Distance traveled

1 October 2020
1 Oct 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

When I ask people about their professional aspirations, the most common answer is about placement. They want to work at a specific firm, join some certain team, or build some company. These are all places we can arrive, roles we can take on. It’s easy to find a high rung on a ladder, or a location on a map, and say, “I want to be there.” We can then draw a line from where we are today, to where we want to be, and follow that line. The simplicity is alluring.

It’s easy to aspire to be somewhere, and follow that path. But I think it’s a very narrow and counterproductive way of thinking about work, and what we want our work over time to look like.

Work is output over distance traveled.

When I think of people whose work I respect or admire the most, it’s never because of where they arrived in the end. Their final position or title or placement is a consequence of their work, not the point of it. What inspires me about these engineers and leaders and writers is their output over distance traveled, their area under the curve of their career. The “work” of these people are the cumulative sums of the big and small projects they’ve worked on over the span of time, from when they began working, to today. Such work is something that was constructed and sculpted over time, not a target to be aimed for.

If we find inspiration in people’s work by their distance traveled, but we orient our own career by aiming for targets and placements, one of these two must be misguided.

Speed to the top

When we think of the goal of work as reaching a specific place, we invite other fallacies into our minds.

Once we set a specific, singular target, the natural next step is to measure velocity. How fast are we getting to where we want to be? Am I being outpaced? Can I move any faster? Can I skip some steps?

All my peers are already so much closer to where I want to be than I – what’s the problem with me?

When we set a target, work collapses into a race to the destination. But work has no destination, unless we fool ourselves into making one up. There is no “top” to reach. When it’s time to look back at my own life’s work, I want to be judged by the distance I traveled, the sum of my output along the path I took. Speed to the top doesn’t really matter, in the end. What matters are the things that help us travel the distance over time – consistency, quality, direction.

Steady light

Early in career, where I suspect many of us are, we find ourselves surrounded with brightness. There are brilliant and creative minds making progress in a seemingly infinite number of directions and fields all around us, and their brightness can cast shadows on our plans to go where we want to go if we’re guided by a destination.

But work is not a line from one place to the next, and there is time. If you’re in your early or mid-20’s, you have almost another half century to work. Your life’s work will be the total sum of all the paths you explore and all the distance you travel over that time. There is so much space to fill under your arc, your curve, your distance traveled. It seems an injustice to simplify the potential of that empty space down to a single point on the map.

If we stop picturing a career as a line connecting points, and imagine it as impact over distance traveled, I think it’s clearer that what matters is rarely the speed to the top. We can go slow, take the time, find the meaning behind our work and build well-trodden paths behind us.

There are so many forces pushing us to move as fast as possible, but little about doing good work is about getting places as fast as we can.

There’s no need to burn brightest now, though we might find ourselves surrounded by light. Be warm, burn steady, but be consistent. Light travels far, if given enough time.

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