Ladder of life

Chapter Two – Flocks and Ladders

(Dedicated to my brother – a nonconformist long before me) 

I’ll always remember what my brother said to me about five years ago: “But I’m not like you Lisa. I’m not ambitious. I don’t want millions of pounds and big things. I just want a small house – two or three bedrooms – with a wide screen TV on the wall. I want a family – kids I can teach things to and a wife I love. Oh, and my guitar. I’m not like you.”

My eyes welled up. “Jason, that is ambition”, I said. “If you want something you haven’t got and you’re prepared to work and grow to get it then you’re ambitious.”

The conversation ended almost as quickly as it begun. He went back to playing his guitar and I went back to reading.

I love my brother. I think he always knew something about life that I did not know, that I have only just learnt. Just because someone asks you to do something, this does not mean you have to do it. What is expected of you by other people is not always the right course of action for you…

When we were little, we went to different boarding schools – mine was in Dover (south of London) and his was in Barnard Castle, North Yorkshire. We saw each other during half term or holidays and those first few moments upon our reunion were always awkward – “Hey Jay, you alright?” –  and then we fell back into the brother/sister groove. I wasn’t into guys growing up. (Go figure! I came out when I was nineteen.). I just used to play Command and Conquer and Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation with my brother. Occasionally we would play ‘Kerbie’ (where you bounce a football off the opposite kerb of the road for a point) and we would often take the dogs to the field together, kicking the football high over their heads because the dogs would literally somersault backwards in pursuit of that ball. We laughed our heads off but it was before the days of mobiles with videos so we could never show our parents, only tell them about it.

Letting Go

Over the summer holidays, Mum and Dad would go off to work each day so Jay and I would hang around the house with Misty and Jasmine, the two family dogs: gorgeous little Shelties that were over-loved and over-fed.

My mum, a hard worker and proud homeowner, would give us a list of chores for each day. Nothing onerous: plump up the cushions in the living room, hoover downstairs, stack the dishwasher, tidy your room. Sometimes she’d get really adventurous and we’d have to polish the ornaments in the dining room or wash the skirting boards. It was our way of ‘doing our bit’.

Ever the conscientious one, I would set to my task with relish and it would be done to a five-star standard. I loved the ‘thank you’ and ‘beautiful, Lisa well done’ bestowed on me at the end of the day. I was a sucker for recognition. Jason, however, did not give a shit. I’m laughing as I type this because at the time it would drive me crazy!! He would sit up there on his PlayStation as I would shout up: “Jason, Mum will be home in an hour –  please come plump up these cushions”…”Jason, fifteen mins and she’s coming home”… “JASON!!! Sod it, I’ve done it myself!”.

Every day we would go through the same routine. I would do my chore, bother him all day to do his and then end up doing it myself. It drove me crazy and it made me feel really angry with him.

Then, when I was a little older, I learnt a terrible trick. You could ‘bribe’ him into it! Money worked best but sometimes the promise of sweets would work too. I mean we were teenagers, denied nothing from our parents and yet here I was, aged sixteen bribing my fourteen-year-old brother with gum balls from the local paper shop. But it satisfied all angles – his chore was done, I got to stop pestering him and he ‘got paid’ for his efforts.

My brother liked to ‘get paid’ by the hour, for work well done. Me? I had other motivations. I did not like letting down my mum – that look on her face when we had not done our chores was so sad.

Years later, I ended up in a similar situation. Someone I had engaged to help me sell out event tickets just wasn’t doing his job. He’d wait until the last minute and then, in panic, engage us all to help with the task. It was last-minute, desperate and doomed and so my nerves were shredded by the time the event came around. I always stepped in and helped. We couldn’t fail, I couldn’t fail. A mentor of mine said: “Let go Lisa, let him fall down. He’ll soon learn not to do it again. Stop protecting everyone”. I knew what she meant, sometimes we have to experience the pain of failure to develop the desire and the resourcefulness to change our behaviours and sometimes other people need to let that happen.

At school, I was always afraid: of failure, of getting in trouble. I wasn’t naughty by any definition – I was a good pupil, boring really. My brother, however, was suspended all the time. He just went where the fun was – and the fun was often where he was! Hanging out with him was dangerous! I used to love hearing his stories at half term. I mostly sat there in shock wondering how he could be so indifferent to it all.

On my eighteenth birthday, I asked my mum if he could come with me and my friends to Newcastle for a night out. She relented: “This is not a good idea Lisa.”. I thought it would be…fun. It was too – until he got arrested for being drunk and disorderly! How trouble always seems to find that boy I do not know! So, off he went in the back of a van to a police station in Biker. I was staying at my Nana’s that night so me and my cousins told a few fibs, making out he’d gone to stay with another uncle. We got away with it too… until the copper rang my mum two weeks later to check how he was doing!

