What I’ve Learned From The ‘ladder’ Effect

I’ve written before about the ‘ladder effect’ – how, when you look down at other people’s lives, you often end up feeling inferior to those people, even in positive moments. Here, I go into more detail about how it happens, and why we can’t make it better.

In this blog post I share that I’ve discovered something very interesting about social climbing: when we climb up the social ladder, the results seem to diminish.

Example: I was reading a blog post (with a title reminiscent of our recent episode: How to Make Time for Your Ex, as well as a tagline that reads: Stop Trying to Be ‘Great’ and Start Being You) written by a friend of mine, who is now working as a management consultant and consultant in the public sector. She is now in her mid sixties. My friend talks about how she used to feel a sense of entitlement towards her partner, as if she would be better than him just by virtue of her age. The ladder effect happens as she climbs up the social ladder, and what she ends up perceiving as her superior status diminishes, because at some point she needs to “be with us”, and this seems to make her inferior because she seems like she is “not us”.

Here’s another example:

In my life, I used to see my co-worker as my best friend, and my husband as my partner. My husband and I had a big family and our kids were usually present on weekends. However, over the years, I grew increasingly less close to him. I felt that I was closer to my friends, especially to my friend’s husband, and she seemed closest to her children. I also now understood that if I was with them, I didn’t have to worry about having to explain my side of the story when my husband wasn’t around, or even when he was there, so that I would not appear “too distant”.

Here is the funny thing: my own social climbing made me less close to him, not more. As my friend says, there were more and more things I had to explain to her and her husband as she grew closer to them. It seems to me that they must be getting a lot closer. I do wonder, though: if it all happened because I was on the social ladder, who gave me the idea that I was “better” than anyone else?

A social ladder theory explains this phenomenon. Social climbing theory explains how we can climb the social ladder by being friendly, respectful, considerate, and generous with each other. However, it also explains why we can’t climb the social ladder when this social climbing takes us too far down the ladder. As a consequence, when we are trying to climb up the social ladder, we feel less welcome than our friends – and eventually begin to perceive our friends as having more in common than we do.

Here’s another example of what I’ve learned via social climbing:

My friend’s sister, who is the director and founder of a business strategy consulting firm, told me that she wanted to get to know her clients in more detail because this was how they could help her. I said I’d help her too through my work and would help in any way I could to increase her reach. My friend was so impressed with me, and so impressed with my friend of 25 years, she asked me to become a consultant for the two of them. At first, I was surprised at how involved I was in helping. I told myself that it would be easy because everything will fall in place and we’ll be successful together. We got married and had two children but it has taken me more than two decades to work alongside my own children in the same firm. I believe that was because, in a way, I had “grown up” and become aware of the social climbing theory. This is how it happened: I grew up in a highly competitive culture in which I was expected to excel at everything from school and sport. Once, my daughter said to me that the best thing about her new baby brother was that he liked ice cream. And I knew what I had to do: I had to go outside and eat ice cream with my daughter, like a real ice cream cone.

I’ve been asked numerous times why my wife and I have never been married and I have to admit that there were no “missing connections” – we were never good at getting things done together.