Life’s Journey: Tracking Right

Life brings many choices for staying on track or not.


The Consequence Of Choice


This is a story about choices. Each of us will go through life, and sooner or later we will need to make a decision about sticking with something or opting out of it. Although some people believe they must live in a particular way and follow a set path in life, others see no such necessity. At any fork in the road, they take whichever path strikes their fancy. In this way, they are like leaves blowing in the wind—their lives are free, but filled with surprises, both good and bad.


Wedged into a career or job you don't like?

Sometimes a track is forced on us and we feel stuck.

Which approach to life is “best”—staying on track, or following our heart? This suggests another question: “Best for whom?” If your father wants you to follow a well-mapped path to become a doctor, is that best for you or for him? I suspect it depends on who you are. To be happy, some of us need to feel solidly “on track” in life, and others need to feel as free as birds. Do you know which approach you prefer? Did you get any choice in the matter?

Discovering What We Want


Is it better to (a) follow a clear, well-defined track in our career and personal life, or (b) switch tracks freely at any time and follow our instincts? Although there is no one, “right answer” that fits every person, I believe it is important to choose a strategy for living, because the path we choose carries certain consequences.


The probabilities tell us that the person who is “on track” in life, and follows a certain path, is more likely to complete their education, start a family, stick with a career, and steadily grow wealth and possessions. If you choose to define success this way, it makes sense to get on a clear track that leads in that direction, and stick with it.


On the other hand, the probabilities also tell us that the “track switcher”—the person who follows his instincts, looks for shortcuts, and often switches tracks in life—is more likely to lead an adventurous life full of surprises. He or she may stumble into great success in a career such as art, music, or business. However, changing paths so often means that this person will often be “starting over” on new paths, so there will be less chance for stable growth in wealth or family life. Many track switchers end up in trouble at times.


Some tracks just come to a natural end.

Some paths go along just fine, but then abruptly come to a stop.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Some track switchers brilliantly choose one great path after another, and home in on spectacular success in life. Others may jump tracks once or twice before finding a groove. Yet, most find that they are often starting over at zero in some new path, and this means it is harder to build wealth or achieve type of the family stability they desire.


If we fail to choose a strategy to guide us through life, we risk having a strategy thrust upon us—one that may not fit our own personality and dreams. That can be a source for regret or feelings of failure in later years. On the other hand, by consciously picking a strategy there’s far less chance of getting in our own way as we seek out happiness and success.


Random Events Happen to Everyone


Whichever person we choose to be—the “on track” person or the “track switcher”—we can expect to face surprises and challenges along the way. As we push forward, we will constantly leave behind any number of missed opportunities. For example, we may put off marriage for so long that the day will come when having a child is no longer a viable option. We could also be fired, laid-off, or surprised by an illness or disability. All these outcomes might impact our ability to work, or to find new work in the field of our choice. On the other hand, we may win the lotto, or receive an unexpected inheritance or windfall, which could undermine our willingness to stick with a planned career track.



Choosing Strategies


No matter how it happens, some people stumble onto a path that sets them squarely on a stable career track, and others hit the first bump in the road and opt out, switching to a new track in hope of finding something better. For those that switch tracks once, it can be a little easier to do it the next time. It can even become a habit.


Will there be a junction around the corner?

Are you on track or ready to jump off at the first opportunity?

People are either “on track” or “track switchers” for lots of reasons. I suspect some have a built in tendency (either genetic or learned) to stay with a particular thing and finish it—be that a job, a project, a marriage, or whatever. I think some also have strong examples in their lives: Maybe their mother or father spent a lifetime in a job, so that’s the way they expect their own life to look. For those who switch tracks often, it’s the opposite. A parent who constantly switched careers, or always worked in their own business provides a strong example for demonstrating change is good or normal. No matter how a strategy for life really comes about, some people manage to stay on track, and others switch in and out of jobs, relationships, or careers their whole lives.


Defining Success


Does it matter which way we go? I don’t know about you, but when I look at the big picture it’s hard to say that one way of living is truly better than another—they’re just different. Even so, as we’ve seen, our choices do matter when it comes to our ability to build up wealth and stability throughout our lives. When we opt out too often, or if we switch tracks without making conscious decisions, we can leave ourselves exposed to all kinds of risks. We are likely to experience a few flame-outs and failures along with any successes.


Does this make having a solid career path critical for success? That’s a good question, and I think it has a lot to do with how you define success. If success for you is all about accumulating wealth or money, then sticking to a path that brings you that money is probably the best, or even the only way to go. On the other hand, if money isn’t what matters most to you, then maybe it’ll be easier to opt out of things as you go along. I suspect either approach could lead to happiness or to despair.


The Stories of Sam and Richard


Sam and Richard led very different lives.


I have two friends. They have very different life stories. I think they’re worth mentioning here to show how “staying on a track” or “not staying on a track” can make a huge difference in a person’s life.

