Seeing this hard hitting painting titled, To Climb a Ladder (1987), by the visionary artist, Dorothea Tanning, stopped me in my tracks. It made me think of how so often, we bend ourselves out of shape in pursuit of status and achievement. How we twist and contort ourselves to live up to some idea of what we think we should be. How we try so hard to prove ourselves because we doubt our self-worth so much.

Why do we keep climbing?

Is it being swept-up in the tide of social pressure that calls us to climb higher? Is it because we heard it from our parents or saw it in a glossy magazine? Is it believing that at the top of the ladder lies true happiness? Happiness that we have not managed to find on any of the previous rungs? Where does it lead and when does it end?

Rather than finding something meaningful, could such constant climbing keep us forever lost,  forever striving. Forever climbing a ladder with no end that keeps us stuck in a place of insecurity and fear. Fear born out of never reaching that thing, which you believe if only you had, would allow you to finally feel good about yourself. To finally feel like you are good enough. To finally feel like you are not a failure.

Another way

Climbing higher and higher as we desperately seek to validate ourselves through external achievements is certainly one way of going about life. But, is it really a path to living with inner freedom and contentment? 

What if each one of us has inherent value by virtue of our very existence, like a bird or a tree? Value that is not dependent on getting anywhere or achieving anything, value that does not need to be proved to anybody. This may sound trivial, but it is actually quite radical. Because it calls on you to deeply accept yourself just the way you are. To experience life as an unfolding from within, and not as a series of milestones to be reached from without.

It is radical because it is very little about what you do and more about how you relate to what you do — your inner state. It is the difference between living from a place of joy and freedom because you are wholeheartedly engaged in all that is life; verses living with inner tension and fear because you have pinned your self-worth to the achievement of some elusive and arbitrary benchmark.

Breaking free

The first step is opening your eyes to your world and to how you live. It is about really asking yourself:

Am I non-consciously striving on a ladder?  
What am I trying to prove and to whom?
What are the implications of this for me mentally and physically?
Does it really serve me, and what would it feel like to try another way?

Breaking free starts with really asking yourself the difficult questions. With having the courage to look deeper.

Artwork: To climb a ladder (1987, oil on canvas) by Dorothea Tanning

Harsha is an executive and life coach based in London. He empowers people to find more confidence and focus in their lives. Find out more about Harsha’s work