As You Climb the Ladder of Success, Be Sure It’s Leaning Against the Right Building

Stephen R. Covey? Thomas Merton? Allen Raine? Anne Adaliza Evans? Mae Maloo? H. Jackson Brown? Sarah Frances Brown? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The metaphorical notion of climbing a ladder of success was in use by writers in the nineteenth century. Here is an intriguing cautionary twist about faulty objectives:

When you get to the top of the ladder you may find it is propped against the wrong wall.

This thought has been credited to the educator and best-selling author Stephen R. Covey and to the theologian and activist Thomas Merton. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Tracing this expression has been difficult because of its variability. The earliest evidence found by QI appeared in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in 1915. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“You may get to the very top of the ladder, and then find it has not been leaning against the right wall.”—Allen Raine.

This quotation did not explicitly mention a “ladder of success”, but the allusion was clear. “Allen Raine” was the pseudonym of a popular Welsh novelist named Anne Adaliza Evans, but QI is not certain whether the newspaper intended to attribute the quote to her or to some other Allen Raine.

The citation above reveals that neither Thomas Merton who was born in 1915 nor Stephen R. Covey who was born in 1932 originated this extended metaphor. In fact, QI has not yet found any substantive evidence linking the notion to Merton. On the other hand, Covey did employ it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Decades later in 1950 “The Evening Tribune” of Marysville, Ohio printed an item that recalled the linkage to Raine: 2

You may get to the very top of the ladder and then find it has not been leaning against the right wall.—A. Raine.

In 1954 “The Bee” newspaper of Danville, Virginia printed an instance in a column called “The Beehive”. No ascription was listed: 3

It is possible to reach the top of the ladder and then discover that it is leaning against the wrong wall.

The next week, precisely the same item appeared in the widely-syndicated column “Office Cat” by Junius. 4

Soon afterward in 1954 “The Boston Daily Globe” of Boston, Massachusetts printed a variant within a miscellaneous set of sayings under the title “Editorial Points”: 5

It’s no fun to reach the top of the ladder only to discover it’s propped against the wrong wall.

The industrious collector Evan Esar included a version without attribution in his 1968 compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 6

Many a man gets to the top of the ladder, and then finds out it has been leaning against the wrong wall.

In 1971 “Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations” edited by Leonard Louis Levinson printed these two items: 7

It is a funny thing—you work all your life toward a certain goal and then somebody moves the posts on you. Herb Caen

Some people reach the top of the ladder only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall. Anon

In 1972 “The Chicago Tribune” provided a curious ascription: 8

Line o’ Type
Some people find that when they get to the top of the ladder it’s up against the wrong wall. Mae Maloo

In 1986 the “Los Angeles Times” published an article about a lecture series for business executives assembled by Stephen R. Covey: 9

Borrowing an often-heard metaphor, Covey sometimes tells his listeners that without paying attention to both personal and corporate values, they may climb the ladder of success only to find it’s leaning against the wrong wall. So he puts clarification of values high in his program.

In Covey’s 1988 bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he discussed a habit summarized as “Begin with the End in Mind”: 10

It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

In 1990 the inspirational author H. Jackson Brown Jr. published “P.S. I Love You”, a book of sayings he attributed to his mother Sarah Frances Brown: 11

P.S. As you climb the ladder of success, be sure it’s leaning against the right building.
I love you, Mom

In 2011 the author of a religious book credited Thomas Merton with a version of the saying: 12

Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Allen Raine with this notion based on the 1915 citation. The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years. Stephen R. Covey and Sarah Frances Brown popularized the saying in recent decades.

Image Notes: Illustration of a ladder against a wall from fudowakira0 at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Philip Chircop whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1915 December 30, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: Picture and Sporting, (Filler item in a box), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1950 February 25, The Evening Tribune (The Marysville Tribune), Sermonograms, Quote Page 3, Column 8, Marysville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1954 June 9, The Bee, The Beehive, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1954 June 15, Edwardsville Intelligencer, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Edwardsville, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1954 June 28, The Boston Daily Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Style, Quote Page 457, Column 2, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1971, Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations by Leonard Louis Levinson, Topic: Aim, Quote Page 8, Cowles Book Company: Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1972 February 5, Chicago Tribune, Line o’ Type, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  9. 1986 January 8, Los Angeles Times, $6,000 Lecture Series: The Masters of Managing Tell All by Beth Ann Krier (Times Staff Writer), Start Page F1, Quote Page F5,Los Angeles, California.(ProQuest)
  10. 2004 (Copyright 1988) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind, Quote Page 98, Free Press: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  11. 1990, P.S. I Love You: When Mom wrote, she always saved the best for last, Compiled by H. Jackson Brown Jr., Quote Page 129, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2011, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xvii, Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Preview)