Ladder Levels for Living

At Duolingo, we just finished our twice-annual performance review cycle. Duolingo has a fairly well-honed performance system that operates like many other Big Tech companies. Every employee has a “ladder level.” For the common roles in the company, like engineering, there is a thorough guide to what’s expected at each level along different dimensions. For example, engineers at Duolingo have expectations around technical ability, ability to ship, impact, and communication / leadership. As you advance in your career from one level to the next, the expectations increase. While no system is perfect, I appreciate the work that Duolingo does to clarify expectations and demystify promotions.1

A man appears to be hanging from the gutter of his house with his ladder fallen off to the side.

Be careful on that ladder.

Since ladder levels work so well to help motivate people to advance in their career, I wondered what it would look like to create “ladder levels” for being a good human being? I’m no philosopher and I’ve spent maybe an hour total repackaging uncontroversial self-help clichés… but if you have also just finished a performance cycle and want a reminder that there’s more to living well than getting that next promotion at work, for your enjoyment I present the Dewey Ladder Levels for Living (version 1.0):

Wealth Health Community Purpose
Level 1
(“Hot mess”)
You depend upon others You take your health for granted You are searching for community and belonging Your do what others tell you to do
Level 2
(“Junior adult”)
You are self-sufficient You realize that your actions can impact your health but don’t make significant changes You are a member of a community You are questioning what others tell you
Level 3
You support others You regularly engage in activities to support your health You are a leader in your community You have identified your own purpose
Level 4
(“Killing it”)
You employ others Healthy habits are seamlessly integrated into your life You are a pillar of your community You are living your purpose

While I didn’t put a ton of thought into creating this, I do want to share a few things that went through my head while I did so.

  • Every Big Tech company I’ve worked at has a “terminal level,” which sounds much worse than it is — it’s the minimum level that every employee is expected to get to.2 Not making it to at least the terminal level within a certain timeframe is the sign of a performance problem, and once you make it to the terminal level, it’s OK (from the company’s perspective) if you never get another promotion.3 Without really planning for it, I wound up with the same rough structure in my Ladder Levels for Living. In my mind, everyone should strive to get to the “Adulting” level.

  • I’ve been in many performance and career development conversations with people over the years, and I’ve had this conversation repeatedly: There comes a point in your career where growth comes less from developing your skills and more from helping develop the skills of the people around you. I don’t think I nailed this in my first draft of Ladder Levels for Living, but it was going through my head: I tried to create levels that have a point where growth is less inward-focused (“have I gotten better?”) and becomes more outward-focused (“have I helped others get better?”).

I found this an amusing exercise that gave me a little perspective at the end of the company performance review cycle. I also admit I got kind of uncomfortable writing all of this down… I realized I’m not doing well in some of the dimensions that I know are important for living well, and I’m also scared at trying and failing to improve them. So, if you try a similar exercise of creating your own ladder levels and find yourself a little uncomfortable: I see you.

  1. We’re hiring.
  2. In my era at Microsoft, it was Level 64; at Facebook it was E5; at Duolingo it’s Senior Software Engineer.
  3. Each company’s ladder goes beyond the terminal level because tech companies are staffed with overachievers and it helps to give us something to strive for.