Sunday 30 April 2017

Life isn't linear

Sometimes life will present an opportunity to go off-map and skip a few milestones

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem

Last month, I met two inspiring women who stepped off the well-trodden path to take their own direction. One of them has always known that she wanted to adopt a child. So rather than waiting until she was in a romantic relationship to consider starting a family, she applied for inter-country adoption as a single woman.

No point delaying an already lengthy process, she explained.

The other woman is an Irish-born, London-based entrepreneur who is in the process of launching her brand in the UK. Her initial plan was to move to an upscale area of the city once she had inked enough deals to justify the expense.

She took a different tack when the opportunity to rent a luxury apartment in Chelsea presented itself. Her bank manager advised against it, but she's of the opinion that the business connections she can make in her new area will more than compensate for the extra rent she's now paying.

Fake it till you make it, she explained.

Some might describe these women as dynamic. Others might describe them as foolhardy. That's a matter of opinion.

However, what they have in common - and what they can teach us all - is that life is not linear, and sometimes we have to take bold leaps rather than steady, incremental steps to get ahead.

"Progress has not followed a straight ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression, of evolution and dissolution," wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Yet most of us continue to labour under the delusion that success occurs sequentially rather than chaotically.

Go to university, get a good job, climb the career ladder all the way to the top. Fall in love, get married, have children. Save money, get a mortgage, buy a house.

Sure, the milestones occur in a nice tidy order for some people. For others, it's two steps forward and one step back.

Progress might look like a steady climb when we read the biographies of accomplished people, but these crudely condensed summaries tend to edit out the roundabouts and cul de sacs on the road to success.

We never read about the college exams they had to repeat, the first business failure they had to endure, the annus horribilis or the quarter-life crisis.

Life is rarely a succession of green lights, or as Gloria Steinem puts it, "The model of success is not linear. Success is completing the full circle of yourself."

It's around this time of year that we are reminded that progress isn't linear. Those who have embarked on health and fitness plans soon realise that their goal of losing two pounds a week is much too rigid for the cycles of life.

One week their weight loss might be exponential; another week it will plateau; another week it will feel like they are right back to where they started. This phenomenon isn't the exception. It's the rule. And we can learn from it.

When we get comfortable with the idea that success doesn't follow a straight line, we become much more receptive to the opportunities that occur along the way.

Sir Ken Robinson talked about our "obsession with linear narrative" in his TED Talk, 'Bring on the learning revolution'.

"Life is not linear; it's organic," he said. "We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances they help to create for us."

Yet when we expect life to unfold in a linear fashion, we only explore our talents in relation to where we think we ought to be on the always-upward curve.

We map out milestones according to our age bracket rather than our circumstances. We should be educated in our early 20s, build a family in our early 30s, and start thinking about investing for our future in our early 40s.

These milestones certainly make life a little more stable, but if we're totally honest, those that follow rigid milestones during life's journey haven't really taken off the stabilisers.

We know by now that job opportunities come out of the blue, there is never a perfect time to have a baby, and adversity occurs when we least expect it. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then everything happens, as the saying goes.

Yet we tend to be more comfortable taking one step backwards than we are with taking two steps forward. Unforeseen tragedies are the way of life, but unexpected boons must be a trick of the light.

This negativity bias is compounded by the fallacy that life unfolds linearly. It may seem like the safe and sensible option but, ultimately, it holds us back from reaching our full potential.

When we believe that progress is linear, we avoid taking leaps of faith and stepping out of our comfort zone. Instead we take small, incremental steps and expect the twists and turns of life to parallel with our plans.

Yet sometimes life will present an opportunity to go off-map and skip a few milestones along the way. The most successful people are those who seize the opportunity, and trust that everything else will fall into place.

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