A few years ago while living in New Zealand, I went skydiving.
I jumped out of a plane from 16,000 feet in the air, and though it’s not something I would usually find appealing (the kind of thrills I prefer are exploratory rather than physically jolting), I had a good time with it. I’m glad I agreed to go.
But why did I agree if it wasn’t something I thought I would enjoy? Why, when a friend asked if I was keen to partake, did I say, “Sure,” rather than, “Nah, I’d rather do anything else”?
I didn’t want to lower my ceiling. That is, I didn’t want to place a limit on what I would do.
I knew that as soon as I said, “No, I don’t think I’ll skydive,” I would be pulling my ceiling down into view. I would know, from that point on, that I’d do anything up to skydiving, but nothing past it. I would have less space in which to live. Fewer possibilities.
I prefer my ceiling high: so high that I can’t even see where it is.
Just as important as my ceiling, though, is my floor. While the former is how far I’ll push myself, the latter is how far I’ll let myself fall. It’s the minimum I’ll accept.
For some people, staying in fancy hotels and eating at high-end restaurants is their floor, which is relatively high. Other people are fine with living in a tent in the woods, boiling water before they drink it, and eating only what they can catch. That’s a fairly low floor.
In the US, most people don’t have very low floors. We tend to aim high, so we have high ceilings, but it’s fairly easy for us to do this because we don’t fall very far. Our floors are right up there with us. We’re comfortable. You might say our rooms are regular sized, but on an upper floor.
In a place like Kolkata there are street kids who have incredibly low floors, and their ceilings are quite low, as well. They’ll live on scraps and untreated water, but they aren’t aspiring to be millionaires or famous. They’re just hoping to live in a decent place someday and eat three square meals. Their rooms are also regularly sized, but on a lower floor.
Looking at those two examples, there’s a big contrast, but both groups have similarly scaled rooms. They might live on different floors in the same building, but one doesn’t have any more space in which to move around than the other.
For me, freedom is vital: I want to have a lot of space to move around.
That means I have to always be raising my ceiling while lowering my floor: increasing my ambitions and expectations for myself, while at the same time lowering my minimum standards so that I can have a good time even when things are less than optimal.
People with high ceilings and high floors are trapped by their own standards, missing out on much of what the world has to offer as a consequence.
People with low ceilings and low floors are held back by their lack of ambition or circumstances, and by their acceptance of their given place in the world.
People with low ceilings and high floors can barely move, unwilling to accept less than what they already have, but also unwilling to risk losing it.
Aim for high ceilings and low floors and you’ll never find yourself stuck or without new nooks and crannies to explore. You’ll have plenty of room to jump, plenty of opportunities to fall, but you’ll also have the space you need to stretch out and recover when needed.
Update: February 19, 2017
I’ve always liked this metaphor for ambition and priorities, and I’ve had the chance to know people who fall on all spots of this spectrum. Most tragic, I think, are those with low floors and ceilings that maybe start out high, but which fall lower and lower as their circumstances box them in, perhaps because of poverty, or their family life, or some other variable beyond their control. Guaranteed basic income schemes are meant to remedy those sorts of situations, and I think stand a decent chance of doing so.