The Infinite Ladder
A framework for the delicate balance of growth.
It’s a rainy Sunday in December and I’m about to pack my suitcases for the annual Christmas trip to Germany. It’s the perfect time to get a hot cup of tea and review the year, to revisit the goals and plans, to celebrate accomplishments, and to reflect on the ideas that became a reality. Or is it?
Is that really how we should measure a year?
First off, I suspect that many people don’t make much progress in any given year. Time passes, things happen, and lives unfold almost on autopilot. The year brought some happiness, some pain, and offered a few lessons. Some money was saved, perhaps. Precious few memories remain. If you think of progress as an arrow, I suspect it would be pretty flat. Kind of depressing.
But that’s not the case for you, dear reader, is it?
No. You’re ambitious, smart, hard-working, and focused.
You read the good stuff. You go to the gym armed with the right podcasts. You’re on Twitter, not TikTok (I hope?). You’ve set yourself goals and you’re playing to win. You’re in the arena of your life, working, learning, striving, taking shots on goal. Your arrow is supposed to go up. Way up!
Not in a straight line, of course. You understand there will always be setbacks. Progress will oscillate. Still: that arrow is supposed to go up. Way up.
Remember the four quadrants of Marshmallow Mind? Your arrow is supposed to follow that invisible path, up and to the right. Your arrow is a ladder leading to a truly rich life of success and happiness.
Consider for a moment what a ladder is: a sequence of steps held together by two poles.
What condition has to be true for this to hold?
The two bars must run in parallel. If they don’t, the structure falls apart.
At this point you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.
The ladder represents the two aspects of your life, the duality of your inner and outer worlds. If the inner and outer dimensions of your life are in harmony, they form a ladder. If not, if growth in one area outpaces the other, a gap opens. The longer you keep going, the wider the gap — and the less stable your ladder.
Maybe you’ve experienced a big inner shift. Maybe you’ve healed some wounds, developed new confidence, and ended up with a new perspective on life and a deeper sense of your self-worth. Well, as you step back into your life, you realize that your outer circumstances don’t reflect those changes. How you live, what you do, your relationships, all of it will demand attention and re-alignment. This happened to me this year when suddenly ‘everything in my apartment seemed out of place, like an echo of history.’
Or perhaps it was a Marshmallow Mind kind of year and you’ve leveled up on the outside. You’ve created, crafted, compounded, learned, solved and achieved. But when you find a quiet moment, you feel your ladder starting to bend a little. You sense a tension underneath the surface. Despite the abundance of your outer world, despite all that having and doing, you sense the presence of a void in that gap.
But hey, maybe that won’t stop you. If the ladder breaks, you could still climb a pole. Hold on tight with your hands, wrap your legs around, and slowly pull yourself upwards.
First off, that’s a lot harder than climbing a ladder.
Second, it’s unstable. The further you climb, the more that pole will sway when the next storm hits. And you and I both know there will always be another storm. The outer dimension of our lives is not under our control. Life can throw all kinds of curveballs, including famine, disease, catastrophe, war, and drunk drivers. Entire civilizations rise and fall. When that wind starts howling, there will be no rungs underneath to support you. You will be dangling without inner substance to hold you.
That used to be me. My life revolved around work and when things got rocky, the rest of my life didn’t offer the support I needed. I hadn’t put in the work to build my ladder. This is what happens when we are overly focused on external goals, when we neglect the inner work. Life becomes fragile.
And third: where is that pole really going to lead you? You guessed it.
I believe that we all understand this intuitively. And yet, just as we get distracted from what brings us happiness, we allow our lives to get imbalanced. But why?
Well, success at the outer game requires effort, focus, and time. But it’s totally doable and measurable. The inner game is difficult because it’s non-linear, it doesn’t conform to our desire for a clear link between input and output.
Circles, spirals, and plateaus
Consider who you are today compared to a year or two ago. A good indicator of progress is the feeling of slight embarrassment by the quality of your work or the beliefs you held. Journals are important because your memory is being re-written as we speak. You need hard evidence to show you who you were and what you were thinking.
How much have you really changed? How many of your limiting beliefs are still present? How many bad habits and coping mechanisms still haunt you? It’s hard to tell how much you’ve changed until you bump into yourself on the road, doing what you’d thought you’d long left behind.
The inner game is tough because you keep meeting yourself in ways that are confronting and frustrating. The work you put in, that feeling of being in motion, can be deceiving. Much of the time it feels like we are making progress, but we keep walking in circles.
That’s infuriating to people used to their arrow going up. Shouldn’t that circle ascend, like a stairwell? You’re putting in the work, hence it should take you to higher levels. But often it’s just stairs followed by more stairs that lead you back to meeting yourself. Feels like a rigged game, doesn’t it?
To be clear, I’m not talking about learning.
I’m not talking about reading more books, listening to more podcasts, learning new skills, or mastering more mental models. We’re not counting how many minutes you meditated or how many retreats you went on. Sure, you can count the time you invested. But counting stairs in an Escher drawing will drive you insane.
Progress in the inner dimension is discontinuous. Nothing may happen for a long time, then suddenly everything shifts. Or things are turned upside down in a few minutes or hours and it takes years for you to fully process and integrate what you learned (think of psychedelic experiences).
The inner game requires investment and curiosity without expectations. It asks that you surrender to the process and drop the idea of progress on a particular time frame. Here, the concept of a year has no meaning. Stop grasping and, suddenly, flow will take up to the next level.
Which sounds exciting but, really, just means you’ve entered the next loop.
The Infinite Ladder
Growth in the inner and outer realms will never happen in perfect harmony. It’s the nature of things for gaps to open. It’s not your job to prevent this but to cultivate awareness and re-align your life before your ladder becomes unstable. This is how you follow the invisible path.
You are, of course, neither a ladder nor a circle.
You’re so much more.
You are DNA.
The journey of your life can be a reflection of nature’s elegance, an infinite ladder spiraling ever higher, bonding and balancing your inner and outer dimensions, and connecting you to the larger web of life.
As you recap your year, consider a few questions:
What kinds of goals do I track? What have I achieved and how have I changed?
Am I balancing the ladder of my life? How did I invest my time, attention, and energy? Is this going to lead me down the path I desire long-term?
Does my inner life provide stability during times of volatility? Can I trust the rungs of my ladder to hold me?
What has shifted for me internally? How do I think differently and act differently? Does my life reflect how I changed?
Do I allow my inner journey to unfold rather than trying to direct it from the point of ego?
Allow yourself to step away from the fray for a moment. Look back a few years to find a stronger contrast to your current circumstances. Consult your journals and contemplate major milestones: the decisions you made will make your beliefs visible (major transition points such as relationships, jobs, projects as they began or ended). How have you changed since then?
Look at the rungs of the ladder underneath you. Pat yourself on the shoulder. It’s been a steep climb. I bet you almost forgot.
Here’s to your path, to the life that is unfolding for you. Here is to your infinite ladder.
Thank you for reading.