How the Spiral Changed My Life

By: Sasha Bailyn

I really wanted to see the castle. Ever since we arrived in Bavaria, all I could think about was reaching this Disneyesque fantasy destination nestled in the German countryside. My husband and I set out for Neuschwanstein Castle in our rental car, expecting to spend 3 or so hours on the road and reach the castle by closing time. It rained torrentially throughout the whole drive, adding more traffic to the construction-filled autobahns. Hours later, when our German GPS finally announced that we had arrived, we looked around the endless expanse of farmland, not a single castle spire in sight. When we switched on our phones for a few minutes of Google mapping, we realized that we had gone a few hundred miles in the wrong direction. We weren’t going to make the castle by nightfall.

I was furious. My husband, however, took it in stride and saw an opportunity for us to explore. Against the backdrop of my lamenting and complaining, he led us on side adventures, one of which brought us to a deli in the middle of nowhere where no one spoke English and the locals were positively tickled that we chose to stop there for lunch. We finally did get to the castle town (after 10 hours of driving — the look on the hotel concierge’s face at the length of our journey was priceless!) and saw Neuschwanstein the next day. The castle was cool, but guess which part of this trip I remember and cherish the most?

 

This story illustrates one of the first lessons I learned working with intuitive coach Heather Choye: when we overcome challenges, accomplish tasks, or even structure our day-to-day lives, we take either a linear or a spiral approach.

The linear approach places the most emphasis on the end goal, a process of getting from A to B (in my case, getting to the castle). Most of our lives are structured this way: getting from the 5th grade to the 6th grade, being promoted from director to vice president, and so on. The linear approach is good for accomplishing a specific goal but can trap us in a relentless cycle of achievement if we lose sight of why the goal is important. During a coaching session, Heather pointed out, “If the process is about getting from A to B, it implies that B is better, and your interactions along the way are governed by a zero-sum game.” In other words, taking a linear approach means that each progressive step is more important than the last, and success is measured more quantitatively. But what if living a linear life doesn’t satisfy? What if, after all the achievement, you still feel unfulfilled? This is where the spiral approach comes into play.

The spiral approach is process-oriented and values the collective mindset. People aren’t competitors who are better or worse than you, they are contributors to your body of knowledge who can help open new doors or propel you in a new direction. In the spiral approach, the outcome is less important than the journey. On my Bavarian road trip, my husband used the spiral approach to identify side goals of exploring, spontaneity and finding the fun in a mistake. Taking a spiral approach can still lead you to the same goal as a linear approach, but the process is more conducive to a consistent and repeating sense of achievement and fulfillment. As Heather describes, “When you’re in the spiral mindset, you’re always coming back to what you know and rediscovering yourself anew. You become less attached to the end result and to ‘certainty.’ It’s not less intense, just less directional.” The key to staying on the spiral is self-evaluation and re-calibration by always asking yourself, “now where do I want to be?”

Living Life in the Spiral

As a longtime follower of the linear way of life, the spiral approach scared me. When feeling uncertain about your career path, the last thing you want to hear is that you have to “let go of the outcome.” After having done some coaching exercises with Heather, however, I now understand that the power of my own curiosity can drive a much richer, more expansive exploration of my career possibilities. I was afraid that taking a spiral approach would launch me into a hapless void, but instead, it has helped me discover new goals that I didn’t know I had. Rather than focus on one all-powerful goal (linear: “I will be the director of x company by age 30”), I have a few goals that are truer to my values (spiral: “I am a writer who works on meaningful projects;” “I am a leader who will teach creative workshops”).

How Did We Get So Linear?

If the linear path doesn’t make us happy, why are most of us tied to this way of life? The most obvious answers are time and money. We structure every day of our lives around knowing when we need to be somewhere and get things done, and how much money we need to make.

Worrying about the future is also a key player in keeping us tied to a linear approach, and happens to be a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche. An insightful passage in the book “Sapiens,” by Yuval Noah Harari, speaks to the beginnings of our collective worry about the future: “Although there was enough food for today, next week, and even next month, they [farmers in the first and second century AD] had to worry about next year and the year after that. …Concern about the future was rooted not only in seasonal cycles of production but also in the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture. … A peasant living on the assumption that bad years would not come didn’t live long. Consequently, from the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theater of the human mind” (100-101).

It makes sense that we would be oriented to the linear way of life: our survival depends on it. If you don’t worry about the future, set distinct goals, and reach those goals, you risk hunger and death. But in our current society, many of us are lucky enough to go beyond survival and safety and are looking for a deeper sense of meaning. Meaning cannot be found through a linear approach because there aren’t hard and fast rules to reaching a sense of fulfillment. The spiral approach is a way of expanding the mind and connecting with what truly satisfies.

Are You Afraid of Spirals?

One of the reasons people are afraid to step off of the linear path (aside from logistical worries about safety and survival), is that dreaded cocktail party question, “What do you do?” Regardless of the asker’s intentions, this question can feel like a confrontational inquisition from our inner critics. You could take Brené Brown’s advice from “The Gifts of Imperfection” and respond with, “Well, how much time do you have?” and regale the asker with stories of your spiral-led adventures. Or you could think of a snappy, deadpan answer like, “I have coffee at 3 pm every day,” and leave it at that.

The reality is that the people who ask, “What do you do?” don’t really care about your answer that much. What scares us most is not being able to give our answer with pride and a sense of self-worth. As Heather explains, “Until you feel comfortable knowing that everything could go up in flames, and you’d still be you and still be loved, that question will scare you.” In the end, it’s how you tell your story that matters. If you say, “I’m the VP of Business Development at a tech startup” with a monotone voice and flat expression, it makes less of an impact than if you say, “I make my own jewelry and sell it on Etsy!” with verve.

The scariest thing about embracing a spiral approach is letting go of the end goal. Once you can do that, the path of exploration and self-discovery will bring you somewhere you couldn’t find with a linear approach. And the most important thing to remember is there’s no such thing as wasted time. Everything serves you in one way or another. When there is no end goal, there is no “failure,” only mistakes and lessons to learn.

In other words, if your goal is getting to the proverbial castle, and that’s what makes you truly happy, then go for it. But more often than not, happening upon the middle-of-nowhere deli ends up being what you really need.