“Sam” and “Richard” are two friends I’ve known since childhood. Sam started from humble beginnings, but he has been solidly on track ever since. On the other hand, Richard would tell you he’s the poster boy for “opting out”. He is talented and has had some good successes, but he describes them as flashes in the pan, and says his achievements have never lasted, because he has never built them into anything more. He has always been too busy switching to the next exciting path.


1) A Man on Track: My friend Sam came from a low-income family, so he joined the army in return for the chance to go to college. He could afford only a state college, but he managed to graduate in business, and soon found a job as an insurance clerk. For a few years, nothing much seemed to happen in his life. He had a job, but to me it sounded boring and unimpressive. Yet as time went by, I noticed that good things began to happen. He bought a new car. He advanced to become a rater, then an underwriter. He took courses to improve his knowledge and credentials. In other words, Sam got onto a career track, and began to make progress.


After several more years, he was transferred to the regional office and promoted to manager. He began to supervise other people, and did it with surprising ease. His years of previous experience had taught him what he needed to know. The next thing I knew, Sam was promoted to corporate headquarters, and became a well-paid executive, in line to become a vice president at a young age. Sam was still clearly “on track”.


Walking down a path.

If you stay on a track, it's easier to see where your heading, but there are things you may miss along the way.

Next though, Sam faced a tough challenge. Without warning, his company was taken over by another one. Soon, massive layoffs and restructuring began. Although Sam was able to keep his job, his situation became unbearable. The work formerly handled by the fired employees was piled onto the people who were left, with no increase in support or resources. In fact, Sam’s benefits were slashed and his bosses were replaced with incompetent, arrogant people. What did Sam do? He quit the company, but never with the intent of getting off track. He invested a year and part of his savings to get an MBA degree. Then he found an even higher paying job at a different insurance company. Today, his career is as solidly on track as ever. In other words, Sam gracefully recovered from a severe blow, and stayed on his winning track in life.


2) A Man Unbound By Tracks: On the other hand, my friend Richard had “all the advantages” as a boy, but says he hasn’t amounted to much since. He grew up in a large, nice home, and he didn’t need to get a job during high school. He was given many things, including expensive toys and cars. His father offered to send him to a good private college if he would study architecture. Richard was not excited by the idea, but he had no plan of his own, and the thought of designing his own dream home sounded fun, so he agreed.


Tracks can be easy to follow, but sometimes you miss the jackpot.

Taking risks can pay off in big way, but those same risks can also backfire.

After one year away at college, it became clear that architecture was never going to be Richard’s passion. Therefore, he dropped out and went back home. Soon, his father threatened to kick him out of the house. However, Richard had no work experience, and no prospects. At that point, he agreed to do some construction work for his dad, and became a small contractor. He made some money doing it, but quickly found that he disliked working with his hands. So he applied to two more colleges: a pharmacy school and an engineering school. He thought pharmacy sounded like an easy career, and he liked to tinker with gadgets. Although still uncertain how either path might play out, Richard always got good grades and was accepted by both colleges.


To make a long story short, Richard chose engineering school and graduated four years later. He found a job, though in a slightly different field than his major—switching tracks again. He achieved some good things, but after three years he became unhappy with his managers, and quit. He switched to a different field that looked more promising, i.e. computers. He had some successes with that for several years, but eventually he became “burned out”, so he switched careers once more, to banking. Since then, Richard has switched careers several more times. As you might imagine, he is still looking for his “ideal” career, and hasn’t found it. Although now in his fifties, Richard is unmarried, rents, and has very little to call his own. Richard’s choices have clearly kept him “off track” throughout his life.


Comparing Sam and Richard


It would be easy to say that Sam got the best deal in life. He somehow had the luck, or knowledge, or fortitude to happen across a good track and stick it out, so now he’s got property, a retirement fund and so on. It would be just as easy to say Richard got a raw deal in life. He’s got no money, no property, and no idea how to focus on finding a career, and or to go about finding a job in a field that remotely appeals to him.


The problem with making such simple judgments about Sam and Richard is they gloss over years and years of decision-making that gradually kept Sam on track and continually prompted Richard to opt out. It takes a lifetime of decisions to bring us to the point we are now, so how can that be right or wrong, or good or bad? We all face different choices, and we all do the best we can at the time we are forced to make a choice.


This is just how life works, isn’t it? And we’re all different, aren’t we? In fact, no one else on the planet has had to make the very same decisions we did in our lives, so there’s no proof that anyone else could do a better job of it.


You may be curious: Is Sam happier than Richard? Is either married? Does either have kids? Does having more money make one person better in the long run? Knowing whether someone is “on track” or a “track switcher” is not enough to give us these answers. Although being “on track” leads to more likelihood of building wealth or saving for retirement, there are no guarantees, and life often throws us curve balls.


The track switcher might say, “I only live once, so I might as well experience everything I possibly can while I’m still alive.” He makes a valid point. However, so to does the “on-track” woman who says, “I’ve set up my life so it continues to get better and better. Why would I risk all of that to go out on some limb?” Both people are correct from their own point of view.


