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Why Your Progress Isn't (and Shouldn't Be) Linear

Recently I was on Reddit– I don’t mean to brag, but I get on there sometimes– and responded to a post a young man made about being unsure what additional credentials or fields of study he should take on before graduating with his Bachelor’s degree.

My response was that as long as he had a foundational understanding of the concepts that were most relevant to the field he wanted to go into, it probably didn’t matter. Speaking from a place of my own experience, I can’t recall a single time a hiring manager has asked me what my major was in college or what electives I took. From conversations with some of my friends, that seems to be a common theme. If you’re not in a specialized or professional field like law or medicine, the conversation is usually along the lines of “Do you have a degree? Cool. Do you have this skill, this skill, and this skill? Great.”

As I responded to his question and we chatted back and forth for a few comments, I realized how non-linear my career progress has been up to this point.

When I graduated with my BA (in English & Sociology), I was working at a local university as an academic advisor. At the time, this was the start of a pretty linear trajectory– I would work as an advisor for a year or two, take the GMAT, and enroll in an MA or Ph.D. program so that I could continue studying literature and progress into a tenure-track teaching role.

Then I hit a hiccup in this plan: I hated my job. There were some aspects of being an advisor that I liked, but I spent maybe ten percent of my time doing those things. The rest was just clerical work and getting yelled at for things that I had no control over.

After a year of that, I resigned from my position and decided I would become a full-time freelance writer. That move still felt on-brand. It made sense to me that since composition and rhetoric were strengths of mine, I could just live off of those skills for a while and then get back into the grad school hunt after a few months.

Well, insert hiccup number two. I made absolutely no money as a freelancer; my monthly expenses exceeded what I was able to bring in and I relied upon my savings account for several months. Then, there was an even bigger hiccup at this part of the journey. My partner at the time and I decided to move to Los Angeles, and in order to afford the cost of living increase, I took an entry-level position with a tech company.

Suddenly, that original roadmap of having a brief stint of time working followed by graduate school followed by teaching didn’t quite fit my situation. What the heckin’ heck did software have to do with literature? (Spoiler: nothing.)

Fast forward two and a half years. I’m still in tech, I’ve been promoted thrice, and grad school is not even on the horizon for me. The original plan didn’t look anything like what the journey has actually been, but it also didn’t include starting my own publication, becoming a life and executive coach, getting in the best shape of my life thus far, or working to transition from managing a publication to managing a business.

I suppose my progress looks something like this:


Map of progress


The route that I’ve gone down is one that I wouldn’t have envisioned several years ago, but to be honest, I’m grateful for that. Because my trajectory has been disheveled and, at times, plain bizarre, I’ve had the opportunity to actively reflect on my values and goals and adjust my course accordingly.

The more I research, write, and coach, the more I’m thankful for non-linear growth. Here’s why:

Limited Perspective

If you’ve ever driven across the country, there are a few things you should take into consideration. First, make sure you have a couple of bottles of water and some snacks in the car with you. Second, in the United States, when driving through the plains and deserts of the western states, take every opportunity you can to stop for gas and a bathroom break because you never know when you’ll be on a hundred-mile stretch of the interstate with nothing but sage and rocks around you.

Third, if you see something interesting on an exit sign, take the exit. If you just drive straight through, you’ll get to your destination faster, but you’ll miss out on a lot. Some of the most beautiful sights you can imagine and some of the most interesting things you can do are at tiny pull-offs along the interstate. Small towns you wouldn’t have known even existed can be home to vibrant characters, delicious food, and rich cultures.

When you adamantly stick to a linear path and refuse to ever take a break and look around, you’re going to miss out on a plethora of experiences. Inflexibility breeds limited perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with being focused on your goals and wanting to get there in a timely manner– in fact, I encourage it. But, it’s critical to recognize that the path to get there may not be what you initially expected. When you think critically about your end goals and why you want them, you’ll likely realize just how varied the paths are to get there.

