Working Backwards

It’s probably safe to say that the most difficult advice to follow is that which we readily offer to others.

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend after the morning program at the Austin Zen Center when he brought up the possibility of altering the trajectory of his part-time schooling. suggested that, rather than charting a course from where he now is to the place he wants to reach, he instead try leaping ahead to that point and work his way backwards from there: talk to people doing this work, ask them how they got there, then connect the dots to a point within reach of his current situation.

Granted, it doesn’t exactly sound unconventional—it might even be rather obvious—this advice to seek input from people in your chosen field on how to enter it. Yet there is, I believe, a fundamental difference between an ends-oriented perspective and that which most of us take when it comes to pursuing our goals—starting where we are and obsessing on following the best next step.

While common sense and Zen might agree that it’s best to focus on the present, there’s a lot to be said for clarifying your sense of where it is you’re going. After all, how else will you know when you’ve arrived? More immediately, how else can you know if you’re headed in the right direction?

Elsewhere (here, and here, for example) I’ve argued that, to a large extent, you can’t know your path in advance, that you have to trust yourself and navigate by intuition, using your passion as a compass. That’s not any less true for what I’m saying in this post. (Oh, how I love the both-and embrace of paradox that characterizes Zen!) Indeed, you have to do both: be mindful that the present moment is all there is, and also remain in touch with your vision of a meaningful, fulfilling (and otherwise viable and sustainable) life.

For as esteemed as living in the moment may be, it’s easy to form a false idea of what that involves. Mindfulness does not mean being oblivious to thoughts of the future, of where our present course might lead. Living in the moment doesn’t mean getting lost in it, succumbing to tunnel vision or going about with blinders on. Rather, I’m referring to a form of awareness and knowing that includes thinking, but is larger.

Believe me, I’m as guilty as anyone of losing sight of the forest for the trees around me. This is why it feels somewhat awkward, if not hypocritical, for me to be advising someone else to focus on where he wants to arrive. Should I, in fact, focus more on living up to my own advice? I wonder if much or most of my current struggling stems from my relative neglect of my own vision, getting too mired in the moment and not looking where I’m going.

For all these doubts, I do still believe that questioning conventional assumptions about career options is vitally important now that ways of working are becoming increasingly fluid. For example, most of us are conditioned to assume that advanced, formal education is critical to any career path. Yet this is not so true anymore, especially for people entering a creative field or a field that doesn’t really exist yet. Traditional credentials (i.e., diplomas) are being superseded by newer, more effective ones (e.g., reputation, connections built through networking, a body of work readily shared online). It’s more about demonstrating what you can do, creating your own career, and being flexible and adaptable.

And so I think I could stand to do a lot more visioning and daydreaming on the life I’m currently seeking—asking myself, as I’ve written previously, what’s my ideal life, how am I living now, and how much of a gap exists between the two? I could certainly do a better job of balancing where I am and where I’m headed, working backwards to help keep myself on the right path…whatever that might be.


Filed under My Quest

6 responses to “Working Backwards

  1. I liked this post especially. My wife went to a career counselor who suggested much the same thing… interview people who are doing what you’d like to do. The difficult thing about paths to me is that they elicit goal seeking. That’s laden with possible frustrations because there will be times when it doesn’t seem like we are progressing. And we start to lose the joy of just doing with our eye set on the horizon. Imagine if today is the last day of your life. What would you do? Should that we what we are doing?

  2. Thanks, Kim. I agree with your warning about the pitfalls of goal-seeking, yet again, I’d argue it’s about balance: having some sense of what’s a good option or direction even as one remains present; not trying to get anywhere in particular, but disposing oneself toward harmony, integrity, and compassion.

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