Book Review: “Take the Stairs” by Rory Vaden

Is taking the hard road better in the long run than taking the easy road? Is swimming against the current really worth it? If there’s a perfectly functional escalator available, why should I take the stairs?

Productivity coach and motivational speaker Rory Vaden explains in his New York Times bestselling book Take the Stairs that truly successful people live by a “take the stairs” mindset–doing what’s difficult in the short-term in order to achieve a long-term payoff.

I found out about Vaden and his work through an interview he gave on Erik Fisher’s “Beyond the To-Do List” podcast. This sounded like exactly the kind of book I should read at the start of the new year–a literary kick in the pants for yours truly.

Well, I read this book in the space of a few days–partly because I was enjoying some of what Vaden had to say (more on this shortly) and partly because, clocking in at under 200 wide-spaced pages, it’s a speedy read.

So was Take the Stairs worth the short hike?  I have to confess–despite some good early content, I can’t recommend the book as a whole.

Solid Work Concepts

There were some really good ideas that I’ve gained from Vaden’s book.  Here are a few that I’m hanging onto, just from the first couple of chapters:

The difference between buffalo and cows: Vaden writes that in his experience in Colorado, he saw buffalo and cows in the same environment, and he noticed that when a storm would roll down off the mountains, the cows would run away from the storm while the buffalo would wait and then run straight into it. The cows wrongly thought they could outrun the storm, and ended up in it for a long time. The buffalo ran straight through it, and minimized their time in the storm. Vaden’s observation is that when we run from hard work or challenges (or procrastinate and hope they go away), we usually end up paying for it with longer consequences. However, if we strategically run toward challenges, we can break through to the other side more quickly and minimize our “suffering” in the process. (pp. 34-36)

Procrastination: Vaden describes procrastination and self-indulgence as creditors that charge terrible interest. The self-destructiveness of procrastination is a recurring theme in Vaden’s book. (p. 10)

Success: Success, according to Vaden, is never achieved or owned; it’s rented–and the rent is due every day. What are you willing to do to “pay the rent” today? (p. 26)

My favorite paragraph, from Vaden’s chapter on commitment (in a section about whether or not to change jobs), deserves a full quote:

So, you must crush it where you’re at. You must dominate whatever it is that you are doing. You must do everything in your power to reach the top of whatever game it is that you are playing. Because if you don’t, then you are not a successful person looking for a new challenge to take on; you’re a person with conditional commitment looking for a new set of circumstances, and most likely starting the same self-defeating pattern all over again. Success isn’t a matter of circumstance; it’s a matter of choice. Finding new circumstances won’t make you successful, but making new choices will.

For someone who struggles with motivation and perseverance in the workplace, this hit me squarely in the chest.

Obviously, there are some good things in this book. So why am I having such a hard time recommending it?

Sketchy Worldview

While there was some phrasing in the early going that gave me pause, the big warning flags came in Vaden’s chapter on focus. In this chapter and following chapters, he discussed how he believed in a version of “The Law of Attraction” (made famous in the New Age self-help book The Secret), the power of positive self-affirmations (think Joel Osteen and Stuart Smalley), and the use of visualization to pursue and achieve goals. After some great words on motivation, taking responsibility for your own actions, and hard work, Vaden’s book veered off into the theological and ideological weeds here.

This was compounded when his chapter on integrity was less about keeping your word because it’s morally right and more about keeping your word because when you do, it grants your words “power” to come true.  In a twisty sort of logic, this is almost true. When you walk with integrity, you follow through on your commitments, and that kind of consistency and results is often rewarded with success. The problem with Vaden (and so many New Age and/or pseudo-Evangelical self-help gurus) is that he attributes his success to the power of his positive thinking and affirmations. He even has the gall to misapply John 1:1-3 to make the case that words have power, while completely missing that (in that same chapter) John makes it clear that the Word was a Person, namely Jesus the Christ.

It got worse with his chapter on “faith,” which he assures the reader isn’t specifically in any specific deity. It’s more a faith that if I do my best with what I’ve got, then things will work out for the best in the end. It’s a bizarre kind of secular predestination–if I couldn’t have done anything differently, then things worked out the way they were supposed to.  Or, to put it another way: “All things work together for the good of those who are hard-working, self-motivated, and take advantage of every opportunity to improve themselves and accomplish their goals.”  I have to ask–what IS this? This horribly misguided idea of “faith” is doomed to fail, because true faith is only as strong as its Object. This is why our faith must be in the God we serve instead of our fickle, fallible selves.

What  burns about all this is that contextual clues point to the strong possibility that Vaden is a churchgoer of the self-help-y Evangelical mega-church variety. This kind of theologically wonky thinking would be unchallenged in such an environment. Brothers, this just should not be.

Final Analysis

Ultimately, for me, Vaden’s shaky worldview spoiled an otherwise serviceable motivational book. I’m not saying he has nothing useful to say. As the old saying goes, you chew the meat and spit out the bones. Well, after a few bites of solid beef, I found out that the rest of the steak was bone and gristle. It has the flavor of a high-quality cut of beef, but there’s nothing solid there. Worse yet, the more I chewed, the more I realized the beef was rotting from the center outward.

Even though I think I’ve benefited from some of what Vaden had to say, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book to anyone in good conscience. The theologically slimy ideas of the latter 2/3 of the book are too insidious to recommend, even to the theologically wary.

Take the stairs. Work hard. Do your best. But do these things because they’re good for your growth, because they honor God and make you a more sacrificial and persevering person, and most importantly because you have faith that even if they don’t seem to pay off in the short term, you can trust the One who judges justly will set all things right at the end.

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