Have you ever been in a building where the lift has broken? One that’s ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred stories tall, and the only way to get to the top is to take the stairs? It’s exhausting to go from the ground floor all the way to the roof when there’s no lift.
I’ve been thinking about this metaphor, the seemingly infinite, unending set of stairs. Particularly in relation to mastery and craft.
At the top of the infinite staircase utter perfection awaits. We can, in our mortal lives, get close to it, but we can never reach it. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to ascend as high as we can. And my question isn’t, “Why do we bother climbing towards something we know to be unattainable in the first place?” Instead I’m wondering, “After we’ve started the climb, why do we stop?” What makes us cease expending effort on the ascent? What makes us say to ourselves, “enough”? What compels us to stop reaching for the next step, the next level?
I’ve come up with five possible answers.
The first. We stop climbing because we sincerely believe that we’ve reached the top. For whatever reason, we delude ourselves and think we’ve reached the pinnacle.
The second. We stop climbing because it’s too costly to reach the next step. It takes too much money, too much time, too much energy, too much ingenuity. And we either don’t have enough left, or we value what we have left more than we value reaching the next level.
The third. We stop climbing because we believe attaining the next level is impossible. We see it, but persuade ourselves that it cannot be reached via any means currently in our possession.
The fourth. The first reason was thinking we’ve reached the top. It was about our absolute position on the staircase. The fourth reason we stop climbing is about relative positioning. We stop climbing because we’re higher than everyone else around us. Yes, we could go higher, but being higher than the people around us is enough.
The fifth. We stop climbing because we’re satisfied. Because we like where we are. We stop climbing out of contentment. The people who stop climbing out of contentment want to sit on the step and look back over their climb, rather than stare up at the next one, wondering how to traverse it.