Searching for the Up Escalator

Posted on 2016 February 28


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Remember when you were a kid in a department store and, on a dare, you ran up the down escalator? Like swimming against the current, it took the wind out of you as you tried to climb more stairs than were coming toward you. You neared the top, sensing victory, when a group of shoppers stepped onto the belt of stairs and moved toward you, blocking your path. You muttered, “Excuse me,” and tried to squeeze past them while your friends watched from the bottom, laughing their heads off. 

Ah, childhood.

Fast-forward a few decades to the difficulties we confront as adults — layoffs, mortgage payments, troubled offspring, conflicts at the office, marriage problems, weight problems, drug problems. Sometimes it feels as if our upward path is a down escalator trying to push us backwards. 

We search for advice, and find plenty. Much of it declares that, to face the tough problems in life, you must be tough. And persistent. And determined. And laser-focused. And strong. And unstoppable. Nothing, not even a down escalator moving against you, will deter you on your climb toward your goal.

Okay. But where’s the up escalator?

There isn’t much, in all the counsel we receive, about managing the problem itself. It’s mostly about boosting our determination. Wouldn’t it be easier if somehow we could arrange things so the problem either disappeared altogether or became, as it were, an up escalator that we could ride with ease? Instead of struggling against downward motion, we’d find a way to ascend on it. Instead of directly confronting an obstacle, we’d turn it to our use. Instead of preparing for a showdown, we would convert the enemy into an ally.

  • Example: Ben Franklin found himself pitted against a political adversary who opposed every idea he suggested. Ben finally asked this enemy to loan him a certain book that had piqued his interest. The opponent obliged, Ben soon returned the book with compliments, and the adversary became an ally for life.
  • Example: Andrew Carnegie approached George Pullman, a fierce competitor in the burgeoning railroad car business, and proposed a merger. Pullman, somewhat vain, asked what the company would be called. Carnegie suggested Pullman. The rest is history.
  • Example: Young Bucky Fuller, beset by financial woes, stood on the shore of Lake Michigan and contemplated drowning himself. Staring across the waters, he realized that the way out was to double down on his eccentric career dreams because, at that point, he had nothing to lose. The result was an amazing series of inventions (the Geodesic Dome, Dymaxion house, etc.), writings (Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth et al.), and teaching. The high-tech material Fullerene is named in his honor.
  • Example: During the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqis dug trenches — and manned them — to fight the Allied advance. American General Norman Schwarzkopf responded with huge plows mounted on tanks that simply buried the trenches and made pathways across them.
  • Example: As iPhone sales languished in the U.S., critics lambasted Apple CEO Tim Cook for “not being Steve Jobs”. Cook turned to China, whose rapidly growing consumer base proved hungry for Apple products, especially the larger iPhones developed especially for them. By 2015 the company had broken all-time business profit records.

Of course, turning problems to our advantage is easier said than done. The solutions aren’t always obvious. And sometimes we have mere seconds to act. Thus we’ll need, now and then, to call on those inner strengths so popular among success coaches. It’s therefore useful to challenge ourselves with small difficulties, so we can practice the calm fortitude we’ll need when big problems rear their heads.

But we should always keep an eye out for the up escalator.