There’s a True Path to Your Goals
In 1997, famous architect Rem Koolhaas won a competition to design a campus center for the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The building was meant to connect important, dispersed college functions and provide students with space to eat, relax, and take care of administrative tasks.
When Koolhaas first came to the site, all he found was a big patch of grass used as a parking lot. Between deciding where to put relevant offices and how to design the exterior, a debate about how to connect it all ensued: Where do we pave the walkways?
Koolhaas could have gone for straight connections between each destination. He could have built them around the grass. He could have cut diagonal paths across the parking lot. Koolhaas did none of those things. Instead, he said: “We won’t build any walkways. We’ll wait and see where people walk.”
For a while, all Koolhaas did was observe which paths people took to get from place to place. Then, he built hallways on top of those paths. He even made their width proportional to the number of students who walked there. The result is a highly unusual building with diagonal corridors — but it’s also highly efficient.
In urban planning, there is a name for naturally formed walkways: desire path. A desire path “usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. They emerge as shortcuts where constructed paths take a circuitous route, have gaps, or are non-existent.”
When Derek Sivers recounted a similar story, he drew a parallel to life: Don’t pave your walkways too early. Observe your desire paths.
As time goes on, we get smarter. We learn more about ourselves. Therefore, we’re at our dumbest at the beginning and at our smartest at the end.
Derek says that, if we want to make smart decisions, we must make them when we’re the smartest — we must make them as late as we can.
Resist the urge to figure it all out in advance. Realize that now, in the beginning, is when you know the least. You can do without walkways for a year.
The world expects you to have a plan because as long as you have a plan, you look like you know what you’re doing — and that’s reassuring to us. We want confidence in others because it makes us feel better.
In reality, none of us really have a plan, no matter how much planning we do. We come up with milestones and vision boards and to-do lists, only for them to change a week later. We keep constructing paths where none should exist.
It’s good to have goals, to orient yourself towards something, but as soon as you define a fixed, rigid path to get there, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Life isn’t a bowling alley. You can’t just put bumpers around it. There’s no lane for you to stay in. In fact, if you don’t break out, if you don’t smash through the bumpers, you might not reach your destination at all.
It may sound sad that our plans rarely work, but there’s a beautiful, corollary lesson to this realization: If life forces us to change even our best plans after a week or a month, there’s also a high chance for each day to reveal a new, better path towards our goal. Like the paths on the campus, our best route appears day by day. This true desire path is what we should look for.
Instead of constantly updating your stiff plans only for them to keep falling apart, cultivate a single, adaptive habit: Every day, look for the best path towards your goal. Take a few minutes to think about it, and if you find the course has changed, step over and continue. Wait before you pave the walkways. Wait until you’re smarter. Observe for one more day.
When you’re here to observe, you’re not here to judge. We think we know ourselves well, and then tomorrow, like always, we’ll change our mind. It’s alright. You don’t need a perfect plan. Not today. Not ever. You don’t need the walkways.
All you need is curiosity, patience, and the willingness to open your mind. As long as you have those, you’ll always build something amazing — even if your path keeps changing, and it’ll look nothing like you imagined.