Treat Progress like a Path, Not a Road

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When people think about progress they often use the metaphor of a road. It’s why “the road to progress” is such a common aphorism. You could certainly do a lot worse, but you could also do a lot better.

The remainder of this piece argues that rather than conceiving of progress as a road, it is far more accurate and helpful to think about progress as a path.

A road is linear and aims to get you from here to there with as much haste and as little effort as possible. A road resists the landscape; instead of working with its environment, it plows over whatever is in its way. When you are traveling on a road, you know your destination. If you get knocked off, it is an unambiguously bad thing; you get back on and assume smooth travel again. Interesting opportunities may be calling you from the sides, but when you are on a road, the goal is to stay on the road, to get where you are going as fast as you can.

A path, on the other hand, is quite different. It works in harmony with its surroundings. When you are traveling on a path you may have a general sense of where you are going, but you are open to navigating, perhaps even making use of, whatever detours arise. A path is not separate from its environment but rather part of it. If you get knocked off a road, it can be traumatizing and disorienting. But there is no getting knocked off a path, since it is always unfolding and revealing itself to you.

A road resists time and the elements, building up tension until eventually it cracks and crumbles. A path embraces change and is constantly rerouting itself accordingly. Though at first, a road may seem stronger, a path is far more robust, durable, and persistent.

Attaining sustainable progress means treating your important pursuits—you could even argue your entire life—like a path. It requires that you do not become too attached to any single period of stability, or to any specific route, which usually causes more harm than good and leads to all manner of missed opportunities.

Overwhelming science demonstrates that the more distress—what researchers call “allostatic load”—a person, organization, or culture experiences during periods of disorder, the greater their chance of disease and demise. Fortunately, the same science agrees that we can also become stronger and grow from life’s inevitable flux, and that much about how we navigate periods of disorder is behavioral; that is, it can be developed and practiced—no different than becoming a skillful hiker, mountaineer, or trail runner.

Simply reframing your mindset to orient toward progress as a path is an important first step. This way, you won’t freak out when you find yourself not exactly where you thought you’d be.

A great way to become wealthy is to find a bunch of people who want to be lied to and then lie to them. There are a lot of wealthy “thought leaders” and influencers who promise a nice and tidy road-like narrative of progress. But it’s just not how it works. Sustainable progress is an ongoing path with peaks, valleys, and plateaus. A big part of the reason I wrote Master of Change was to try and correct this false narrative and give people some tools for walking their own respective paths.

(Note: I first considered the difference between a road and a path after reading Wendell Berry’s 1968 essay, “A Native Hill,” which examines the difference between the literal landscapes of roads and paths.)

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