it becomes a tree full of glorious branches, some reaching high toward the clouds and offering incredible views. And, you know?.. no matter what part of the tree I am in, the fruit will be bright, flavorful and nutritious.

    It’s a relief to know I will help someone with what I’ve discovered … and that I have the rest of my life to make that fruit into jam, trail mix, and other useful consumables for people who need them. (I feel the constriction of an illustration taken too far. Heh!)

    Thanks for the inspiration, Chris. I need someone like you ahead of me to open my eyes to possibility.

  • Michael Kennedy says:

    My problem isn’t the ladder. My ladder is often leaning on the wrong wall.

  • Darnell Jackson says:

    Excellent post Chris,

    I feel the same way that’s why I left corporate America.

    If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.

    It’s better to spend your days and nights working on something important

  • Sam Davies says:

    I love to write as welll Chris. I write for my blog and Lifehack and even if no one comments on my posts, it doesn’t matter, because I do it for me and how it makes me feel. Love ‘work’.

  • Shannon Lagasse says:

    I’ve been working on my business for years and, even when I wasn’t getting clients, I still loved what I did because I was providing value. Almost every day, I get emails from readers who send their gratitude for my blog and my newsletters or my videos. This is really why I do the work I do: for the impact it has.
    I choose jobs, even low-paying jobs, to support me as I grow my business because I want to be in a field that I love. I’ve been living and working in community for almost 2 years now because it puts a roof over my head and food in my mouth while I’m growing my business to a full-time venture, and because it places me in a community of people who inspire me.
    So, I’m in the same boat: only work for who you want to work for. If someone treats me like shit or if I just stop liking my job, I move on. Because I know jobs are not forever. They are stepping stones to creating the career I want for myself (the world of the self-employed).

  • Matt Stormont says:

    Likewise, I was inspired by Stephen’s TEDx talk. His ladder analogy hit me deep, especially as I am beginning a new job in a week. Sorry I missed connecting with you on Saturday. I was busy getting peoe fired up about growing their own produce at the TogetherFarm activity station!

  • Brooke says:

    What great timing. Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking the same thing over at my site. I think its important to keep our professional life in perspective, especially when we are doing what we love and things get challenging. A wonderful reminder that it’s a gift to at the very least be climbing a ladder of our choosing and passion.

  • Lindy says:

    This is so true! I know I’m not willing to dedicate a life to “being successful” in today’s terms, but I never really looked at it this way.
    I’m ready to climb my ladder!

  • Fayola says:

    I loved the quote. I really struggled with the second question though. Before I left the high-powered job I hated I felt so guilty that I could not find joy in it. I felt ungrateful and basically like a brat for being unhappy. Pretty soon I gave up trying to find the joy and tried to find the right ladder instead.

  • Jehangir says:

    There are two ladders that we can choose to climb. One is called safety and the other is called freedom. However high you rise up the second, it will always feel good.

  • Eryc Eyl says:

    Such great stuff! I love when wisdom comes from unexpected places — like musicians! Kidding, of course. But seriously, thanks for sharing this. Kellogg’s ladder quote reminds me of some of Stephen Covey’s statements. Specifically, I’m reminded of these two: (1) “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster,” and (2) “Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

  • Darick says:

    Just what I needed to read this morning. I’ve been working for months on a project that I know is going to ultimately change my life forever. Yesterday I was feeling completely burnt out, and I knew it was severe because I couldn’t bring myself to power on anything that connected me to the interweb. I felt like I was making a mistake and self-doubt was creeping it’s way into my foggy brain. So I did what I thought might help. I slept on it for 12 hours. I woke up this morning and tried to snap out of it. I considered the alternative to my project, which is head back to a job I can’t stand and toss creativity and passion out the window once again. How the heck did I forget how miserable that life is? So even though my life changing project currently involves no income, tons of hours spent writing, planning, and physically preparing for a 1300 mile walk across 4 states, I couldn’t be happier because I know I am climbing the right ladder for once in my life! Thanks for this post, Chris!

  • Jen says:

    Great post as always… about to start climbing the right ladder, have climbed the wrong ladder once and almost did it a second time… tempting on your journey to get sidetracked into doing stuff for money.. your post came at just the right time… reminded me there’s only one ladder I want to climb..thanks ..much appreciated

  • Ian Robinson says:

    Great stuff. It’s important to realize that there are other ladders out there too. Once you get up a ladder and realize that it’s not the right one:

    Be brave and jump off!


  • Josh Hersh says:

    “It’s better to be at the bottom of the ladder you want to climb than the top of the one you don’t.” – Stephen Kellogg

    That quote made my day!!! Sharing it far and wide! Thanks, Chris!

