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Climbing the Ladder of Success

Rung by rung

Ambitious young men and women start to climb the ladder of success long before their first job. During their time of growing up, they will have undergone trials and undertaken endeavors of graduated skill. These take place in an educational setting and serve to hone an inborn inclination to succeed, to surpass others. It is a matter of crafting a particular point of view, a weltanschauung. Subtle Intellectual and emotional exercises serve to stiffen character and prepare the individual to weather the various setbacks and disappointments that are inevitable in the struggle for success. However, most of this cannot take place until the individual has learned how to walk.

At an earlier stage, when the individual is still crawling, assertive children are more interested in grabbing someone else’s toys than in getting onto the fast track to success. Even later, when they are, indeed, walking, they may not yet strive for excellence. Since all the children in kindergarten are likely to get all As, they are likely to feel good about themselves without comparing themselves favorably to the other children. And yet that is the essence of success.

Granting that ultimate success in life cannot be predicted with certainty by observing children in nursery school and in kindergarten, the training they undergo in these settings is critical to their final destiny. As some wise person once said, “Everything I ever learned in life, I learned in kindergarten”—which speaks, however, to a rather narrow understanding of the world. Even so, some of these children, through no fault of their own, have already fallen behind in their race to the top. I know of one unfortunate young man who missed out on the chance to attend a top-flight nursery in Greenwich, Connecticut because his parents did not come to the initial interview dressed properly. He had to settle for a public facility. In Japan, having to attend a second rate nursery is likely to doom the child to a second rate elementary school and, consequently, a second rate high school and college, and, ultimately to a second rate career.

Although It is important to start children with an “enriched environment,’ so that they will be ready to meet the challenges of grade school, rarely do the children, themselves, think much about how these advantageous circumstances will be helpful to them later on. Few children of this age understand about the importance of climbing the ladder of success.

However, I was an exception. When I went to my first piano lesson at the age of four I encountered another child there who was three and who had been playing the piano since he was two! I knew at once that I had fallen irrevocably behind. I had stumbled at the foot of the ladder of success-- although I would not have put it that way. I thought of pushing the kid off the piano stool, but I was held back by an ethical impulse of some sort which would surface unpredictably from time to time later on and impede my progress climbing the ladder of success. Yes, I was able at a later date to climb back on the ladder despite previously falling so grievously behind. That is the wonderful thing about life; it gives you a second chance, at least when you are four years old.

Also, this three year old kid boasted to me that he could say the alphabet backwards. I am proud to say that this struck me, even at the age of four, as a particularly stupid thing to do—giving evidence of the perceptive thinking that would come in handy for me later on when I became a psychiatrist.

Let us skip over the formative years of grade school and high school. Suffice it to say that some young people have already failed during these preliminary stages. The challenges I have described above were too much for them. They sit in the back of the room during class doodling or throwing spitballs. They lie down along the sidelines of the sports fields taking no note of who is winning, seeming, if it can believed, not to care who is winning. It may not be all over for them yet in the eyes of their parents, but the fact is they will have to run twice as fast as the truly ambitious child to catch up with him/her—and the truth is they are more likely to fall further behind.

I insist there is a place in society for these mediocre children who get mediocre marks and are not inclined to date. They are the body of the body politic. They will grow up to contribute to the economy. Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of other great men to accomplish his great achievements. Similarly, the successful man and woman will be standing on these ordinary people to accomplish their purposes. Without them to stand on their success would be small, indeed.

In due time, the ambitious man and woman find themselves standing on a rung of the ladder, gripping tightly to the sides. It is their ladder. No one else is on it. Each person has his/her own ladder that he/she can see stretches down to the ground and all the way up to sky, or, at any rate, to a cloud which seems within reach if he/she applies himself/herself and works as hard as he/she can.

As an aside, I would like to say here that sometimes things are farther away than they seem. When I was a young man I set out from one of the casinos on the strip in Las Vegas with a young lady to explore the cool morning air. We decided to walk over to the mountains. After about ten minutes a police car appeared over one of the dunes and stopped in front of us. After a few moments of conversation, the policeman explained to us that the mountains were thirty-five miles away, too far to walk even though I was in good condition in those days. Life teaches us this lesson over and over again: things are further away than they seem.

So, there they are—this ambitious young man and woman—standing up proudly on the rungs of their respective ladders, looking around, pleased with their progress. They have gone to good colleges, and they have good jobs. Their bosses have complemented them. They have just been married—or are about to get married—and their spouse, or future spouse, admires them. They know this because they have overheard them speaking on the telephone to their friends about how terrific they are. They wonder if this is some reference to sex, but it turns out not to be.

It is ten years later. The ambitious (and dexterous) man and woman climb easily and effortlessly further up the ladder. Rung after rung. Every once in a while they stop to look down and then to look up –to see how they’re doing. And they are doing fine. They cannot tell looking up if they are much closer to the cloud, but they are very conscious of each promotion and each corporate coup. Each one was another step up the ladder.

When they look down they see, with some satisfaction, that others have fallen off their ladders. Some are lying supine on the ground, holding what appears to be a beer bottle; others are, incredibly, sitting perched on one of the lower rungs watching a television set that they have rigged up with wires to rest securely on a lower rung of their ladder. And they see their parents. It is a bitter-sweet thought that they have surpassed their own parents, who look up to them admiringly.

