Sometimes You Have to Move Back in Order to Move Forward
It was the first snowfall of the season, not a massive amount but enough to make it tough for the plow trucks to keep up. And it was falling during morning rush hour, such as it is in Traverse City.
Heather finished loading our three girls into the car – click!, click!, click! – and headed for school drop-off. Our five year old Madison’s school is at the top of a hill and there is a single road of entry – Hill Street – to the school’s parking lot. Heather took our usual route that morning, turning carefully onto Hill at a point halfway up the hill.
We planned pretty carefully for our move to Traverse City, but one pretty big oversight was that the vehicle we primarily use to get the kids around is not particularly good in the snow. Heather feels a bit more strongly about its snow ineptitude.
So she’s stuck, giving it gas, wheels spinning but going nowhere. Anger and anxiety build as the line of cars behind her grows. It’s Traverse City so there’s no honking, but surely parents have jobs to get to and other kids to drop off. She envisions the school-wide email going out: “No school today parents. Heather Harrington is stuck on the hill and blocking car line.”
She can’t go forward. Spinning her wheels is getting her nowhere. Only one thing left to do: reverse. By backing up, she was able to circle back around to the bottom of the hill at the end of the car line, get some momentum, and accelerate up the hill.
Unless she went backward, she could not have moved forward.
This isn’t just a handy winter driving tip, but an important lesson in business and in life. We’re taught from an early age that the path to happiness and success is a linear one, requiring relentless forward movement, growth and achievement. But that’s a hard trajectory to sustain, which is why we so often get stuck and spin our wheels. We lose faith and confidence. We settle, dreams unfulfilled.
There’s another path, though. The path backward.
For years Heather and I had the cruise control set on the path forward. We had built and grown our marketing agency. I started a law firm. We made good money and bought a big house. We were on the road to success.
And we grew unhappier the further we progressed down the path.
What we failed to take into account was that with each step forward the path narrowed. We lamented our inability to get ahead of it all, without ever stopping to think what “ahead” or “all” really meant.
What we built required more from us. More time, more money, more energy, both mental and physical. We had to move faster and faster just to keep up. Because we were working so hard, we rewarded ourselves the only way we knew how – with more – and further exacerbated the problem.
Pausing or, God forbid, taking a step back was not an option. But why? Because it felt like failure. Nagging self doubt about our approach resided just below the surface, but we suppressed it. The only way to get out of the hole was to keep digging, or so we thought.
I can’t pinpoint a particular revelatory moment when we came to our senses, but we realized that continuing on this path would lead to nowhere. So we pivoted and starting moving backward.
We didn’t “fail forward,” learning from our mistakes. We didn’t take one step back in order to take two steps forward. We purposefully and intentionally took ten steps back, with no particular plan for moving forward upon retrenching.
Our objective was simply to take steps back in order to create space and time so that we could make a clear-eyed decision about the path we should follow once we were ready to move forward again. Space free of distraction and worry. Time to set priorities. Space and time, which cannot be bought, but are of invaluable worth.
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” – Frank Zappa
Taking ten steps back is a long endeavor. Over a period of two years I stopped practicing law and left my law firm (fortunately I had a partner and friend who made this possible and relatively painless). Despite the substantial hit to revenue, we pruned approximately half of our marketing clients who no longer fit our vision for the business and required a great deal of our focus and energy. We ditched our physical office space and the expense and caretaking it required, opting instead for a “virtual” business model in which everyone works from home. We decided to sell our home, opting to downsize both in terms of cost and square footage. This, in turn, forced us to get rid of a significant amount of our furniture and other belongings.
Giving these things up – my law firm, our marketing clients, our office, our house and possessions – was not easy. We had worked so hard for them! We had to get over what psychologists and behavioral economists call the “endowment effect,” which is the idea that we ascribe more value to things merely because we own them. In other words, we probably wouldn’t have thought twice about passing on an opportunity to do business with a particular company, but because that company was already a client, it made it tough to part ways. Same goes for that chair we never used in our living room, or that extra set of silverware, just in case.
It also required an immense amount of work to move backward. It’s no downhill, downwind coast. We spent a significant amount of time and money in hopes of saving time and money in the future. Moving backward is a big investment.
Ultimately this path led us to Traverse City. The work continues, the investment continues, but it’s starting to pay dividends. The space and time that we desired is beginning to emerge. We’re at a trailhead, with a number of potential paths before us, no longer confined to a single one. These paths are unpaved, but wide and full of promise.
The big lesson we’ve learned is that, if you want to move forward, sometimes you have to move backward. Spinning wheels is not an option.
Act. Do something, even if it means retreating. It’s hard because we all want instant gratification, and retreating requires a more patient approach to progress. But between the alternatives of spinning wheels, and throwing it in reverse in order to find a different path, there’s no question that moving back is the way forward.
So don’t try to move relentlessly forward only to get stuck. Just move relentlessly in whatever direction is possible at the moment. Otherwise you’ll never get where you’re going.