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Helping Students Find the Right Ladder

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photo credit: demandaj via photopin cc

Recently, Stephen Kellogg did a talk at the annual TEDxConcordiaUPortland event. My friend Brett Wilkes turned me on to it in a recent post. Stephen made a number of memorable statements about the joy of work, something we all desire, but few realize.  From his youth, he always wanted to be a touring musician, with albums and merchandise, fans and concerts. He loves what he now gets to do and feels fortunate to have the chance to touch audiences with his music. One of his sticky statements in the TED talk was:

“It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, than the top of a ladder you don’t.”

Like most artists, when Stephen first started, no one had heard of him and it took time to build a platform. It didn’t matter, however, that he didn’t have money or paying events. What mattered was he was working in the field he loved; he had the chance to do what he felt was important and was gifted to do.

I remember this same feeling when I first started my non-profit, “Growing Leaders.” No one was getting rich, and in the early days it was just me and one other team member, David Christie. We were cutting our teeth in the business of leader development and were climbing a steep learning curve. But we loved it. I’d wake up every morning and could hardly wait to get to work. At night, I found myself thinking about how we could do our work better. It wasn’t about the money; it was about doing something in our gift area and adding value to schools and students. We were at the bottom of a ladder…but we loved the ladder. I still do.

One of the great fears of graduates these days is that they’ll get stuck in a job they don’t like and they’ll feel claustrophobic.  It’s terrifying enough to start at the bottom and pay your dues in a cause you ultimately believe in. It’s still another to do it when your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. This is the key I’d like you to pass along to the students you teach or parent. Identify the mission you believe in, then don’t work for the cash, but for the cause. Even playing a small part can make a difference. Next, make sure the mission is solving a problem or meeting a need. Thomas Edison’s first patented invention was a machine that tabulated votes for bureaucrats in government. He soon discovered that no congressman wanted votes to be counted quickly as they all wanted time to lobby for more influence while the votes were being counted. He was rejected. From that point on, Edison determined he would still be an inventor, but always work in response to a need or demand.

How Do You Choose Your Ladder?

When passion, need, strength and opportunity all meet—you are on a good ladder:

  1. Passion – the work represents something you love doing.
  2. Need – the work you do answers a “cry” and solves a problem.
  3. Strength – the work you do involves you using your primary strength.
  4. Opportunity – the work you do isn’t forced but is a prospect in front of you.

May I encourage you to have this conversation with a young person you know. Ladders are everywhere, and we must help students find theirs.



  • Is Stephen’s TED talk online yet? I looked everywhere for it, but can’t seem to find it. Sounds like a great talk on a situation I am currently going through from an artist I really like (and recently got to see here in Atlanta).

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