For example, in my own life plan outlined above, I thought my end goal was a tenured teaching position. When I thought critically about it, though, I realized that my end goal was actually a fulfilling career that allows me to nurture and inspire others; being a professor was just one form that that could take.

Realizing that my end goal was broader than I initially thought helped me to see the various paths I could take, and has directly empowered me to explore new learning and development opportunities.

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Linear Growth ≠ Exponential Growth

I’m writing this article in the age of COVID-19, so I’m somewhat reluctant to discuss exponential growth. However, I’m going to look at the silver lining and assume that given the current pandemic, more readers are familiar with what exponential growth curves look like.

If you’re less familiar or have only seen these charts in relation to spreading viruses, a quick summary would be that exponential growth is a means of characterizing compounding growth over time, such as the green line in the chart below.


Exponential vs linear growth


As we can see in this chart, the line tracking exponential growth ends up with the highest sum even though it may not consistently be the highest line on the chart.

In fact, for quite a while, that green line has the lowest value of any of the lines. But, once it reaches about 8 or 9 on the x-axis, it rockets skyward.

When it comes to personal development, the same is true. Often, when you see someone who is adamantly on a linear path, it seems like they’re ahead for quite a while. They make steady progress and they’re moving forward. Others, who take a less linear path, may seem to be falling behind or not growing as quickly as those on the linear path.

But, when you’re taking time to explore, fail, learn, and clarify what’s really important to you, you’re accumulating experiences and insights. Over time, these experiences and insights build up within you until they reach a critical mass. Suddenly, you’re making immense strides towards your personal goals while those on a linear path seem to be plateauing.

Growth Should Change Your Direction

I recognize that this final point may be a bit contentious, but I’m going to say it anyway: your growth should change your direction.

As a life coach, that feels slightly blasphemous to say since the entire crux of what I do in coaching is to help folks grow toward their goals, achieve a better balance in their life, and think through the problems holding them back.

And yet, I stick by the notion that if you’re growing, you’re inherently going to have to change direction or recalibrate your trajectory.

The reason this is the case is that we often start formulating our plans for life based upon a limited set of assumptions. To use my own progress as an example, when I was planning on going to grad school and then pursuing a professorship, my only real experience in life was as a student. The figures I looked up to were professors. My worldview was fully steeped in academia, so when I looked to the future and projected where I wanted to go in life, that was my frame of reference.

The more I got out into the world and acquired new kinds of experiences, successes, and failures; the more I met different kinds of people; the more I learned and challenged my own beliefs, the wider my frame of reference grew.

With potted plants, a plant can only grow so large before it becomes root-bound and has to be transplanted. Some plants will die if they become root-bound for too long. Others will just stop growing.

As humans, we function in the same way. If we become root-bound in our personal development, we’ll wither or plateau. Growing requires relocating. When we relocate, we may need different amounts of sun or water to blossom. If we refuse to make any kind of change, we’re also refusing to keep growing.

How We’re Growing As a Publication

If you’ve been a recurring reader of Self-Himprovement (hey, OG crowd!), you’ve likely noticed that the content we publish has shifted a bit since our inception. More and more we’ve moved away from some of the founding concepts we started with, such as men’s fashion and fitness content. We’ve leaned into and really embraced self-improvement and personal development content. On our end, this has been a natural progression but also an intentional one.

As the editor-in-chief, I regularly check-in to see what content is doing well and how well our content aligns with our mission.

Over time, this mission has matured and evolved. What started out as a broad and inclusive men’s lifestyle publication has morphed into a publication that is focused on empowering readers to create the kind of life they want and deserve. Moving forward, that’s where we’re really going to double down and focus on. Most of our readers are at stages of transition in life– whether that’s moving to a new city, starting a new job, or graduating from college– and we want to be an influential source of clarity, goal setting, and motivation.

As a publication that is growing from a hobby blog to a business (through the life and executive coaching services I now offer as well as our new book, Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment), we’re on our own exponential curve. We’ve zig-zagged and floundered along the way, but we’re also moving steadily and progressively toward something much grander, and are excited to have you coming along for the ride.

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