I can get so wrapped up in the idea of "moving forward" in my life I love the idea in theory--always be learning something new, advancing your horizons, and gaining more ground. But in reality, moving forward doesn't always take the form of a new job, an inspired idea, or a cross country move. In reality, moving forward can feel a lot like moving backwards, sideways, or even staying stuck in one place. Here are some things in my life that felt like anything but forward movement, but were really progress and discovery in disguise:
1. Leaving my administrative day job to earn my master's degree, then returning to an administrative job after graduation.
2. Wanting to work on my writing but feeling blocked, so deciding to go on a solo walk in my neighborhood instead.
3. Spending four months interviewing for a teaching job at a charter school in Boston last summer only to realize that I didn't want to be in a classroom every day.
In all these situations, I initially felt the time I had spent pursuing something I thought I wanted had been wasted. I had sketched a map, set out on the journey, but somewhere along the way, realized I wanted or needed to go in a different direction. Sometimes, I just spent a lot of time fearful of making a move in any direction, so I stood still, paralyzed with doubt. Hell, sometimes I was met with forces beyond my control that pushed me in a direction I never meant to go. But after the fact, it is clear that I was moving forward during each one of these times, even if it didn’t feel like it.
I like to think of my life as a forest, not unlike Into the Woods by the incredible Stephen Sondheim. We start off walking the main trail and at some point we decide to investigate another side path that makes us curious. We may do that for awhile before deciding we aren’t that happy with the detour and set our minds to finding our way back to the main trail once again. Then we realize that we forgot something earlier on, so we walk back the way we came to retrieve it. We might stop for much needed rest before trying another path that looks interesting. After this? It is entirely possible that we have no idea where we are, which way is North. But with each step we take, we gain new information. Walk ten paces, realize that the direction you thought was East is West. Walk ten paces more and realize that there's a river where you thought there was a meadow. Walk ten paces and realize there’s a brick wall where you thought there’d be a beautiful vista.
From your perspective on the ground floor of the forest, it may be like you’re encountering obstacles left and right and remaining stuck without a clue of what to do or where to walk next. But now try to imagine a bird’s eye view: you may feel lost, but you certainly aren’t static; you are simply moving around in an attempt to figure out where you want to go next. You are learning new information (that you may not have asked for) in the process. This information, even gathered in bits and pieces in the dark, can add up to meaningful insights that change our ideas about where we want to travel next in the forest. Although it’s very difficult to do when you feel stuck or cornered, try to pay attention to what this new information is telling you. And no matter what, don’t give up the belief that the stumbling around in the forest is worth it. It is. There are countless things to be curious about, to explore, and to experience. Although it can feel like you’re the sole traveler on a seemingly doomed expedition, just remember that we are all out there with you. Huffing and puffing, carrying our packs on our backs, longing to reach a point where we feel like we know where we’re headed, and making peace with the idea that our destinations will change over time.
Above all, don't be fooled: moving in any direction at all is still moving, and any movement brings us new information. Whether you are thoroughly enjoying your romp through the woods, or whether you are hiding out in a cave deep in the forest, fearful that you are lost and will never find the way out, don't fear. There is no place you are "supposed" to be. Step by step, keep walking, climbing, crawling, or swimming, and take plenty of rests along the way. There’s time for all of it.