“Go back?" he thought. "No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!" So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The next level is just that: it’s the next level. This means two things. First, it means that whatever was being done before, no matter how good, can be, and probably should be, improved. This can be a blow to the ego. It may feel like an insult or a repudiation of all past efforts. It’s not those things necessarily, but it may feel like it. Of course, being pushed to the next level may not need to feel harsh at all. It may be an affirmation of all past efforts. You can’t reach one the next level without reaching and surpassing previous levels. You can’t skip steps. You can’t jump to the top of the mountain; you have to climb. That’s what you’ve been doing all along. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. It wasn’t easy, but you got there. Then why is it time to move forward and how do you know it’s time to move forward?
You find yourself bored.
The work is still important, but there is less challenge and thus less stimulation. Things are not just familiar, they’re becoming commonplace. The work is becoming almost too easy and, curiously, this causes more stress than when it was more difficult. The easy life is not always the good life. Something needs to change. In Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton writes this:
There are two things which a monk ought to hate above all, for by hating them, he can become free in this world. An easy life and vain glory.
This may not require a complete overhaul. It doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, end your relationships, or sell the house and move to Bolivia. It might mean going deeper into what you already know and what you already have. There are often unplumbed and unexplored depths to any subject, any relationship, or any job. Imagine, for example, learning something new about a friend you’ve known for years, or discovering a passage in a book you’ve read before, or hearing a familiar song in a new way. Growth, like the ocean, is vast, but it’s also very deep. It’s beautiful, but it can also be frightening.
Fear is the other piece of going to the next level. The next level is not only the next level; it’s a new level. “New” means different, unfamiliar, uncharted, unknown. You could get lost. You could die. Worse than death, you might have to turn back in defeat and humiliation. What if you just don’t have what it takes? “New” could mean all those things. Or it could mean discoveries, insights, and growth. It could mean finding whole new worlds externally and internally. Growth can bring pain, but it can also bring joy. Growth, like the ocean is deep, but it’s also very vast.
The next level is inevitable until death. Refusing to move to the next level, invites death much earlier, sometimes literally. The only way to get to the next level is to Get Started and Keep Going. If you do, you will find yourself at the next level.