Navigating Life without a Map

The four phases you will find on the “pathless path”

Paul Millerd
Sep 22 · 8 min read

Navigating Life Without A Map

Over the past two and half years, I’ve been navigating unknown territory, grappling with the deep philosophical questions of how to live life and wondering how many of our ancestors lived life as if they had a map.

For most of my life, I pretended I had a map. It seemed that was what you were supposed to do as an adult. In job interviews, I lied about my career path and intentions to stay at that company. In my grad school interview, I outlined a very specific program that also happened to align with the goals of the program.

Before I left my full-time job two and a half years ago, I had the sense that things were going to be okay. That there was a plan. That life made sense.

The truth was I had no idea and it took taking the leap to self-employment to open my eyes.

As I’ve spoken to hundreds of people that have been carving their own paths and researched how people navigate life and stay sane along the way, a new kind of map has emerged. Not one that gives a perfect sense of certainty or comfort, but one that helps give language to feelings that are hard to name.

Self-Employment Opened My Eyes & Made Me Curious

Photo by Joseph Rosales on Unsplash

I underestimated the transition to self-employment. I imagined a smooth transition from executing on consulting projects for a company to doing the same on my own as a freelancer with a bit more flexibility.

Instead, I found myself staring face to face with uncertainties and questions.

What is the proper way to navigate life? Should certainty be a goal? What is the best way to live life? Is there a best way? Why was I so sure that self-employment was just about making money? How much money did I want to try to make?

A Map For Navigating The Pathless Path

I did not have a map when I started but I’ve been in a continuous conversation with friends carving their own path, people reaching out to me for “curiosity conversations” and in my writing as I chronicled the emotions I was going through.

Trying to make sense of the unexpected questions of carving my own path and hearing from others made me realize that there isn’t a map that would please the 5-year-plan corporate type, but over and over again, there seems to be a number of phases that one must go through.

#1 Restlessness

Khe Hy described this feeling of restlessness as a “pebble in his shoe” that he couldn’t remove. Many others describe it as a feeling of “low grade anxiety” that they cannot shake.

Others come face to face with their own restlessness in recovering from a crisis or major life transition. Losing a job, facing a health crisis, losing a loved one or even having a child can inspire people to start looking for a new train of thought.

For David Vaucher, it was losing his father before his dad was able to fulfill his dream to retire in France:

“Before he died, my plan was working: I was making more money and getting ready to buy bigger things.

After he died, the sustained growth in income was dwarfed by the growing fear that if I didn’t take action somehow, I was headed down the same path”

For me, I kept changing jobs every 18 months convinced I would shake this restlessness.

I realized what many others do — that I had to dream in a new direction.

#2 Imagination

Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

When we see other people do things like quit their jobs, move across the world or make a career change, we see it as a dramatic leap.

In reality, what you are missing is how that person’s imagination and view of the world has been evolving over the past several months and years. This is often a slow shift that happens from meeting different kinds of people, reading a book or being forced to adapt to a situation within a certain set of constraints.

Five years before I took the leap to self-employment, I was doing work with a number of freelance consultants. I got to know many of them and found they were incredibly energized, happy and able to support their life. I remember being full aware of this and it planted a seed in my brain that there were different models for how I might live and work later in my life.

It took five more years before I took my “first steps,” but knowing that adults existed who enjoyed life and played by different rules gave me permission to investigate alternative paths in the world through books, podcasts and conversations.

A friend, Lydia Lee, talked about a trip she took to Malaysia in which she met a digital nomad who was running a marketing firm from his laptop:

“being able to meet him in real life…made me realize I could work from my laptop”

This seems to trivial, yet to her journey it was profound. Meeting this person made something impossible real. Even though it would be another six months before she decided to quit her job, it sent her back home with a new thought. That there could be a different way.

#3 First Steps

In a recent paper titled “The Ideal Road Not Taken”, Professors Gilovich and Davidai tried to understand what people regret. What they discovered is that regret was linked to two different conceptions of a self.

The first is an aspirational self, which is a version of ourselves that we aspire to. The second is an “ought to” self. This is the self that has to do with responsibility. We “ought to” take care our our family, go to work, and so on.

The thing they found was that when people fail to live up to their “ought to” self, they quickly took action to fix it and were much less likely to regret their actions. When someone failed to match their apirational ideas, however, they experienced a much higher degree of regret.

My belief is that many people who take some kind of leap are able to intuitively make this calculation. We could even call this the Gretchen Rubin Principle because of how clearly she articulates the implications in her interview with Tim Ferriss:

“I’ve come to a point where I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer, and I need to try and fail or try and succeed, but I need to do it.” — Gretchen Rubin

Finally “taking the leap” often comes with confusing emotions. Here are how some people described the leap:

“Seeking and questioning”

“Terrified but also excited”

“You have to make this work”

There is a duality of emotion — the acceptance that they finally took the enormous weight and fear of regret — of not having tried — and entered new territory.

Now with the pressure to make it work.

#4 Commitment

The first few months of carving one’s path can be disorienting. Many, like me, find that the worries they expected are not the worries that actually matter. Many find that the money issues are less stressful, while some want to run back to their salary.

In the first six months of self-employment, I was 100% focused on “making it” as a freelance consultant. After landing three clients in month 5 and proving to myself that I could support myself this way, there was a sense of relief.

I decided to take the next two months off and see what happened. I had a bunch of ideas in my mind. During this time, I ended up launching a blog, a podcast, and future of work mindset tool — all of which are still central to my work to this day.

During that time I also laughed to myself because I knew I was at the very beginning. I had graduated from the 1-year of permission I gave myself to experiment when I left my job and moved on to a longer journey without an end date. I wasn’t sure of the destination, but I knew I was committed to keeping the journey going.

Embracing A “New Train Of Thought”

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

“…It can be a release then, to think, that when we first come across the idea of a pathless path, by definition, we are not meant to understand what it means” — David Whyte

I believe that many of us have a secret urge to blow it up and “make it on our own.” I also believe that because most people are looking for a map to navigate that transition, few people tend to move past the imagination phase.

While these four phases are not a “playbook,” they offer a loose set of phases that many resonate with how creators, entrepreneurs and solopreneurs navigate carving their own paths.

If you look at the most creative people in the world, you often see kicking off a new journey every year or two.

Grant Achatz is one of these creators. He is the head chef at Alinea, one of the top restaurants in the world. When he reached that status, what what did he decide to do next?

He decided to start over:

“We are ripping apart a restaurant that is working incredibly well. It’s the busiest its ever been. Why fix something that is not broken? Well because if we wholeheartedly gonna uphold that philosophy that we started ten years ago…the beginning of a new train of thought”

What’s the train of thought pulling you towards a new journey?


Paul Millerd is the head curious rebel at Boundless and runs a course called Reinvent for people looking to start a new train of thought.


Originally published at think-boundless.com on September 22, 2019.

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Paul Millerd

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The future of work is about doing less work @ www.think-boundless.com

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