About straight paths and winding ones

Like a mountain climbing. This is the general sense you get when you listen to what most workers give as an answer to “Where do you see yourself, professionally, in the next 5 years?

Whether it’s enjoying a better job security, having a more senior position or a higher income, what they seek is something they don’t already have. Something, they’ll say, can only be found at some “next, upper level”, compared to where they’re at. Either at their company, in their field or industry.

This mountain climbing imagery is also a constant in what kids answer to “What do you want to be (or do) when you grow up?

Generally, the line they’ll draw – between where they are and where they want to be – is pretty straight. “I’ve got to do ‘X’, then ‘Y’. Then, because ‘X’ and ‘Y’ will have worked, I’ll be able to make ‘Z’. After that, I’ll …

The way kids describe how they expect things – or their path to success – to unfold for them is pretty similar to the one their adult-peers use to detail their own expectations. Meaning: a straight line. A series of steps that will only make them go uphill, straight to their goal. Straight to that place where the life they have now will then be improved.

When you think about it, what has become the most simple and common symbol we use, as a society, to describe both “improvement” and a “path to success”?

Sometimes, a linear curve. Most often, a straight ascending line.

 

WHAT PEOPLE BELIEVE DOESN’T ALWAYS END UP BEING TRUE

This idea – that “reaching a goal or achieving success is a straight-line thing” – has become so widely spread, so common in our daily conversations, that companies and individuals have convinced themselves that it’s actually how things work.

Enough so that, still to this day, entire business plans are built on this belief. Personal endeavors, too. Without any sort of “Unexpected Events” cash reserve or back up plans, if “step X” or “Y” don’t work as expected.

In a way, it explains why setting goals has become so easy, and our society so good at it.

Why would we want to do otherwise? All you’ve got to do is add up steps you expect to work out, one after the other, up to your goal. “I’ve got to do ‘X’, then ‘Y’. Then, because ‘X’ and ‘Y’ will have worked, I’ll be able to make ‘Z’. After that, I’ll …

The best part? This mountain climbing inspired-strategy works every time.

At least on paper, and in our heads.

 

REALITY HITS AS HARD AS A METAL SHEET WORKER…

The harsh part is when we take that straight line path we’ve drawn and put it to the test in reality.

How many times do we end up getting surprised or caught off guard, when we do so?

Whether by steps that don’t match the ones we imagined. Or by the results we get, compared to the ones we hoped for. Or by all the unexpected requirements, delays and detours no one told us about.

Different blows that – just like a metal sheet worker – hit this straight line path so hard it’s forced into a different shape; one of a winding line.

Depending how severe the changes are, and how taken aback we feel by the whole process, we react differently.

 

… UNTIL YOU END UP CONSIDERING THROWING THE TOWEL

In the most extreme cases, we throw a towel out and say a very heartfelt “Fuck off, it’s way too hard for me” along with it. Right before picking a fallback solution. Something that’s not as inspiring as our initial goal but makes us say: “At least I’ve got this. It’s better than nothing”. Just so we can cope with the disappointment of having failed.

Where, if our path only suffered a few minor blows, we don’t necessarily throw the towel on our goal. Because our straight line still looks straight-ish, overall. The fact that it’s not so beaten up tends to make us think “Maybe I have a chance to succeed!” So we look for tweaks, shortcuts and quick action-steps. Things we didn’t necessarily think about first but… that could, help us save what we’ve accomplished so far, and keep going after our goal.

Even then, your reaction will depend on how motivated you are to actually achieve the goal you’ve set. Moreover, it will be influenced by how you feel from having being thrown off course – even if just a little – of that straight line you had in mind.

 

BUT IT’S NOT LIKE IF YOU DON’T GET ANY WARNINGS THAT IT MIGHT HURT

One thing worth noticing is that realities like “having to struggle to achieve a goal” and “being surprised and thrown off (your initial) course is gonna happen” shouldn’t be much of a surprise to you and me.

Why?

Because everyday discussions – about goal-chasing and doing all we can to improve our life’s situation – are filled with warnings like these. Ones we get from the stories we hear or read about in almost every area of our lives.

Stories of people who tried to achieve a certain goal and went through a series of steps that weren’t (at all) in straight (ascending) line. Individuals and companies that had to rethink their plans or take a detour or two. Because they’ve came across one or many unexpected challenges. Just to end up succeeding or failing at reaching their goal.

The common thread between all of these stories being this: no successful “path to success” actually looks like a straight line. It’s more like a collection of steps forward, direction changes, detours and lucky streaks too.

 

BEING STUBBORN ISN’T PART OF THE SOLUTION

When reality knocks us off that path we’re trying to follow, it sure gets us to feel shaken on top of losing the focus we had on our goal.

The best question to answer then isn’t: “Should I quit or should I keep pushing?” Because it does nothing to give you back any bit of focus. A more appropriate question to ask yourself in those circumstances is: “What am I really after, right now? Being able to walk a straight path to failure, or being able to follow whatever path I need to reach my goal?

For when we start chasing a new goal, the problem isn’t necessarily with how big the goal is. It’s not with getting pushed off course – due to an unexpected event – neither. Or deciding to choose a fallback solution temporarily – like a better paid but less inspiring job. It’s thinking that if things don’t go in the direction we imagined them to, redirecting our efforts into a different one will only worsen our life’s situation, not improve it.

Truth is, being willing to take a detour makes it possible to reach a goal and improve our lives. Not persisting on walking a straight line (path).

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Photo by: Julian Alexander

Design by: Di Mellon

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