Jump Off the Ladder Challenge!

If you’ve been following my Attitude-Behavior Gap series, you know that often the biggest obstacles to good change are mental. In an effort to demonstrate this effect, I’m announcing the first group Tshirts & Twine challenge: Jump off the ladder!

The principle:

Life is like a ladder. For the purposes of our illustration, this ladder represents money and possessions. If you are born into the middle class of a ladderfirst-world nation, you usually begin around the middle-to-upper rungs of the ladder. As life progresses, we move either up or down the ladder. Moving up involves accruing more stuff and making more money. Moving down the ladder usually involves fewer possessions and a smaller income.

Generally, we’re taught from birth that moving upward is the “right” way to go. This principle becomes so ingrained in our minds that we struggle to see how less money and fewer belongings could be a good thing. But the higher we climb, the more we notice two things:

1. Living very high on the ladder is scary, because a fall from the top is way more devastating than a fall from the bottom.

2. Living high on the ladder means we hold the rungs more tightly out of fear of losing our grip. This can become exhausting.

Now imagine (or perhaps you won’t need to) that you have gotten tired of the constant focus and fear of being near the top of the ladder. Maybe the effort required to maintain the height is wearing you out (the amount of time an work required to keep the house clean.) Maybe you’re getting vertigo, and the very act of looking down freaks you out (the tight budget that threatens to overturn every month.) Perhaps the lower rungs – where the stress is lighter and the demands are smaller – are starting to look really attractive.

So you start to make your way down. At the beginning, it’s just one rung. Cutting out cable TV gives you a bit of financial wiggle room. Cleaning out the catch-all drawer in the kitchen kills some of the clutter. Two rungs, three. Then comes the resistance.

At first it’s just in your mind. Each step down feels dangerous. You find yourself having to psych up before each one. In your mind, you begin to question what was so wrong with staying near the top in the first place. Your brain tries to trick you into thinking you’d be happier if you stayed put, but your memory reminds you of how tough it was up there. So you continue to back down.

Then, people on nearby ladders notice your progress. Some are encouraged and inspired to do the same, but a few think you’re crazy. Words like “insane,” “irresponsible,” and “just a phase” begin to drift your way. Undeterred, you keep putting one foot under another. But now the rungs are getting further apart. The choice to work fewer hours includes a fairly steep price tag. Every sweater, pot, and decorative pillow you downsize hurts more than the one before it. By the end of your journey, you look up to see that what felt like a dozen rungs was really only four.

Now imagine that instead of making your way slowly and painfully down each rung, you gathered your courage, took a deep breath, and jumped. As you land on the ground beside your ladder, you are surprised to find you’re still alive. What’s more, you’re free. It’s a little scary, and a bit uncertain, but the weight of money and clutter has lifted in one glorious moment, leaving you a little giddy.

Now, the realization that you need clothing causes you to put one foot on the bottom rung. However, as you build your wardrobe from the ground up, you discover that one rung is plenty. A part-time job is more than enough to support how few expenses you now have. The time freed by fewer dishes to wash, fewer clothes to launder, and fewer commitments to maintain, springboards you into a life of doing what you love. You can afford to chase dreams and develop hobbies. You have more time for community and family. And after climbing a few base rungs to get your life to a comfortable state, you look up at where you began – dozens, if not scores of rungs above you – and find that you don’t miss it at all.

For twenty days, beginning April 11th, I invite you to jump off the ladder with us.ย To participate, pick one category of items, or a major financial drain, and cut it down to the lowest possible rung. This might mean living on only one pair of shoes, doing without television, or only committing to work and school activities. The choice is yours, but whatever you choose, focus on living on the bare minimum, to the point of inconvenience. At the end of the 20 days, feel free to reinstate anything you feel you want to, but be prepared to discover that you’re happier with less. For now, the goal is to change the way we think about our possessions. This is about retraining our minds to understand that we can accomplish dramatic change.

We’ll be downsizing our kitchen items dramatically (which if you haven’t heard, is going to be no small feat.) For the last 20 days of April, we’ll live on one plate, one fork, one spoon, one water bottle, and one coffee mug each. Additionally, we’ll use a single cooking pot, a single mixing bowl, a single steak knife, the kettle, and the pour over coffee mug. 17 items for the rest of April. Obviously this is beyond the level of inconvenience, but that’s the point. This is, for us, the bottom rung of the kitchen ladder. Of course, whether or not we reinstate our other kitchen supplies will be determined on May 1st.

