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Is Your Ladder Leaning on the Right Wall?

climbing the wrong ladder
❝If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.❞ -Steven Covey

Do well in high school. Go to college after high school. Get a high-paying job. Get married. Start a family. Work hard to support your family and save for retirement. Retire early. Spend your retirement with your grandkids.

This traditional life path was not available to me. I could have done well in high school, but I was distracted by making money and staying out all night. I eventually went to college, but I didn't go after high school and spend my two years in technical college first. I was 25 years old when I graduated from college. My peers had already been climbing the ladder of success with careers and families by the time I was out of college.

I finally made it; I was going to graduate college. I spent my time asking professors what the next step was. What kind of job do I get with a degree in economics? My friends with accounting degrees became accountants. My friends with English degrees became writers. Where's my next step? I'm now able to climb the ladder; I'm excited.

The problem is nobody is telling me where the next rung is. Not being told where to go gave me feelings of fear, frustration, and anger. The question, "What do you want to do?" is something I have never had to think about before. I was looking for that traditional ladder leaning up against a traditional wall - the American Dream, but my professors nudged me to figure out where I actually wanted to go. I had no idea.

Climbing the ladder you think you're supposed to be climbing to get to a place you think you're supposed to go is reactive living. You live your life according to what others have told you to do, and you react to whatever life throws at you. Living proactively takes some hard work up front, but it's worth it.

Where do you want to climb?


What does it mean to "climb the ladder?" It's simple; climbing the ladder simply means moving ahead with your life. That said, climbing a ladder that's leaning against the wrong wall means that you are moving ahead in your life, but in a way that's not getting you to where you want to go.

Thus, you are climbing the wrong if you are using your money in a way that doesn't align with your unique personal values. That could mean you are swayed by your neighbors, influenced by social media, feel envious of your friends, or otherwise distracted from what's actually important to you.

spending on things that aren't important

The opposite of what I've called "wrong wall" spending is "right wall" spending. This means that you know where you want to climb, you've set your ladder against the appropriate wall, and you're taking steps in the right direction.

In money terms, that means that every dollar you spend is on something that is important to you. Every transaction supports your needs and values.

spending money aligned with your values

It's at this point that I have to acknowledge that it is very difficult to align 100% of your money with your values. You may have friends or family members that value things that are different from what you value, and it's not worth your time or money to debate them. But even if it's not probable to get 100% of the way there, your focus can be on getting most of the way there. Remember, don't let the quest for a perfect plan get in the way of a great plan.

spending on things that you care about


As you read this, you might be thinking that it sounds awfully simple - maybe too simple. You'd be right. Many very productive systems are quite simple. For example, if you want to quit smoking the logical advice is to simply not smoke anymore; simple! However, as you've probably surmised, simple things are not always easy to do.

I want to make the case that just because it's not easy doesn't mean it's not worth it. Some of your greatest accomplishments were difficult. It's worth it to put in the time.

difficult things give you more benefit


Now you know that simple things aren't always easy, and things that aren't easy can be rewarding, but you might be asking what makes it so difficult to align your use of money with what's important to you.

The answer is that you actually have to sit down and figure it out. That's not always easy. You have to be aware of what you want and you have to actually articulate it. Write it down. Say it out loud. How many times in your life have you done that? It's incredibly difficult. The reward for doing it is being able to live your life intentionally in a way that you'll be proud of when you reflect back on your life.

figuring what you want out of life helps you live intentionally

This questionnaire is an instrument that taps into ten valued domains of living. It assesses the perceived importance of each of these ten life domains and the degree to which you are living in accordance with this perceived importance.


Part of what makes this more difficult than it has to be is that we are constantly under attack. We're under attack from marketers, retailers, advertisers, social media influencers, social media itself, friends, family members, neighbors, and so on. If you mix those sources together you'll get what's known as the "American Dream." The American Dream has a lot of different definitions, but it can be used to manipulate us into parting with our money. Some claim the American Dream is getting a good job, starting a family, buying a house, and retiring early. That's the message we get. That's why it's easy to believe that's what everyone should do. Without examining what kind of life we want it's natural to think this is what we should want.

The American dream is not right for everyone

In other words, spending time chasing the American Dream, or anyone else's dream that isn't yours, not only wastes your time, it disadvantages you because it's going to be far more difficult going forward to get to where it is you want to go.

don't waste your time climbing the wrong ladder


It's tempting to hurry up and start climbing the ladder without taking the time to figure out where it leads. Doing something feels better than not doing something. It pays to spend some time to determine what is important to you. Doing so is not a waste of time. There's an old saying that you should measure twice before you cut. Another way to think about it is that sharpening your saw costs time, but will cut the tree down faster saving you time in the long run.

be intentional with your money


Spend some time to figure out what's important to you. Spend some time to figure out how to align your use of money with that. It takes some time, but it's worth it and will provide you with happiness and meaning.

use your money on what important to you and be happy

What's the point of climbing a ladder if it's leaning against the wrong wall?

You get one life. Live intentionally.

If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Barker, Dan: Life Driven Purpose

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness Fischer, John Martin: Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life

Investopedia: American Dream

Krueger, David & John David Mann: The Secret Language of Money

McKay, Matthew, John Forsyth, and Georg Eifert: Your Life on Purpose

McKeown, Greg: Essentialism

Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential Peterson, Jordan: 12 Rules for Life

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin: Flourish Sinek, Simon: Start With Why

Sinek, Simon, David Mead & Peter Docker: Find Your Why Sivers, Derek: How to Live

Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life

Wait But Why: Your Life in Weeks

Wallace, David Foster: This is Water

Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture

Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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