Over the course of many years living at the behest of an unquenchable passion for learning, I’ve come to re-realize that my stepmother’s words, on some forgotten night in the consoling Oregon desert, are true — life (oh life! infinite in variation!) is not linear.
This may seem like an idiot’s aphorism, but it counteracts an assumption that runs deep in our society. If you look carefully at your own thought patterns, habitual tendencies, and belief systems, you will likely discover that behind all the ephemera taken as fixed lies the expectation that the major components of your life (achievements, career, relationships) will progress in a “Point A to Point B” fashion. This is simply not true.
I was always an odd child. Never terrifically popular until well into adulthood, I slept with my nose in books, created worlds on paper complete with language and topographical detail, and sat up in trees until the sun went down. I idolized international spies, world-class criminals, and assassins (because of the requisite do-or-die mastery of craft), as well as writers and artists. I could have been any of them. Or all. What fed me, and continues to do so, was the understanding that I could learn anything, or be anybody. I have my father to thank for that. He was unerringly explicit that all one needed was an inquisitive mind and a complete dedication to learning. With that, even when you fail you never fail. Knowledge is its own reward. I took that to heart and didn’t look back.
So what have I done with it? I’ve been a bartender, bouncer, painter, writer, editor, acupuncturist, qi gong instructor, lay counselor, world-traveler, trekker, photographer, neuroscience researcher, and founder of a soon-to-be-birthed nomadic online magazine called SITUATE. While some of my relatives might prefer that I just “settle into one thing and do that,” I doubt I will ever constrain myself to a single venture. I am simply too captivated by what there is to learn. With an eye to becoming a true digital nomad, in recent months I’ve begun courses in web design and development. This existence, and my experience of it, continues to unfold in new directions.
Of course, there is an argument to be made for dismissing with distraction and plumbing the depths of craft until one has achieved mastery. How else would we have had the brilliance of minds such as Frida Kahlo, James Baldwin, or Virginia Woolf? Yet it is not against this that I rebel. My quarrel is with the mistaken assumption that greatness (or “success” in modern lingo) is formulaic.
At constant suck on the digital teat, we are bombarded with admonitions to “change your life in 3 easy steps,” or “revolutionize your writing with these 10 necessary apps.” Underneath these lies the message that if you only structured your life correctly, or bought the right software, you would get what you want. If you do A (e.g., work hard for 10 years at a desk job), it is only a matter of time before it leads to the desirable outcomes B (good income) and C (happiness). A + time → B + C. In reality not only do we not have perfect control over the direction our actions take, but to put it simply, shit happens. Like all who survive in the animal realm, we must be adaptive. We must roll with whatever we are given, and recognize when the path we’ve been on no longer serves us. Resilience is born of creativity. So color outside the lines. Try a new view. Move beyond your imagined limitations.
The false belief that life is linear is actually damaging. It can form the basis of negative self-assessment and criticism. Why is this not working for me? Why are my peers so seemingly happy and I am not? I thought I was doing everything right…what am I getting wrong? None of these thoughts is particularly useful, except perhaps to spark a re-examination of priorities in preparation for a new direction. If we think we are til-death tied to a specific career or professional identity, we prevent ourselves from real and necessary growth. If we mistake ourselves for what we do, we are in even deeper trouble.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of the choices I’ve made have sidelined other important areas of my life or held me back in less obvious ways. We each have our patterns to work through. Despite this, or perhaps because of such missteps (and what I’ve faced as a consequence), my trajectory has been a steady progression that has first and foremost grown me as a person, and second both broadened and deepened my skill sets. As for every other person I’ve ever know, my path has been anything but a straight line. And it has been immensely gratifying.
We are not static. We are beings in process, constantly shape-shifting and stretching our capacities. Embrace the movement. To stifle that creative impulse is to die.