Are you on the right path? A few clues.
Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. —Benjamin Franklin
When you lose something in your life, stop thinking it’s a loss for you… it is a gift you have been given so you can get on the right path to where you are meant to go, not to where you think you should have gone. —Suze Orman
Without getting into a big discussion of the meaning of life, it seems like most of us would agree that a sense of purpose, meaningful progress, is a key part of the making the journey more enjoyable. But how do you know if you are really moving in the “right” direction?
I love to swim, so I’ve concocted this grand metaphor that helps me sort out whether I am on the right path, and it has been super helpful in my daily life. So I thought I’d share it, maybe it will help you too.
For me, knowing if I’m on the right path is asking myself if I am swimming or treading. Swimming = right direction. Treading= not so much. When I am treading, I feel like I’m working really hard, expending a good deal of energy to keep my head above water. Anxiety is present. I’m working at cross-purposes with the water, steadfastly vertical, despite its offer to hold me. My breathing is labored and I am trying to look about for help, for a line, for a way. In my head, I’m thinking about my next “strategic” move, the best way to get where I think I want to go, and the people I need to help me get there. I’m plotting and planning, because I am afraid can’t keep my head above water for long at the rate I’m culling.
A friend explained that for her, when she feels angry or resentful or anxious, she knows she’s not going in the right direction because God, the universe, nature – insert your “higher power” – would not want you to feel these things. I like that idea too.
In contrast to treading, swimming requires a combination of surrender and action and awareness. I have to trust enough in myself and the water that I can get myself horizontal and float. I need to relax and employ some measured breathing. I need to accept that I cannot clearly see what lies below or ahead (it can be disorienting), but also watch for buoys or if in the pool, the flags or cross at the end of the lane. These are signs that I’m going the right way or coming to a turn. When I am swimming, there is a sense of pace and progress. (I sing 100 bottles of beer on the wall when I am doing a long swim.) Some call this “flow.” This makes sense to me.
Feeling a sense of purpose and progress and having a feeling I’m on the right path is not a cakewalk. It often takes effort, one stroke after another. But there is a sense of rhythm to it. A sense that you are being somehow assisted, lifted by something along the way. Sometimes it feels like contentment, strength, or even sheer joy.
A concrete example:
Treading: I’ve submitted a proposal to a potential client. I have not heard back at my expected time. I feel anxious, and my brain is cranking at high speed with thoughts: Should I email them? Call? Have someone else check in on my behalf? Send an article I think would interest them in the hopes it triggers a response? Did my proposal suck? Did I send it to the right person? Why do I think I am good enough for this job anyway? I shoot off an email, or call and leave a message (or three). Sometimes I get the job, but I’m never quite sure if I’m walking the right way.
Swimming: I submitted the proposal and I have not heard back when I expected. I call a friend who is not involved with the project (use your buoys!), tell them I have not heard back, ask for their outside perspective. Is it time to call? No, she says, wait another few days, call on Friday. Ok. I let it go for now. My head says: if I’m supposed to get this job, I’ll get it. If not, it will be on to the next adventure. Nine times out of ten, I get the job and a sense that I am headed in the right direction.
Last year I rocked out an Ironman race. The swim in Ironman is 2.4 miles long and complicated by the fact that you are swimming with 3,000 other people paddling over and under you and sometimes pulling your legs and smacking you in the head. Kinda like life sometimes. A few days before the race, I was talking with my coach, Craig Strong, about my strategy. Me: “I think I am going to start wide and front to avoid the traffic, tuck extra goggles in my wetsuit just in case.” Craig, knowing that I did the work to get this far, said something I will never forget: “Kelly, ultimately the best strategy right now is to just accept it. Accept that you will get knocked around. Smile underwater.”
It’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about life.