I can understand feeling competitive with one’s parents. One of my earliest memories was an argument I had with my father when I was three years old. He insisted that the word “blood” was pronounced “blud,” rather than “bloood.” Not yet playing the piano, I had spent my time reading comic books, and I explained to him that “bloood” was a little like “blud,” but was different. I have never forgotten the chagrin I felt when it turned out he was right.

Another ten years pass by. The ambitious man and woman are still ascending effortlessly, but they have begun to notice that, except for the moments when they climb up another rung, it looks like they are in the same place! Their respective ladders seem to stretch farther and farther up. Not only that, but they have taken note that there are other people THEIR AGE , who are higher up on their ladders than they are!

Now, there are plenty of other ladders with people climbing up them who are not so high up as they are, but somehow these very ambitious people only notice the people who are moving faster than they are.

Another decade passes. The very ambitious man and woman are taking longer to get from one rung to the next. Not only that, but the other people on the other ladders are speeding up—although it may be only an illusion.

I never paid a lot of attention to how much other psychiatrists were charging for their services, although I came to realize that a few were charging more money than I was. So what? You put a bunch of people together and some will be taller, smarter, fatter and in some other way different from the others. Somebody has to be more of something just as someone else has to be less. It is a mathematical kind of thing.

Then I discovered that there was a minister in my community who had had a month of psychological training, who was charging more money for a session than I was. That was too much! I began to look around, and I discovered that some psychiatrists were charging two or three times more for their services than I did. I was as good as they were! I knew I was better than some of them, including the psychiatrist who had been arrested for assaulting his patients.

I would have liked telling myself that I was more willing to treat the indigent than they were and was, therefore, willing to accept less for treatment than they were. But there was no way I could turn this into something noble. The fact is I would have liked charging more, but I did not know how to do it without, it seemed to me, losing all my patients.

So I had reached that uncomfortable place where I was falling behind without knowing why.

The very ambitious man and woman looked down and noticed that some people had changed ladders! They were near the bottom of the new ladder. They had fallen way behind, but they started climbing all over again without getting discouraged.

My wife Susan graduated college around the time we got married. She then went on to get a Masters degree in English in one university, and a PH.D in another. After about ten years of teaching, she got a law degree from a third. Then at the age of 59 she started an environmental insurance agency. I am looking forward to seeing what comes next. I never thought of Susan as climbing up a success ladder so much as using it as a plank to get from one place to another.

That very ambitious man and woman had also gone so high up on their ladders that everyone down below (an indistinct mass of upturned faces) thought they had reached SUCCESS, but they knew they had not. Some people on nearby ladders were going faster and faster.

There was an innovative man who caught the wave of start-ups based on the internet and on other electronic services. He made a million dollars. All he ever wanted to do was make a million dollars, he said; but a million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to. So, he set his goal on ten million dollars. When he made the ten million dollars—which took surprisingly little time—he wanted to make a hundred million dollars, and then a billion dollars. And he did! But then he wanted to be—just for a little while—the richest man on the planet. If this was a fairy tale, he would have gotten bigger and bigger and floated away into the clouds like a balloon and then burst with a display of fireworks. But actually, nothing happened. He came to a point where he knew he could never be the richest man in the world; and so he settled for being a billionaire, gnashing his teeth.

There were other people around then—in fact, some of the same people—who wanted to build a really big yacht, bigger than all the other yachts. Each person built a yacht bigger than the last person. But then they all ran into a problem. The Panama Canal was only so wide, and no wider. If a yacht were bigger than that, it could not fit. So, they all started to build yachts taller than the other person’s yacht. If you lived near a Caribbean port you could see all these tall yachts swaying at anchor back and forth in the wind.

Then, ten or twenty years later, the very ambitious man and woman got tired. The man developed a big prostate, which made him urinate all the time, the woman developed varicose veins. And they both developed arthritis and other things. By this time he was divorced twice because he was never home. And she was divorced too, which did not bother her much because she was so busy she didn’t notice her husband was gone until she read in the papers that he had married someone else. But they all had a lot of children, and step-children, and big bills for college.

Finally, the very ambitious man and woman, moving slower and slower, reached the cloud at the top of the ladder of success. It was all misty up there. They could not see anyone else, until they popped their heads through the top of the cloud and saw that THE LADDER KEPT GOING HIGHER AND HIGHER INTO THE NEXT CLOUD. They felt sad. They developed a fondness for that song, “Is That All There Is?”

There are a lot of ambitious men and women who become disappointed. This is known as “Change of life.” Some of these ambitious people are really very, very talented and skilled, and I think that when you are really very, very talented and skilled, it is easy to imagine all the things they could have accomplished—and didn’t—because they did not have enough time. Or they were unlucky. And, often, they look around, and there are people who are not as talented and skilled as they are who managed somehow to accomplish those things. So they are tired. They feel like giving up. And so THEY RETIRE!

His/her colleagues give them a RETIREMENT PARTY, at which everyone has a good time because they know the ambitious man and woman have given up and gotten out of their way.

I have to admit to having mean little thoughts like that. Whenever I get the alumni weekly, I look to see in the class notes if there is a memorial in that issue. I caught myself recently turning to the memorials with a kind of pleasant anticipation. I wanted to see which of my classmates had died and how they had lived their lives. Judging from the memorials, the class of 1955 of Princeton University had an extremely successful bunch of members, most of them much more successful than I have been. But I am alive, and they are not! I try not to smirk.(c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

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