Our journeys in life are structured much like a tree. We all begin as a seed of potential. Nourished and nursed, we germinate and sprout and emerge into being with personality and skills and quirks. When we form the trunk of the tree we’re surrounded by all the other aspects of the trunk, many like-minds gathered together forming a strong, sturdy, and supportive base. This is our learning phase, our time in school. We’re more similar with our peers than we are different. Our jobs are all the same: to be a good student and learn the skills necessary to be a competent adult. We share similar experiences and similar challenges navigating adolescence.
Eventually the trunk begins to split off into branches. After high school we begin to make choices that separate us from the other aspects of the trunk. There aren’t many branches at this point, but they are distinct and different. There’s the branch of going off to college, the branch of trade school, the branch of finding suitable employment, and of course the branch of continuing to mooch off one’s parents while decidedly choosing not to choose what to do next. At this point we’re grouped with like-minded, similarly-pathed elements on these branches. And we’re still close enough to the intersection of the trunk and branches that we can fairly easily jump from one branch to another branch (if given the right resources) and we can even jump back to the trunk if necessary. Many of us will try different branches for size until finding one that fits and feels right.
But sometimes a person gets stuck on a branch. Maybe you didn’t have the resources for college. Or maybe you spent your financial resources on a degree that you realized doesn’t interest you as much as you thought it would and now you feel an obligation to pursue that field despite the cognitive dissonance you now feel toward it. Maybe you delayed college or a career to deal with an illness or to have a child or to care for a sick relative and now you feel like it’s too late to jump branches.
Some people are able to jump from branch to branch easily. They have the stomach for change, for facing the unknown, and for adapting to new and challenging scenarios. I envy and admire those people. And I look to them for lessons and learning on the great art of “pivoting”. Pivoting is the ability to turn on a dime or change direction quickly when an obstacle presents itself. In the grand scheme of things, pivoting means being able to jump to a new branch once you come to the realization that the current branch you’re on is no longer suitable. This is much easier said than done for most of us.
That being said, pivoting, or jumping branches is a skill and a muscle that should be developed in this day and age. Gone are the days of working 30 years doing the same job for the same employer and retiring comfortably with a pension. Our volatile world requires agility and adaptation and without the experience and practice of jumping from one branch to another while you’re young and the branches are closer together, the task becomes far more daunting the further out on your branch you get and the greater the distance between the branches.
It has occurred to me that one of the biggest sources of discontent in our modern world is feeling stuck on a branch that no longer serves a person, which leaves that person feeling like they have no agency to change branches. Perhaps they’re in a job they hate, a marriage or relationship that’s unfulfilling, a family structure that doesn’t work, or perhaps they’ve been putting forward an identity that doesn’t match the core of who they are. What I find fascinating is how common this experience is in our modern world, and yet how most people who are stuck out on a branch feel isolated and alone in their experience.
Most likely, the older you are, the more difficult it will feel to navigate the “new branch” transition. As we gain experience and resources it’s easy to feel rooted in place, even if it’s an uncomfortable place. Why is this? There are many factors I suppose. Perhaps it’s because our identities become wrapped up in the branch we’re on. Perhaps our lifestyle and physical comfort has become dependent on this branch. Maybe it’s the expectations of our friends, our family, or our society at large that keep us stuck in one place. And one thing’s for sure- change is risky. There are no guarantees that it will turn out exactly the way you envision. But another thing is also true: It could turn out better.
The truth is that jumping to a new branch can be uncomfortable and will undoubtedly require work. The further out on your branch you are the greater the likelihood is that you may miss the branch you’re aiming for. Now, this really isn’t a big deal because what will likely happen in this scenario is you’ll fall to a slightly lower branch and then have to climb your way back up to the desired branch. You’ll break a sweat and your ego may be bruised, but all in all you’ll get where you’re going. For some people, missing the branch may result in a pay cut, or uncomfortable conversations, or uncomfortable living conditions. But most of the time these will be temporary conditions and they will pass or improve. The most important factor in this equation is not strength, or skill, or status- it’s courage. It’s having the guts to do something that scares you. It’s standing in the face of the unpredictable and the unknown and declaring that you aren’t going to settle for the branch you’re on. It’s about mustering up all the bravery you have and taking a chance. And once you make it onto that desired branch which you had dreamt of (yes, perhaps exhausted and a little bruised), something beautiful will begin to happen… You’ll begin to flower.