  • Shankar says:

    For two decades, I was climbing the wrong ladder. And then, i gathered enough courage to be where I am now.
    Shankar, India

  • Susan says:

    I’m sending this post to a good friend who is in the UK on tour with a band. It’s not HIS band and it’s not HIS music and it’s not HIS dream. Yesterday he said this in an email, “The reality of being here for two weeks makes me unsure how I’ll be able to get through something longer…”. When he get’s home I am going to do everything I can to help him pursue HIS dream! Thank you for this reminder, Chris.

  • S Williams says:

    I loved the quote about climbing the ladder.

    As for the second part about it being possible to love your work no matter what you’re doing, I find that most people can find happiness in their job, but it only leads them to feel contentment. They never really feel the happiness that they would if they were just to pursue what they’re passionate about.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Doug H says:

    I so agree with this quote. I was at this TEDx event and got to hear this talk. It was very encouraging and I though of you, Chris as he was talking and how the things you have said and written have inspired me to find more happiness in my work. Sad I didn’t get to meet you at the TEDx event – maybe next time :). Thanks again!

  • Akinsola says:

    I am definitely enjoying mine even with all the demands and working around the clock,it was what i love to do am really doing and I would be successful in it at the end.

  • Sharon Knight says:

    Oh yes, this! This so resonates with me! I am also an independent musician and the satisfaction of climbing the right ladder makes all the uncertainty worthwhile. See you in July!

  • Luzia Light says:

    You can love any job if
    a) the people you work with are fun
    b) you work in a beautiful location
    c) it’s not 9-5, but you can go home when the work is done

    But really mostly work is about relationships. If the relationships with co-workers, clients, patients, customers, agents, managers, bosses, staff etc. are great, it’s easy to be happy at work.

  • Ara Bedrossian says:

    Luzia has hit the nail on the head.
    Who you work with is just as important, maybe more, than what you do.

  • Sarah Russell says:

    What a great way to look at things 🙂

    Right now, I feel like I’m in the middle of one ladder, with several others alongside me that look equally as appealing. As a result, figuring out which ladder to climb (and whether or not I’m on the right one to begin with) is both a daunting prospect and more exciting than I can put into words. Too many options, too little time!

  • Willow says:

    Brilliantly said! I just finished a volunteer shift for a local hunger-fighting organization, and the work I was doing was incredibly dull and repetitive… but I was so happy to be there, because it was for a cause I was enthusiastic about. I think the problem lies in identifying, and taking a moment to appreciate, what those less-interesting jobs are in life. What I mean is, if I were doing the same menial task for myself, I might tell myself “I just have to get this done and over with, then I won’t have to worry about it anymore”… when really I should be thinking “Getting this done is the only way to get me from point A to point B, where I really want to go”. It’s a small shift in attitude, but an important one!

  • Alex Blackwell says:

    After reading this, I think I need to find a new ladder and then find the courage to take the first.

    Thanks for making me think….


  • Tom Owens says:

    Once again, Chris appears with the right words at the right time. Thank you! I’m blogging every week and loving it. I want to be the Santa Claus of Ideas. I will not die a mental miser. The more I give, the more joy I get. If I can share any experience or insight, it makes me all the richer. I’m happy at the bottom rung, knowing that I’m not stuck at the top step to a dead end.

  • Tony says:

    Great stories; thank you for sharing. The “right ladder” concept really resonates.

  • Rick Reynolds says:

    Right on, Chris and friends…it was such as great talk, and Stephen’s music is even better. He has a brand new album out and you can download a great 10-minute song free this week.

  • Chris Badgett says:

    The ladder metaphor is key. When you lean your ladder against a particular wall, it’s important to make sure it’s your choice. Is someone else moving the ladder? Are you putting the ladder on a particular wall to please others or society?

  • Dave Crenshaw says:

    This is very inspiring. Thanks for posting Chris!

  • Mario Zaldivar says:

    When you get to the top of a ladder use it to put another above it. Just be sure that all the ladders are a solid structure.

  • Chas says:

    “As you climb the ladder of success, be sure it’s leaning against the right building.” ~Quoted in P.S. I Love You, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

  • Guus says:

    I still feel like I’m on the right ladder, but somehow, something is blocking the way. And until now I can’t figure out what it is.

    Great quote though. I sent it today as our daily quote.

  • Brooke says:

    I love this ladder quote. We all need to remind ourselves of this and put our pride and thirst for appearance of success aside sometimes in lieu of a living a more meaningful and rewarding life

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