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The Ladder of Success is Different for Different People

ladder of success“Welcome to the neighborhood. You will love our cozy cul-de-sac. See you at the annual block party!” the Jones’s pastel invitation coos.

Don’t know the Joneses? In reality, you have known them your entire life.

The Joneses represent homecoming Barbie and Ken, doting college sweethearts, first-time homebuyers, the ascending professional couple, and the glitzy “it” couple living in the tree-shrouded corner home. Which, incidentally, is where you and your family will be mingling awkwardly at the Friday block party.

The Joneses embody traditional success, or so we are instructed at a formative age. Rushing to a PTA meeting and then mah jongg with the girls, Mrs. Jones offers a hurried wave and thin smile. Returning to his tree-lined McMansion at 6 p.m., Mr. Jones halfheartedly greets his kids before retreating to his office. “Thirteen years and counting, yessir. But only because they couldn’t find a better-looking replacement,” he bellows to a breakfast club acquaintance.

These are the trappings of success. But what happens when your overly manicured cul-de-sac intersects at Stifling Boulevard and Groupthink Drive? What if you crave more than Saturday Home Depot trips for magnolia wallpaper?

I am backpacking through rural Nicaragua, where the shower spits out frigid water and flies feast on sooty legs. Creature comforts are thousands of miles away. But there is an electricity; I feel more alive than I do zombie-walking through dead-end positions in Seattle or Denver or DC.

The rhythmic waves tickle my soul. “Matt, I’ve always wanted to do what you are doing. You are so lucky,” law school colleagues message me. Yes, I am lottery lucky, but there are opportunity costs, too. As grim-faced colleagues grind through another week, month, and year, I reflect on our parallel and divergent paths: What is success? Are these office warriors more “successful” than I am? And, most important, does it matter?

Success is (fill in the blank). My definition of success is perpetually evolving from mentors, loved ones, and everyday conversations.

For my father, success entails the highest-paying job and selective country club membership. “You can never have enough money,” he chides. As he relentlessly pursues the next Benjamin or Tubman, his relationship with his three boys is chillier than an Iowa winter.

For law school colleagues, success is clutching onto the next corporate ladder. Achieving partner status in corporate America, my classmates personify the mythological American Dream. But their weary eyes and sardonic demeanor hint at dissatisfaction, even resentment. Firm existence (and soggy Chinese during all-nighters) have hardened them.

For me, success is more than a bank account and business card. As the economy sputtered in the late 2000s, the legal market spiraled from bad to horrible to move in with the parents. Trying to save face and money, I hustled from one contractual position to another. It was a humbling existence. The freshly painted homes and sprawling yards on cul-de-sac de Jones? I was closer to Despair Drive than Country Club Drive.

For years, my competing identities have clashed: lawyer, diligent student, intrepid traveler, independent spirit, mental health consumer. But my warring identities have reached a detente. My currency is life experience, not dollars. I revel in shared experiences, not gaudy memberships. And the hostel, not the Hyatt, is the favorite.

Will this change? Possibly — even likely. But not because my salary and status dictate where I should stay. Success is embracing your own footprints and then allowing the crashing waves to wash them away for the next adventure.

Ladder of success image available from Shutterstock

The Ladder of Success is Different for Different People

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). The Ladder of Success is Different for Different People. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.