The Ladder of Wisdom

A Mental Model for Acquiring, Distilling and Sharing Wisdom


Acquiring wisdom is like climbing a ladder. With each step up the ladder, you gain a better perspective and clearer view.

You can either learn from the wisdom of others or gain insight from your own experiences. I’ve visualized these methods of acquiring wisdom as “The Ladder of Wisdom.” 

Each step up the ladder is more challenging than the previous step, making the lessons learned more time-consuming. As you climb higher, you begin to rely more on the wisdom of your own experiences rather than wisdom passed-on from others.

Your time is limited, so you can use this ladder concept to help determine the areas of life where you need deeper wisdom and the areas where you should simply trust the wisdom of others.

Hear the Quote

The “Hear the Quote” step on the ladder represents wisdom gained from a single sentence or quote. This knowledge is so distilled that it feels self-evident after hearing it. The ideas conveyed are usually simple yet perspective-shifting.

“Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what little chance you have in trying to change others.” - Jacob M. Braude
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now” Chinese Proverb
“Anger is a hot coal that you hold in your hand while waiting to throw it at someone else” Buddhist saying

I heard this wisdom once and could immediately incorporate it into my personal operating system. However, this type of wisdom can lack the nuance that comes with acquiring wisdom through deeper experience. Additionally, it’s easy to forget the wisdom imparted from a quote since you don’t have any experiences or memories to give it more context. You may need to “climb further up the ladder” to understand a quote’s true meaning.

See the Movie

The “See the Movie” step on the ladder represents wisdom that can be acquired after seeing a movie, hearing a lecture, or having a great conversation. This wisdom is fairly distilled but takes more time to absorb than simply hearing a quote.

Some examples for me personally:

The Lord of the Rings - The importance of friendship and loyalty
Groundhog Day - Living with intention and gratitude
The Matrix - Questioning the limits of your perception

Unlike a quote, which lacks detail and context, a movie (or another short-form method of acquiring wisdom) gives you more time to absorb the wisdom and more context.

It’s still a pretty shallow form of knowledge, so it may be hard to fully internalize these lessons unless they are clearly presented and fully engrained in you.

Read the Book

The “Read the Book” step on the ladder represents wisdom learned via reading a book, taking a course, or consuming long-form content. This wisdom is time-consuming to grasp but is layered and nuanced. You also spend more time with the material, which increases the chances of internalizing the lessons learned. 

For example, a great novel can leave the reader with countless lessons and a new framework for seeing the world. Archetypal characters can serve as examples to live by or to learn from.

Some of the books I’ve learned most from are:

1984 - The dangers of totalitarianism and censorship
The Alchemist - The importance of having a personal legend to work toward
Meditations - It is possible to remain at peace under the most extreme circumstances

Use this stage on the ladder for acquiring the deepest wisdom passed on from the experiences of others.

Climb the Mountain

The final “Climb the Mountain” step on the ladder represents wisdom gained first-hand. These experiences give us the most profound wisdom yet are challenging and time-consuming.

Some of the most insightful experiences I’ve had are:

The passing of my Grandma - How to live and die with grace
Starting a company - The importance of being mission-driven
Attending a 10-day meditation retreat - The many layers of my consciousness

These experiences were unique to my life, and no books or quotes could have given me this knowledge.

Think about the best way to distill the wisdom you have learned from the “mountains” you have personally climbed. This may mean writing and sharing your ideas, practicing your ability to tell your story compellingly, or channeling your wisdom into a pithy maxim.

What Can We Learn from the Ladder of Wisdom?

The Ladder of Wisdom helps me frame the challenges I’m looking to overcome. Ideally, I can overcome the challenge by “stepping up as low on the ladder as possible.” If I can gain insight from a simple quote or maxim, then that’s what I look to do. If I can read a book for life advice, I’ll read it. In some instances, I’ll realize that the only way to acquire the necessary wisdom is to “climb the mountain.” The strange thing is, I may already know the “answer” from quotes, movies, or books. However, sometimes there are lessons we must learn from our own experience to internalize them. As an example, you could read dozens of books on parenting, but none of them would compare to what you would learn from even one week of being a parent.

As you climb the ladder of wisdom in your own life, look to gain as much wisdom as you can from others, and be intentional with the mountains you choose to climb. Make sure to share what you’ve learned once you reach the top.

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