Progress Need Not be Linear

Perspectives from two of my favorite authors

Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

The author Pico Iyer, in his book, Autumn Light, makes this incredible observation

“We’re so convinced we’re moving forwards, when all I seem to do is go round and round with the seasons, certainly no wiser, and often only more sure of how much I cannot know. Progress is a New World notion I’m not sure I believe in.”

In a wonderful coincidence, as I was listening to this conversation between Krista Tippett and Katherine May (the author of the book, Wintering), I was blown away by her response to the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’:

“I think what it means to be human is to live a life that’s deeply cyclical. There isn’t one path, straight path through, and certainly not an uphill path that works its way to a summit where we, I don’t know, someone puts a crown on our head, I’m not sure, and the angels sing. I don’t know. I’m not sure how we think that’s going to work. But actually my understanding now, as I get older, of being human, is that my life is fundamentally cyclical; that everything repeats itself; that nothing lasts…”

I certainly picture my life as an uphill path with milestones along the way. Education, check.

Career, check.

House, check.. and so on.

Perhaps I view it this way because I simply haven’t seen far enough into my life to see the cyclical nature of my “progress”. Careers change, we unlearn, marriages crumble. If you live long enough, you might actually see the undoing of the “progress” that you think you are making, and that’s a type of progress too.

For example, my dad lost a lot of money in his business because someone cheated him. That led him to lose what he had built up over time, but it also made him a more empathetic person, which is progress too. However, in terms of his wealth, he went back to where he began, starting a cycle of sorts.

Buddhism and Hinduism explicitly shed light on this cyclical nature of life, and on impermanence, which I think of as a related concept. Samsara, they say, is the beginningless cycle of birth, existence, death, and rebirth.

Cycle.

In the grand scheme of things, the progress we think we are making will crumble, at some point, since everything is impermanent in this world.

Let’s sit with that idea for a minute.

Do we still care about that promotion? Should we? As a young person working in tech, I worry a lot about whether I am earning enough, hustling enough, improving myself enough.

However, thinking about my life as a cycle gives me the power to let go a little more. Loosen my grip. I might be on an upswing right now, but since everything is a cycle, these things I’m building might come undone, and that’s. okay. This is what cycles in nature teach you — it is okay to die.
It is okay to lose your leaves, and it is okay to go through winters.

Everything is okay because everything is constantly going and coming. Good luck turns to bad luck, and bad luck back to good.

“Momentary, momentary, all is momentary.”

— The Buddha

What exactly are we striving for then if everything is indeed momentary? Maybe the momentary nature of objects and lives is what lends beauty to them. Perhaps our jobs as humans is to simply enjoy this beauty, and let go of our urge to control our progress because there might not be a foolproof way to assess progress at all!

Perhaps freeing ourselves from this linear idea of progress will give us more freedom to experiment with life, and to be ourselves. To take up lower paying jobs, to go back to square one, to become a beginner all over again. To unlearn.

Like Pico Iyer suggests in his book, Autumn Light:

“What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.”

In a world where we seem so sure about everything, from how many steps one should take each day for optimal health, to the exact number of hours one should be putting into practicing the cello in order to be great at it, there is immense freedom and comfort in knowing that our lives are deeply cyclical, and nothing lasts.

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Ashwini Sriram

Ashwini Sriram

I'm a product manager from Chennai living in San Francisco. I enjoy writing about product management, books, food, and people.