Falling back to move forward: Embracing a non-linear path to success

When it comes to embracing a new, non-linear path to success, it’s the underrepresented stories that are a powerful and inclusive way to change the narrative around failure and success.

Falling back to move forward - Douglas Jun/Jul 2022
Illustration By: Caroline Segonnes.

Scott Galloway wrote an article recently about the variables we use to make decisions and he stated: “A step back from the wrong path is a step in the right direction.” It really hit home and made me think about how many of us were raised with the notion that success is a linear path, and that the only way to “win” is to move forward at all costs.

But is it?

If you’ve ever played a game of Snakes and Ladders, it’s almost impossible to avoid landing on a square that sends you sliding down a snake and losing all your momentum in the game. Yet no one would expect to play the game without some backward slides. 

Why don’t we take the same approach in our lives?

The Great Re-Evaluation

Early into my career, I was at a Big Four firm where I worked closely with VPs and directors as part of their annual audit process. I was told that the VP of finance had stepped down. There was a new VP in his place, but the ex-VP was around for legacy questions if needed. 

Odd, I thought — what role did he take? 

I learned that the VP had purposely taken a step back and demoted himself to a financial analyst role. When we met, he explained that he had wanted less stress and more time with his family, so he took a step back to move forward in other important areas. It was the first time I had witnessed anyone defying the more traditional linear concept of success.

According to the Human Resources Professionals Association, 53 per cent of employers are experiencing turnover at all-time high rates. I believe a major factor is that the pandemic has held a mirror up to our lives, and many people are choosing to step back to figure out how to move forward. They are taking the leap to redefine success on different terms, challenging the traditional models that we have been conditioned to believe are the only way forward.

Eyes Wide Open

Back in 2016, I was let go from a job. Up until that point, success was about promotions, salary increases and better titles. That experience challenged my ideas around success and failure and made me question who I was trying to please in the first place.

As part of my severance package, I worked with an excellent coach who kept asking me a simple question: “What do you want?”

I legitimately couldn’t answer it. All the answers I attempted were layered in what I felt like I should be doing and not what I really wanted to do. It took me a lot of unpacking to realize that I had spent my whole career to date checking off the to-do boxes from someone else’s list.

I decided to try an entirely new approach to figure out my next career move and ventured outside of my linear idea of success. I wanted to challenge every preconceived idea I had about my career and my path forward and give myself permission to try things I had never considered before. 

I started painting because I never considered myself to be a creative person. The whole concept of a blank canvas terrified me so I took an art class. 

I also reached out to connect with dozens of people over coffee in a two-week period. Networking felt icky to me, but I had recently read Never Eat Alone which changed my beliefs around reaching out to folks. I felt like a different person three months later. Looking back, I knew the right way forward for me required that I slide down the snake.

I moved forward with eyes wide open. 

Gabor Maté expresses this relationship between our modern-day lives — including our idea of success — and the impacts, specifically on our bodies in his book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.

“The salient stressors in the lives of most human beings today — at least in the industrialized world — are emotional. Just like laboratory animals unable to escape, people find themselves trapped in lifestyles and emotional patterns inimical to their health.

The higher the level of economic development, it seems, the more anesthetized we have become to our emotional realities. We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot, therefore, act in self-preserving ways.”

How often do we celebrate the listening, the reflection and the learning?

Moving Forward

I believe that, in part, it was this linear pursuit of success, and attaching my worth to my productivity, that disconnected me from my body’s signals that hinted another way forward. In 2020 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and, while I don’t believe my career path caused my disease, I feel that the traditional and preconceived idea of success caused me to stop listening to important signs. 

While the world continues to celebrate hustle culture, we omit a critical part that is just as vital — the rest, the reflection and the stepping back in order to move forward with more clarity and purpose.

When it comes to embracing a new non-linear path to success, I believe it’s the underrepresented stories about the rides down the snake — perhaps even those dark nights of the soul — that could change the narrative. It’s less about the curated Top 30 Under 30 lists or bite-sized fuckup nights, and more about showcasing a diverse and different model for success. 

While I love hearing about the peaks, it’s the valleys that teach us the most about the ways forward that are value based.

If you are climbing your way up a ladder and it doesn’t feel right, sliding down the snake is not defeat or failure but instead a new way to realign yourself to what matters most to you. If you are riding down the snake and are figuring out what it all means, keep asking yourself: “What do I really want?” 

That will keep you peeling away the layers of someone else’s predetermined success story to get to your own. ′

Linda Biggs is passionate about helping people see their own potential and moving outside their comfort zones. She is the cofounder of getjoni.com — a startup bringing period care into the 21st century.