THE IMPERFECT PATH - 12 December 2013
Sandhill Crane at Sunset - Bosque Del Apache, NWR, New Mexico
Imagine you're on a path towards a mountain. The mountain is where you want to go. It's not really a path in the sense of being surrounded by dense trees where the path winds through the dark forest, the type Little Red Riding Hood took on her way to grandmother's house. It's more like the yellow brick road where the path passes fields, scenes, characters, and distractions along the way. The path is supposed to be the shortest route to the mountain. You want to get where you're going and you "know" that path is the right one to take you there. But, somewhere along the way, you get off the path. You discover yourself not perfectly aligned with the perfect path. You're still going towards where you want to go--the mountain is in front of you still. But somehow, you aren't on the yellow brick road anymore. You think to yourself, "How can I make it to the mountain if I'm not on that yellow brick road?" You try to get back on the path but it's hard. You're still facing the mountain. It's out there in front of you as you walk, but the course you're on is not the path. Yet you're moving towards the mountain even off the path.
Obviously, this is a gigantic metaphor. What I'm suggesting is we assess how well we're getting somewhere by only looking at a single course line. As aviators, we understand course lines. It's the route we plan to follow before we fly. We want to get somewhere and imagine a path like a course line on a map. The problem comes when "life happens," and diverts us off that course line. Like encountering unexpected weather along the way, we have to deviate from the pre-planned course. Yet, we're still able to head towards where we want to go. That's just like life. We plan where we want to go but are constantly pulled off course along the way. We are rarely on the perfect course line.
I think we're "check the box" kind of people. We want to measure success by getting to defined places along our path. As much as we might say, "It's about the journey, not the destination," that's really hard to believe. After all, how do you know if you're going the right way unless you steadily check off the boxes on time and as expected? If we aren't checking off the boxes on schedule, i.e., staying on the planned path, mentally we're off course. Mentally, we might think we can't get where we want to go, we aren't heading towards the mountain. As you can imagine, people give up on their path when they think they can't get there.
Here's the thing: in this scenario I did NOT mention that somehow we got off track from the path and then got turned around away from the mountain, opposite to where we want to go. I only suggested we got off the path for whatever reason and were still trudging forward. The problems began when we looked at how far off the path we were.
Too often we measure how we're doing based only on our perfect path, the yellow brick road. It's unfortunate because for sure we'll get diverted off the path. Something always comes along and diverts you off the track. If your assessment mechanism only looks how you're doing compared to the perfect track and you were always off that track--because life always happens--you might think you were doing something wrong.
Imagine this: stand up facing your mountain. The perfect course is a straight line directly from you towards the mountain. Now imagine going one or two or three degrees off that course. Move your finger slightly away from the mountain. Obviously, where your finger is pointing is not the perfect course. But, if you went that direction you'd still be heading towards the mountain.
Now consider this: as you're facing the mountain stretch out your arms with the palms facing towards the mountain. Any direction forward of your arms, your hands, takes you to the mountain. Of course, just barely "north" of your hands isn't very much towards the mountain but it's still going there, albeit a lot slower than the perfect course. As long as you aren't going backwards, you're still heading towards where you want to go. Sometimes, that's the best anyone can do.
I have been in impossibly complicated situations where the path forward was muddied at best. I was unsure whether the next step was the right one because I had no idea what would really happen with the next step. I could only hope that the next step would be in the right direction. Sometimes all I could do to keep moving towards the goal was to take a step, see what happened, and think, "At least I'm not going backwards."
So much of how we think we're doing is only based on the perfect path. Unfortunately, when things get tough the perfect path may be nowhere to be seen and you might give up. I am no different. I constantly need to assess how off course I am. When it's tough, assessing this way can be very depressing. Sometimes all I can do in such situations is stretch out my arms to see if I'm still moving towards the mountain, even just a little bit. Then I can say, "At least I'm not moving backwards."