Are you game? If you’ll be participating, let me know in the comments below. If enough people take the challenge, I’ll make a Facebook page as well.

See you on April 11th!

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35 thoughts on “Jump Off the Ladder Challenge!

  1. Love this idea! We’re getting ready to put our house on the market by May 1st, so this challenge fits perfectly with our plans. I can’t wait to jump off the ladder!

  2. Love the attitude behind this challenge. Living in an extremely affluent, image-conscious suburb, it’s been an interesting journey for our family to live what I call an “upside-down” life over the years. Small example: We have one 25-year-old TV in the basement, closed up inside a cabinet. No cable. When the kids’ friends are over, they freak out when they think we don’t have a TV. I know for a fact, though, that are kids are better off for having lived this life, and our family is stronger for it. Long live simplicity! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. […] The plan for now (developed at the request of several of you!) is to start another 20 day challenge on May 12th. This should give us all time to figure out what we’d like to give up for this second round of challenges. If you didn’t get to participate in April’s round (or if you did, but want to do something new) let me know in the comments! If you’re unfamiliar with the challenge,ย here is the link to the Jump Off the Ladder info. […]

  4. I’ve missed this challenge. Well, I will be a few steps behind but will join you. My life is in a bit of a spin at the moment and I’m sure if I tried I could simplify a lot!

  5. This is great! I need to catch up on your outcome! I was just visiting my mom who said she doesn’t have a big enough kitchen. The problem is that she has about 10 wooden spoons, 4 garlic presses, 3 manual can openers, 8 spatulas, etc. and enough dishes, glasses and mugs to serve an army. She is going to let me help her declutter. I might just send your posts along

  6. Hey, coming by your blog is quite serendipidous as I’ve become aware of a niggle in my brain which has been telling me to do just this: cut down. Or more correctly, not build up to start with. I’ve realised that I’ve not made a move towards the earn-lots-and-obtain-even-more lifestyle, and probably won’t be. Now I’m struggling a bit with friends’/acquaintances’ opinions that that isn’t somehow realistic in this world…and learning how to shut them off and just follow my gut instinct.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    • I’m so glad you’ve joined our little community. Dealing with others’ unmet expectations can be difficult. I’m going to be writing about that soon, actually. What sort of obstacles do you find yourself facing relationally?

      • Reflecting on interactions with friends recently, I have these concerns…

        Concern #1:
        The slow letting go of the idea of having to be “powerful” in your chosen field. We all study and work hard while at uni to “become someone” (the classic fear of turning up at a high school reunion and not impressing comes to mind). I think a lot of people give off signs that not earning money = not being intelligent to have ever been able to = not having “status” or being “important” or “powerful.”

        Of course, we know that this isn’t actually true…but the idea that money equals “being important” is such a part of how the world impacts upon us that it becomes a challenge for later life.

        Concern #2:
        The fact that the cost of living only increases, and that to a certain extent we have to participate in its madness (medical expenses come to mind). However, while knowing this I’m fully aware that if we start to participate in the getting and owning it won’t stop anytime soon. A real downsize and shift towards more responsible living is key if we aren’t to continue shopping at crazy expensive supermarkets and paying $8 a kilo for capsicums (bell peppers).

        Concern #3:
        Retirement. I am now considering how if I don’t make a packet now when I’m young, how I will fund my twilight years – particularly as I want to continue to spend them traveling, learning and seeing new things.

        When we are self-employed or make modest salaries, the need to be more militant with saving and planning for the future is a greater deal.

        Those are a few of the ideas that come to mind!

  7. Hi Amanda – this is a beautifully written post. Really inspiring! One of the other challenges about getting up on those higher rungs is that you are also holding up more people. I’m not just clinging to that height for myself, but also my son. I’m working my way down on the rung by rung plan, but I do think if I had come to these ideas earlier in my life, I might have been more careful about things like mortgages. That’s the biggest issue for me as well as what Erin brings up above re: medical expenses.

    • Great points! I feel very much the same about some (thankfully now paid off) credit card debt I accrued in college. I’m grateful that I was able to gain a better perspective about debt before making any more of the same mistakes. Medical expenses and medical debt are our two most frustrating “millstones” too, as they aren’t really avoidable.

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