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The Elevator Dream: On the Beautiful and Crushing Nature of Success

Even in a palace it is possible to live well.

Marcus Aurelius

I have had this recurring elevator dream. I’m in a lift going up a tall building. As the cabin reaches the very top it begins to fold and collapse underneath my feet. It’s not that the ceiling comes down on me. Somehow the floor closes in. It feels like a trap. Buildings and elevators change from dream to dream. Some are old, some are new. But the feeling that goes with the experience is always the same. It’s a mix of claustrophobia and incredulity. While asleep, I struggle to wrap my head around how this is even possible. Who in their right mind engineered this? Elevators are not supposed to work like that. Then I wake up.

A Mean Elevator Dream?

It took me years to figure out what my elevator dream meant.

There seems to be a consensus that imaginary elevators symbolise the ups and downs in life. I assumed so much. Broadly speaking, going up is associated with progress. Which makes reaching the top the epitome of the highest good: The top of a hierarchy, success, meaning, truth. Your personal palace if you will.

There’s a connection to symbols such as the eye of providence at the tip of the pyramid. You also find it in the fact that CEOs rarely have their office in the basement. Even North Korean dictators are laying in state on the top floor of their ‘Palace of the Sun’. The sun of course being a bright guiding star shining from the heavens.

My achievements are more modest and not exactly tyrannical, but they’ve kept coming nonetheless. So you’d think my dream would be generally positive. Yet, it’s more akin to a nightmare. To be fair, failing and falling again doesn’t seem to concern me. And I never actually do get crushed. But having made it to the top is not a relief either. How’s that possible?

What Does the Elevator Dream Mean?

Perhaps it’s a misconception. Reaching the top is not the end of your struggles, it’s the beginning of a whole new set of challenges. The room at the top of the pyramid is tight after all. There doesn’t seem anywhere else to go except down. No wonder the pressure comes from below.

So the question is: What are those pressures that come with success? And the answer is: Where to begin? You either create the pressure yourself or it comes from others. Or both. I’ve put them into three categories:

  1. Repeating, sustaining or even surpassing your achievements. Are you chasing unattainable perfectionism while falling prey to Dukkha Bias? Do you have a moral obligation to stay at the top to begin with? Or are you now struggling with impostor syndrome thinking you shouldn’t be up there anyway?
  2. A surge in opportunities which suddenly open up to you. You can’t take all of them. How do you choose? How do you say ‘No’ without feeling guilty? Then there’s the people who now want something from you. Advice, support, encouragement. Money? How do you deal with the attention and expectations? Will it corrupt you?
  3. The perils of having become an ideal; one that inevitably judges others by virtue of its mere existence. This is well-illustrated by Australia’s infamous Tall Poppy Syndrome. Success invites envy and resentment, challenge and competition, which in turn reinforces category no. 1.

It seems to me that these forces are omnipresent, regardless of the magnitude of your success or the size of your peer group. On a small scale, it applies to your kid who got 100% on a vocabulary test. On a medium scale. it’s the brute family-destroying force of winning a game of Monopoly. On the largest scale, it applies to Roman Emperors who hold ultimate power and wealth.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the night, I think the elevator dream reveals a rather banal truth. One that easily fits on a fridge magnet. Success comes with a price. There’s nothing to fix. It’s the nature of being at the top of any hierarchy, no matter how seemingly small. The problem is not the elevator. It kind of does what you asked it to do. It elevates. Only now it runs on autopilot, driven by your own ambition, your peers and your audience.

Perhaps I was looking for a way to be successful without the drawbacks. Silly me. But I suppose there is something we can do. Transcend the hierarchy. Accept the pressure as the nature of success. Don’t judge it. Just watch it play out with curiosity a bit more emotional distance.

Even in a palace, it is possible to live well.