The career ladder: a poor metaphor

Last Sunday, I read an article called How to Improve Your Mindset. This paragraph jumped out at me:

We look down at people who climb the career ladder slowly (or not at all) because why would you not get to the top of a ladder as fast as possible? That’s the whole point of a ladder.

No, it’s not. The point of a ladder is not to get you the top of it as fast as possible. The point of a ladder is to give you temporary access to things you can’t reach from the ground.

Source. Notice how there is nothing at the top of the ladder. In a google image search for ‘climbing career ladder’, I didn’t find any pictures that showed a destination at the top of the ladder.

Ladders get you close to your goal, closer than you can get without them, but the top of the ladder isn’t a goal, and speed on the way up is rarely relevant. Being able to reach whatever it is you’re needing to fix is the goal, and to get there and back without injuring yourself.

If I’m changing a lightbulb, I have to use a ladder to reach the bulb but I have zero need to climb to the top of the ladder – I only need to go up the ladder far enough to reach the lightbulb. Likewise if I am using the ladder to paint my walls, or to get onto my roof to fix a leak. Reaching the top of the ladder is beside the point. Reaching the roof is the point. As is getting back down safely.

I only need to climb up a ladder the minimum distance required to enable my reach. I’m far better to NOT reach the top of the ladder. Almost every ladder comes with warnings about not standing on the top rungs because of their instability at height. Which might be worth pondering in relation to the career ladder.

When you go up a ladder, you almost always plan to come back down. Whatever you’re using the ladder for, it’s temporary. You don’t go up onto your roof and remain there for the rest of your life or until you retire. Having replaced the bulb, you don’t hang out up around the light fittings. It’s a short excursion to lofty heights, then you return to earth.

Point being, the ladder is just a  means to get us temporarily closer to something we want to fix. The top of the ladder is never the goal. Because there is nothing at the top of a ladder. Even the career ladder pictures show that.

It’s probably more important, as the saying goes, to make sure the ladder is against the right wall. And to think about when you will come back down.


Looking after yourself and laundry

Clean Linen

Folding laundry.

It’s surprising how much emotion (almost exclusively negative) those two words evoke. Time and again as I read blogs and browse the web I come across declarations of war against laundry. When I googled “folding laundry”, Images offered me an entire collection titled “Hate”.

When it comes to laundry, the best thing about living alone is that all the laundry is yours. You are entirely in control of the amount of laundry you have to deal with. If you want to wear the same t shirt for a couple of days before washing it, that’s entirely up to you, and if doing so lightens the laundry load, that is merely a bonus. (I’m not advocating slovenliness, but if it passes the sniff test, it doesn’t need laundering.)

Like almost everything in my solo life, I have routines for laundry. I do my laundry on Saturday morning. I have a small laundry with washer and dryer in my house, and I remain grateful for this after years of laundromats. It’s hard to hate doing laundry when I’m aware of how easy it is now.

I don’t wash my bedsheets every week. If I’ve been home sick I will, but otherwise they last two weeks – I merely rotate them, because I only sleep on one side of the bed. I will sometimes wear the same running socks and t-shirt twice if they aren’t too ‘aromatic’, but rarely do they last beyond that. My weekly wash generally comprises towels, (and sheets every other week), tops of varying sorts, underwear, and my running gear. It’s not a huge volume and although I usually do two loads to separate lights and darks, it’s not overwhelming.

Then comes folding it. Actually, I don’t hate this part. I like the smell and feel of the clean and dry clothes as they come out of the dryer, and I like feeling the warmth of them as I fold. I carry them through into the sunny front room and fold on the table. It is a pleasurable sensation, the warmth of the sun and the residual warmth from the dryer, as well as the clean-linen smell. And truthfully, nothing takes more than a few seconds to fold and stack.

This morning, as I was folding my pyjamas, I became aware that I was enjoying this time. It’s a task that needs doing, one of those perfectly ordinary things that keep life going, but I became aware that what I was doing was actually an act of taking care of myself. So often, these routine tasks and chores are things I race through to get them done, seeing them as simply necessary to fend off the demons of entropy, without ever really thinking of them as maintaining my well being.