My brother laughed it off, I was mortified. You see, Jason is always just up for a laugh. He wears his heart on his sleeve and does as he pleases. I don’t, well I didn’t used to that is. I liked to know what was expected of me and do that. I liked the pat on the back.

How many of us do that, what is expected of us? Have you ever stopped to ask what you expect of yourself? What would you attempt if you put your own desires first regardless of the consequences? Take a leaf out of Jason’s book. I was about to…

That Bloody Ladder

When I was twenty-three I left the world of work to set up my own business – a graduate coaching company. I was pumped. I had done really well on the graduate scheme, in fact I distinctly remember feeling for the first time in my life like I fitted in on that scheme. ‘This is something I can be good at’, I thought. And I was. I was the only graduate in the scheme’s history to hit the top performance rating in all three placements. I was told it had never been done and it was impossible to do, not just by other graduates but my managers on the scheme. My response was to get my managers to list out exactly what they required of me in order to give me that rating. I would type it up and go back to them, saying: “So if I do this, this and this and exhibit these behaviours…you’ll give me a top rating?” My managers would add in a few more things and I’d take it back and type up the extra notes. “Okay, so if I do this will you give me the one rating?”. I was obsessed – those ones would be my differentiator, my ticket up the ladder, my path to success. Or so I thought.

As my third ‘one’ rating came in nearly two years later I was happy but, surprisingly, not elated. Tony Robbins says that “happiness without fulfilment is the biggest form of failure” and I knew what he meant. I was not happy because I was not fulfilled. I had climbed the ladder alright, but whose ladder was it and whose wall was it up against? I never even stopped to ask, I just put one foot on the first rung and began my rapid ascent.

I had learnt how to play the corporate game all too easily, I could see it for what it was. The path to success was simple – literally find out what your boss wants, do that with a smile on your face, whip up some support and credibility in your wider network (making it hard for your boss to hold you back!) and up the ladder you go. It’s just another ‘system’ to figure out and play. I thought I was clever but it was stupid really.

By year three I was in group head office, two levels and two salary brackets above most of my peers. It felt good, egotistically speaking, but I felt empty inside. I wanted more, then one day it came to me: “I could help other graduates to do the same – achieve success at an accelerated rate”. Almost immediately, I enrolled in a coaching training programme, got to work on the name and began organising my launch event. My first company – a graduate coaching company – was born.

I became possessed, finding more and more ways to complete my work quickly so I could continue working on my new idea. I would wake up early, run into work and be at my desk for 7am so I could get in a few hours of silent work in the morning, thus freeing up my afternoon. One evening, I took myself to the Waterstones in Trafalgar Square and bought a book on how to build websites – HTML 4.0. I was hooked.

Within weeks, my first website was ready. I remember, even now, how scared I was to put it live; terrified I would be so inundated with calls and emails that I would not be able to cope. I needn’t have worried – it was months before I won my first client through a friend of a friend referral, isn’t that how everyone wins their first piece of work?

Nonetheless, spurred on by my momentum and pumped full of confidence by my new web site and pending coaching qualification, I quit my job. I hopped from their ladder to my own ladder, constructing it as I climbed. I remember calling my mum to tell her: “You tell dad mum, let me know what he says”. I wasn’t worried, I was certain I would be a success but I knew it would be hard to explain to my dad.

My parents were so proud of me. The education they had given me had paid off but I felt like a fraud: someone who had cheated their way onto the rollercoaster, passing ‘GO’ each month and collecting the reward.

Before leaving, I told my boss about my new idea. He was very gracious and introduced me to the Group HR Director. We had a meeting and I tried, carelessly, to explain my idea. “I want to teach your new recruits how to exceed all expectations on your graduate scheme”, I told the HR Director, “I’d like to be involved in the recruitment process and coach them through it all”.

I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I just knew I wanted to help others (in this case, graduates) to land their dream job and fly up the ranks; to achieve success at an accelerated rate. Years later I would recognise this as the emergence of my calling, but in that moment I was just doing what felt right.

Things did not work out – I wanted to get moving with the new idea immediately but that’s not how things work in London corporates. This wasn’t Silicon Valley! Within a matter of months, I had worked my notice and was hotfooting it up to the North East to move back in with my parents and pilot my first business idea properly.

