The Ladder of Success

‘As you climb the ladder of success, be sure its leaning against the right building’

H. Jackson Brown Jr

This post is about decision making and more specifically about decision making on life’s bigger decisions. We can spend days researching and enquiring over a new smart phone purchase but little or no time on major life decisions like whether to have children or not. Many major life decisions seem to be driven by social and family pressure and not given the thought they deserve for each individual case.

To give an example of when I have done this myself: It was back in my teenage years I was doing well at school and the natural progression in the UK for someone who is getting good grades at school is to go to university. Also my school was relatively good so the majority of people were going to university, even those with slightly middling grades. So my question to myself when I was approximately 17 was which university I should go to, not whether I should go or not. This is a fairly major life decision – the costs of going to university when I was that age were fortunately nowhere near what they are today but it did mean 3 or 4 years of my life of further studying and minimal income. So surely I should have been considering alternatives like getting a job, doing and apprenticeship or something like that? I have no regrets about going to university and really enjoyed the whole experience, made some great friends, learned a lot both academically and how to live independently. So if I had given it more thought I believe I would still have gone but I think a lot of people make major life decisions in this manner.

Marriage and kids is the big one for me as my girlfriend and I don’t want to have children. My social circle all seem to be working on the assumption that getting married and having kids is compulsory and the choice lies in who you decide to do this with. However, I’m not even sure of how much choice is going on there as it seems to be that you have to marry who you’re with at a certain age and then have kids with whoever you marry, regardless of how well that relationship is going. So there still seems to be a great deal of social and family pressure in these decisions that can affect the course of your life. I’m sure if my friends all gave these decisions a great deal of thought then most of them would still have kids and still marry their current partners, but I do get the impression that some have walked into their lives without giving it much thought.

Another area people seem to have tied themselves down with little or no thought is their careers. I have friends in areas like law and engineering where their career is directly a result of their university course. They are doing well by social measure and supporting themselves and their family – however in many cases they have been working 80 hour weeks more or less none stop since graduating university and don’t seem to get any enjoyment from work at all. In the UK if you decide to do something like law at university and then get into a career as a solicitor you will have made that decision about doing that course at university when you were approximately 17. At that age (I know this from experience) your typical career adviser will have given you the impression there are only about 10 possible career paths. For example – I was good at Maths so was suggested careers in accounting and actuarial work (I’m glad I ignored them!). I have never met anyone who was told by a career adviser to be an entrepreneur. Also the fact our school career adviser had no experience outside of working at a school doesn’t give them much credibility on advising young minds what path to commit to. Anyway, let’s say you make that decision to study law – it certainly pleases your parents and teachers as it’s a respected and well paid profession. You get the position feedback about your career despite not even having started it yet. This is the societal pressure that is basically making this decision for. Then in your final year of your law degree you would have the big law firms come to the university, ply you with free food and drink, tell you how amazing it is to work for them and talk about salaries that, as a student, seemed life changing. As a broke student you dive straight into your well paid job as a solicitor and this is certainly the path of least resistance. Once started at work you have to spend some time learning the ropes and completing your training contract so that means more study, which your law firm kindly pays for. The hours are long but the pay is rewarding so you see your bank balance steadily increase and with pay rises on the horizon and the potential of making partner on the longer term horizon you settle into your career. Your social circle and family view you as ‘successful’ and you attract a desirable mate which typically sets you down the path of getting married and having children. This gives you other financial commitments but is another tick in society’s box of what a ‘successful’ human looks like. Now, some people will enjoy this type of life and career but others grind it out for the money and dream of a deferred life plan. Derek Sivers has some interesting thoughts on success (Google ‘Derek Sivers success’) but despite what society thinks surely having lots of money and wife and children doesn’t make you successful if you hate your job and are largely absent from home life?

For a while I thought it was just me who thought this way and that everyone else really did want the career and family life of the path they were on. However, I recently read an interesting article on the BBC website about people who regretted having children – they were responsible adults, they loved their children and brought them up well but were open about the personal and financial sacrifices made. They typically said that given the choice they wouldn’t do it if they could go back and relive their lives. Firstly, this is brutally and admirably honest. Secondly, it clearly shows there are intelligent people out there who are not giving these major life changing decisions much thought.

My only suggestion is to be aware of these potential pitfalls and try to pursue things that interest you. Try to strip away what your family and friends think is socially acceptable to get to what you really want. For example, when you think of a career don’t focus on the salary and it’s status in society – think of the day to day work and what it might mean in terms of sacrifices (such as no free time, working weekends etc…). I’m not saying a steady career and bringing up children are bad things to do so if you come to the same decision after giving it a lot of thought then great. But you haven’t lost anything by spending some time to really think it through and if you do come to a different conclusion then it might save you committing a huge amount of your time and resource to something that doesn’t bring you any satisfaction.