I don’t want to imply that I’ve gained enlightenment and laundry now provides me with access to the mysteries of the universe. My moment of awareness was far more prosaic than that. More along the lines of, “Who knew – laundry is part of looking after myself,  and not just something I have to do.”



Entertaining by yourself

About three years ago, I decided it was time I repaid all the invitations I’d had over the years and start entertaining people in my own home. The impetus was twofold: I finally owned a house that felt like ‘me’ so I was happy to invite friends in; and I received a gift from the real estate company who brokered the deal for my house in the form of a catered dinner for 6 to say, ‘thank you for giving us a big wad of your money when you bought your house’.

It took a while before the house and I were ready to entertain (I had to get a new kitchen installed, for one thing), but eventually I invited 5 friends and got busy heating up the rather elegant meal delivered to my doorstep.

This is the easiest way to entertain alone: get someone else to cook the food. The only real challenge in this escapade was finding 5 friends, since most people come in pairs. I managed to find a friend whose wife was out of town so he made a 5th. We had a fine evening, good company and conversation, and the food was more delicious than I could have produced.

Doing the cooking myself is a different challenge. I have found that cooking for a couple plus myself is fine and if I plan the menu right, it’s not too hard to get food onto the table without abandoning my guests while I cook. My kitchen is not entirely open plan and besides, I can’t cook and talk at the same time, so preparation is key, as is having things that don’t require precision timing.

Cooking for larger groups can be difficult because I struggle to get the quantities right. I’m used to gauging how much is right for one and it’s hard to scale up. Roasts are good – they just sit and cook with no intervention required, and they make the house smell delicious when the guests arrive. Also: leftovers.

But cooking is only one part of the challenge of solo entertaining. The social advantage of having two or more couples over is that they can talk to each other while I crash around in the kitchen. This takes the pressure off me to be both Witty Conversationalist and MasterChef at the same time. Conversely, entertaining just one couple can be tricky because they don’t want to entertain each other while I cook, so I try to cook and talk with the result that the broccoli gets boiled to death.

In A House By The Sea, May Sarton wrote,

Only people who live alone … can understand the agitation that “entertaining” even a single guest induces.

Guests don’t really come for food, at least not in my case: they could eat better at any of hundreds of restaurants in town or in their own homes. They come to see me and spend time talking with me. This causes me great anxiety because I will have to keep the conversation going all evening. I will have to think of things to talk about, and to respond to and delve into what they say. Sometimes it can be very draining listening to others talk, not because they are boring but simply because listening well takes focus and concentration, and that is tiring.

Since I got sick two years ago, it’s been harder and harder to muster the energy to entertain at home. Consequently, I’ve done little recently. I’ve resorted to going out to a restaurant occasionally, or cooking lunch or dinner for one friend at a time. I have found this both manageable and enjoyable. There’s something relaxing and intimate about having a friend stand at one end of the kitchen bench with a glass of wine, bringing me up to date with the goings on in their life, while I stir stock into a risotto.

There’s a nice symmetry here: I live alone, I entertain one person at a time. It works.


Giving myself permission

When I was writing about adaptation in my last post, I ended with a phrase that bothered me even as I wrote it:

If the world isn’t going to allow me…

Of course the world isn’t going to “allow” me. I need to allow myself. I’ll be waiting a very long time before the world gets around to it. As they say, better to ask forgiveness than permission.

It turns out that giving myself permission is much harder than I thought.

This past week, my friend T came to stay for a night. We were talking about what she’s going to do next now that her youngest has successfully launched into independence. She said that she’d like to travel for a year, and listed off a number of places she’s thinking about. I responded enthusiastically, supporting her idea and encouraging her to be brave and do it. She lit up and got more specific about her plans as we talked, and I have no doubt she’ll be booking it all soon.

Most of us test out our ideas about how we’re going to live on our friends and family in this way. We’re seeking encouragement and support because no matter how brave we are, having the support of others in our madcap adventures feels so much better than going it alone.

If our ideas about how we live conform to social expectations, then we generally get a positive response. I have no desire to embark on the kind of travel adventure that T wants to do, but my reaction was driven not by what I think she “should” do with her life but by the signals I could read in her eyes and body as she put forward her ideas. It was obvious to me that she really wanted to do this, but that she was a bit scared it might be a slightly mad thing to do (her job? income while she’s away? what she’ll come back to? risk? etc.)