Society would have us stay on a track.

Are you on your own path are racing right along with the rest of society?

Society has a way of continually molding and shaping us into beings that serve the majority. As far as “Society” is concerned, it’s best when everyone has a job, pays taxes, lives in a home, has a beautiful spouse, a couple of kids and a 401K. The problem is none of us could really meet the expectations society would place on us if we allowed it to. There’s always more money to be had, right? There’s always a better home or neighborhood to live in, isn’t there? If one or two kids is great, isn’t three even better?


Finding happiness is not necessarily about following a track—at least not for everyone. A career track or path like Sam took may look great from the outside, but in all honestly why should Sam’s tolerance to put up with a stressful job, a bad boss, lazy co-workers, and so on, define the “right” way for Richard to life his life? People are different, and have different abilities and capacities. Some can stick with things no matter what. Others can’t. Some are incredibly talented and bright in their careers, and yet are complete dopes in their relationships. Some get it all right. Some can never seem to catch a break. There’s a bell curve, and each of us falls somewhere along it. The point is one person’s happiness or career track or happy marriage is another person’s living nightmare.


There’s an old saying about putting a square peg in a round hole. You just can’t do it, at least not without getting out all your tools and reshaping the peg, the hole, or both.


Though Sam apparently is a person with a clear vision of what he wants from life, he is not in love with insurance. For all we know, he hates insurance after spending years working in the field, yet his job gives him enough of something else to overcome his feelings. Maybe the reason he sticks with his job is as simple as he enjoys the routine of his day. Perhaps he likes the people he works with. Maybe some part of his work challenges him mentally. We just don’t know.


Sam does deserve points for staying on track. After all, from a financial standpoint, as long as he makes reasonably good decisions when it comes to handling money, he should end up with a tidy retirement and be set for life. On the other hand, if he constantly chooses to spend his earnings, his chosen lifestyle, which could include any number of continuing obligations (like a mortgage, a car loan, a divorce settlement, etc.), could leave him virtually broke.


Richard’s case isn’t as clear as it appears, either. Richard has had successes, which he describes as flashes in the pan, but he is bright and thoughtful and is always coming up with interesting ideas. True, he hasn’t held a “regular” job in several years, but then again, many people his age who were supposedly on life-long career tracks ended up down-sized, fired or just plain out of luck. While Richard’s life is clearly one you could say is “close to the edge” financially, Richard enjoys being a free thinker and hasn’t ever given up the hope for something better. Could it be it’s just not his time, yet? Maybe one of those ideas he’s always coming up with will finally turn into a financial success. Things like this happen all the time.


Life is Complicated


When we were kids, the stories all ended with, “And they lived happily ever after.” Isn’t that part of the problem? No one lives happily ever after. We all have good days and bad, or go through times when money is tight or we feel flush. The fact is, we constantly have to live up to the expectations that are built into our subconscious from the moment we are born. That makes it hard to swim against the tide. That’s why we overspend or overeat all the time. Yes, we have a sense what’s good for us, but the messages we’re getting from all around encourage us to ignore our misgivings.


At the very beginning, I mentioned that this is story about choices. I still believe that. In spite of all the programming that occurs as we wander through life, we still have the power within to make our own decisions. Sometimes those decisions will “go with the flow” and sometimes everyone around us will turn and look aghast when we make what appears to be “a really lousy choice”.


Some Lessons


Will we end life in peace or full of regret?

Being more conscious is our best hope to find peace and happiness.

So what have I learned from my two friends and their quests through life? I’ve learned that it’s okay to be different, but there are potentially costly consequences to living life one way or another. Richard is “cash poorer” for opting out, but from everything I see his spirit still shines bright and he has some great ideas. I still think he has hope. Sam is “cash richer” from following a track and seems set to continue following it for as long as he needs to, though it’s hard to say what dreams he’s had to give up on along the way.


I believe it’s important to know which kind of person we are: the “on track” person, or the “track switcher”. We need to realize that each strategy carries with it certain benefits and obligations, and that means the strategy we choose will point us in certain directions over the long run. As long as we’re happy with those potential outcomes, we can stick to our strategy. However, if we aren’t happy we should begin taking steps to try and change. At the same time, we must understand that making a change this basic is very hard to do, and there are no guarantees either way.


There is no “right answer” that fits everyone. We’re all different. The best we can do is to be willing to look at our past and see if the things we do or the relationships we maintain are serving us. If they’re not, then we can either bumble along as we have been, with no real expectation for change, or we can seize the day and commit to taking steps that move us closer to our goals.


May you live more conscious ever after, and may that lead to ultimate happiness.


One Response to Life’s Journey: Tracking Right

  • Connie Nichols says:

    Good essay.
    I was surprised to see the first photo at the top of the article! That was shot from the Chelan County side of the Columbia River just downstream from Rock Island Dam, not far from where we live.


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