Managed Career Drift

They were such happy times. Naïve, first-time entrepreneurial bliss. Those first few days and weeks of working from home, indulging in my own ideas and listening to Choice FM on the radio – Choice FM played a tonne of tunes by rappers and hip hop artists who had come from nowhere, hustled and made it ‘from the bottom to the top’. I was living the dream.

It was, however, short-lived.

Within two months it dawned on me that I had been a little overzealous. I’d won a few new clients (graduates who were paying me fifty pounds to re-write their CVs) and I was spending a lot of money. In no time at all, I was on the job hunting websites and within about four months of leaving London I was back in paid employment – working for a small but growing consulting business in the North East. I was so grateful for the job. I was given an amazing salary and lots of responsibility.

Back home in the North East I had met a lot of interesting people. I got to talking about what had happened, talking humbly about my new website – it was pretty basic but my mum thought it was good so I was secretly proud. One woman I met seemed interested in what I was doing. We had coffee and she asked me to quote her for building a new website. By this time, six months had passed and I was moving on from the consultancy. I built her the website and did some extra work on design and branding and got paid – nearly a full month’s salary, a lot of money in my eyes. I was elated, especially when I gained a recommendation and ended up building another website and another.

Each new client wanted something more: a logo, a corporate document, social media management, a full marketing strategy. Accidently (and quite unintentionally) I had managed to create what was to become my first six-figure business: a digital marketing agency which I later called Digitia.

Business grew quickly and consequently the company tripled in size for three years running. It was insane, I was in business! The first dream I remember setting – to own my own business – had come true.

But…it was just another ladder.

As sales grew, so did our operations. I needed bigger offices, more laptops, better software…more team members. During that four year, I fixed my eyes on the jackpot: a million pounds in sales. When I had left my corporate job in London I had told everyone I was going to be a millionaire by the time I was thirty and hitting a million in revenue seemed an important step towards achieving this goal. I pushed and stretched both the business and the team. I took on bigger projects and hired more experienced team members. To finance the jump, I borrowed heavily – thirty thousand pounds from the funding circle and twenty thousand pounds from the bank for starters. On top of that, I had equipment on finance and I’d fallen behind with HMRC payments.

Fuelled by my ambition to be a millionaire, I made the wrong decisions many times over and they drove the wrong behaviours in me. One night, going home from work, I suddenly thought: “What am I doing and who am I doing it for?”.

Meanwhile, using the skills I had developed in marketing, I had also managed to relaunch my graduate coaching business as a graduate recruitment company. A mere three or four years after leaving behind my big London job to ‘break the mould’ and help graduates achieve success in their desired field, I had built a six-figure marketing agency and a six-figure recruitment company. I had one foot on each ladder; two ladders I had never intended to build. They just sort of appeared. But…both ladders were made of the wrong stuff, propped up against the wrong walls.

My very first mentor had warned me about this very scenario when I was twenty-three, she called it ‘managed career drift’. Without knowing who you are or what you want, you take what is on offer. You go for the promotion available. You start to climb the ladder and with each rung you climb, the salary, the kudos and the security become too overwhelming to leave, to let go. It becomes your path.

I Can’t Afford My Dream

This happens to so many people. They make promises to themselves: ‘next year I’ll leave to go travelling’, ‘this year, I’m setting up my own business’, ‘that’s it, I’m getting into the industry I love’. And they never do. So why is this? Managed career drift! You get caught up in the current. You develop skills in one area. Your network is limited to just one location. Your salary becomes too high to give it up…you’ve just bought that new [car, house, flat screen, holiday] after all.

In researching this book, I asked one hundred people to fill in a short survey. In one of the questions, I asked respondents to tell me which one thing is holding them back from building their dream lives. Sixty-two per cent of respondents said they couldn’t afford it, whilst thirty per cent said they didn’t have the self-confidence.

This does not surprise me. When we expend all our time and energy climbing someone else’s ladder we acquire the knowledge, skills and experience needed for that ladder. That is why we do not have faith in our own ability to build our own ladders – we do not have the knowledge, the skills nor the experience. We have to build those attributes ourselves, over time, without being paid, without the promise of due rewards – and no-one wants to do this. Remember, we have been raised to value security, listen to the boss and fall in line.

Let me tell you something for free: you’ll never have the money you need to launch your dream business, you’ll never quite have enough confidence in your ability to jump and you’ll never have enough time. If that were to happen, wouldn’t we all be living our dream lives?

No, to make our dream lives our new reality we need to do four things which frequently so few of us are prepared to do:

  1. Create a compelling vision for our lives (pick our own wall to scale);
  2. Set goals that really matter (build the right ladder and move up one rung at a time);
  3. Re-educate ourselves (learn from others who have already made that climb);
  4. Take action in the face of fear (prepare to trip, slip and fall off that ladder)!