T is genuinely passionate about travel, so her plans reflect her desires and interests. Her circle of friends Approves and Endorses such travel, so she’s going to get support when she shares her ideas. Feeling entitled to pursue your dreams is so much easier when your circle supports your interests and passions. It is very difficult to feel that degree of entitlement when what you value and want to pursue are things that your circle thinks are uninteresting, pointless, or which they actively deride.

So there is strong pressure to espouse the values and passions of one’s circle in order to gain support and encouragement. That way lies adaptability. Ideally of course our circle would support and encourage whatever passions and interests we have, but circles are made up of real people not enlightened beings.

Change your circle then! Get new friends who share and support your interests! Just do it anyway – who cares what they think!

People who don’t care what others think are called sociopaths. T and I have been friends for 40 years. I’m not about to ditch her friendship just because she doesn’t understand why the idea of cycling through monsoons in Vietnam holds no appeal for me where visiting a remote monastery in Norway does.

What puzzles me is why this should be. I can understand what she enjoys about her choice of travel, even though I wouldn’t want to do it myself. But it seems to be difficult for her to accept that I enjoy something different and that it’s not because I haven’t tried the alternative. She makes a brave effort, and she doesn’t openly disparage my choices, but she can’t help herself: “you should go to Vietnam…”

So I have given myself permission not to go to Vietnam.







The cost of adapting

I’m re-reading Anthony Storr’s Solitude. It’s a better choice than WikiHow for sensible thinking on alone-ness.

In chapter 5, he writes,

If the individual regards the external world merely as something to which he* has to adapt, rather than as something in which his subjectivity can find fulfilment, his individuality disappears and his life becomes meaningless or futile.

It occurred to me that in writing about my approach to clothing the other week, I was seeking to adapt rather than find fulfilment. I hesitantly entertained the idea that maybe this was my approach to life.

Adaptation as a way of life has merit as an evolutionary strategy, but I think Storr is right: it’s not the best way to find fulfilment.

To one degree or another, I’m sure most people find themselves adapting and conforming much of the time. It’s how we get along. But it’s one thing to adapt one’s behaviour to oil the machinery of society and work, and quite another to adapt one’s whole sense of self and identity in order to conform to some other-imposed ideal.

Where I find myself overly adapting is the bigger question about how to live my life. It astonishes me how frequently my friends use the phrase “you should…” when talking to me. (I made a conscious effort years ago to banish “should” and substitute “could”. That one consonant makes a big difference.)

I am not entirely sure what it is I am doing that makes other people think they are in a position to to tell me how to live my life. I remain unclear on why I “should” join a golf club, go for drinks after work (when I’ve been asked, and declined), get out more, join a dating site, wear different clothes. What I hear them saying is, “you’re not okay the the way you are, you need to be more like us”. And the implied threat: if you don’t change to be like us, we won’t like you any more. [All of life’s big confrontations reduce to the playground.]

I seem to be particularly susceptible to this kind of pressure, no doubt as a result of a lifetime of being subjected to it at home (be how we want you to be or Bad Things Will Happen – nameless bad things, but nameless bad things are the worst because there is no limit on how bad they could be). On the plus side, I am now alert to this, and my ‘should’-alarm rings loudly. But even though I hear the “should” for what it is, the threat of “bad things” is much harder to ignore.

Bad things take many forms. I fear being ostracised. I fear that if I search for my own subjective fulfilment in the world, I will be mocked, spurned, ignored, cast out into the wilderness, cut off, exiled, rejected, scorned. The world will say “no, you’re not entitled”.

I’m not wistfully pining for the courage to dress flamboyantly, ride a unicycle and communicate only through interpretive dance. I just want to go about my business—reading books, thinking about things, drawing, looking at art, walking, running, enjoying a cup of coffee—on my own.  That’s all. I want to feel entitled to enjoy what appeals to me that the world has to offer, without feeling like I must first justify my existence let alone my choices.

That would be how I obtain my “subjective fulfilment” in the world. But if the world isn’t going to allow me to do that, you can’t blame me for staying home.


*Anthony Storr was born in 1920 so I am prepared to forgive his use of the male pronoun exclusively, although by 1988 when this book was first published, he should (!) have known better.