The Myth of the Linear Path

a person climbing a ladder depicting a linear path

I’m writing this fresh off a trip to Boston, where I visited my youngest daughter.

She is a senior year at Boston University, pursuing astrophysics and mechanical engineering (tell me about it).

She is currently in the process of applying to grad schools, and has sadly so far amassed three rejections. The mother in me, of course, wants to decry that these schools don’t know what they’re talking about, storm in someone’s office and say that they don’t know what they’re missing! The philosopher in me, however, sees it all differently.

We have been sold and indoctrinated into the idea of the Linear Path.

The Myth of the Linear Path states that every next step we take in life is supposed to be above the previous step. Like a ladder, we’re supposed to just go up, up, and up. This was mirrored in our early education, where each year we automatically went up grade. The idea was: graduate from high school, then, either go to college or get a job. Either at college or in your job, continue to upward mobilize. Start as an employee, become the boss. Start as an undergraduate, become a graduate. Start as an underling, become the, uh, overling? Anyway.

“I see that the path of progress has never taken a straight line, but has always been a zigzag course…”

~ Kelly Miller

My daughter is not immune to this myth. She believes, with her whole heart, that she’s supposed to finish college, and then (do not pass Go) immediately begin grad school. And that if she doesn’t, she’s a failure.

Maybe she will get an acceptance, and get to follow this path. She has seven schools she’s still waiting to hear from. I’m pulling for her with everything I got.

At the same time, I feel like my greatest purpose in visiting her this past weekend was to, if not entirely dispel this myth (that would take the work of a lifetime) but at least poke some hole in it. At least remind her that there are other paths, other journeys, in life. That way, if nothing pans out, her self-worth won’t have to take a hit.

And so I said to her, in bite-size pieces over the weekend: “I know you believe this is the next step for you. But let’s wait and see what the universe has in mind. In the meantime, you’ve got a great boyfriend (she really does), you live in the heart of Boston, you’re in your senior year, and you’ve got a job that (with help from mom and dad) pays the bills. Grad school or no grad school, LIVE YOUR LIFE WITH ALL YOU GOT!”

The Myth of the Linear Path tells us that growth and upward mobility have a direct correlation: when one goes up, the other goes up. I suppose this belief keeps our ambition fired up, our bellies always hungry for more. But in so doing, it strips us of contentment. It denies us the freedom. It steals the present moment from us.

And this is what I fear will happen to my daughter if grad school isn’t the reality for her this year.

If we believe that growth is always upwardly mobile, then of course, we would also have to believe its corollary: that any other movement in life — backward, sideways, diagonal — would stall our growth. But I don’t see life that way. The times in my life when I’ve turned backward or inside out are the times I’ve grown deeper into myself. The times when I’ve cultivated and nourished my roots. The times that I reached my maturity and realigned with my integrity, not “chased my potential” like a dog after a rabbit.

If my daughter doesn’t get into grad school this year, it doesn’t mean that she won’t ever go. It does mean she will at least have a gap year. I love that term, btw. I think we should all have “gap years” now and then, or even gap months, or gap days. Times when we stop expecting ourselves to keep moving up the ladder and instead just take in the view.

Society has done quite a number on the young minds of our world — and those of us with older minds, too. It isn’t easy to break the spell, to suggest that there are other ways to move through life. What we can do, though, is continue to poke holes in our beliefs. To question. And to wonder: who benefits from believing in this myth? ’Cause it’s certainly not us.

As Stephen Jenkinson says in his book, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble:

“Falling is the teacher. Failure is the tutor. It doesn’t make things better; it makes them so.”

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