When Destiny Calls

Aged twenty-nine I was trapped. Overweight, broke and depressed I was running from day to day madness like a headless chicken. I knew I was unhappy and wanted to change but in my mind it was impossible. I was far too high up that second (and third!) ladder with no safety net, no way off.

I remember saying to Alice Allum at the time (then my operations manager and now life partner): “I have to go home, I’ve just got to go” and off I went in tears. The pressure had become too much for me. It was not the pressure of being in business: it was the pressure of living a life I no longer wanted. I was miserable. Waking up, going to work, coming home every day. I was in a rat race of my own making and I was trapped. My ladder was too high and I was too scared to let go. I couldn’t do it.

Alice was really concerned; she had never seen me like this. The next day she brought in a copy of The Alchemist. She had heard about it when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Farrell Williams. He said it was a game changer, Alice had ordered it online immediately.

I began reading the book and was instantly hooked. I finished it in a day. The book tells the story of a young shepherd who tends for his flock. He takes care of the flock and the flock take care of him: they are co-dependent on each other. But he is not satisfied. Inside, he has a deep burning feeling that he can be more, do more. He wants to go in pursuit of life’s great treasure. Torn between two options: stay in the safety and comfort of what I know or take a risk and go in pursuit of my treasure.

Sound familiar?

It resonated with me deeply. I was the shepherd and Digitia was my flock! I loved my team, we had been through so much together and we had become reliant on each other. They needed me and I needed them. We were safe, we knew what we were doing and things were moving along – I knew it would work out okay in the end. But, I had that burning desire inside of me. I knew I was more than I was demonstrating to the world and now I had the language for it: I wanted to go in pursuit of my destiny.

Then a team member sent the full team a link to a talk by the late, great Steve Jobs. In this short extract, he says: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something… Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”.

This link had even more impact by the time I watched it because Steve Jobs had indeed passed away and it was in that moment that I realised how limited our time on this earth is. As the motivational speaker Les Brown says: “We ain’t getting out of here alive so we might as well live”. When you think about the fact we’ll all be dead one day, doesn’t that help you to re-prioritise what you worry about?

Then, as if pushed by fate, the third happening in a trio of unusual events: I found myself slumped on the bathroom floor crying when from nowhere a voice came into my head: “Get up and get on a run Lisa”. I knew that doing something physical, getting into the fresh air was the only way to change my state (the Doctor who had offered me the choice of pills or running to help my depression said as much) and so off I went on a run around the block.

During the run, I was listening Les Brown and in this particular talk he asked: “What would you do if you found out you only had three months left to live?”. Upon finishing the run, I instantly compiled a full and complete list of what I would do. I would sell my recruitment agency, downsize Digitia. I would move to Manchester, somehow. I would tell Alice I was in love with her (a story for another chapter!), I would lose a stone and return to my ideal weight. I would launch the DARETOGROW blog and I would write my first book.

The list was impossible. IMPOSSIBLE. I had tried for eight years to write a book and never managed to complete one. I had borrowed over seventy thousand pounds in Digitia, I had a team of eight people and I had lengthy contracts for office spaces in two cities. I could not tell Alice how I felt…she was a team member after all. Above all, I was depressed and could not lose weight because I was addicted to sugar, chocolate and cappuccinos. Let’s remember, too, I did only have three months, theoretically.

It was hopeless, I was trapped. I had built the wrong ladders and I’d leaned them up against the wrong walls. I was too high to jump off, like I had done before… or was I? Perhaps, if I could not jump, I could climb back down rung by rung until I touched the floor and start again.

I was tempted.

And then Les Brown came into my head once more: “How do you know you haven’t got three months left to live?”. That question jolted me back to reality. “Knowing I’ll be dead one day”…I heard Steve Jobs’s words ringing in my ear. “Chill out sis”, I heard my brother echoing in my head. “Fuck it” I shouted once again. I turned on my heels, ran home and wrote down the list. The next day I walked determinedly into the office and told Alice what I wanted to do.

“Okay” she said, “what’s first?”.

I had taken one step down the ladder. And in that moment I changed my life forever.

Could I afford to? No. Did I know how? No. Was I sure things would work out? No. On the other hand, could I continue doing what I was doing? Not for one second longer.

You see, we all reach a moment in life when we wake up and realise we are building someone else’s dreams; that we cannot tolerate what we have been tolerating any longer. That in the end staying is the only thing more painful that leaving.

I rang my parents: “Mum, Dad, are you sitting down…”.

And I took another step down the ladder.

Will you help me write this book?


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