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The Pathless Path

The Pathless Path: Imagining a New Story For Work and Life

by Paul Millerd

read in Mar 2022

book info on goodreads

Despite this being a self-help book, I was interested in it because it talks about many of the topics and issues that I am interested in with my research. In “The Pathless Path”, Paul Millerd elaborates on a metaphor… ‘the pathless path’. Path here stands for a career path and general way of living. He contrasts his idea of the pathless path with the default path that most people follow to progress in their careers.

The default path is about conforming to the norm. It is defined by life scripts, culturally shared expectations as to the order and timing of life events (something that is surprisingly similar across cultures and countries). Millerd argues that the default path worked very well for previous generations, but it does not work that well anymore today. Economic growth across all sectors, a young population, two-parent households, generous pensions and company loyalty that are the foundations of the default path are anomalies of the past.

The pathless path, on the other hand, is about embracing uncertainty and discomfort. The modern world offers many more paths with opportunities for people around the world. This abundance comes with the challenge that one might choose to pick a path that offers security and certainty rather than doing the hard work of figuring out what one really wants. Millerd argues that the fixed points along the default path, such as job, marriage, and children, are not inherently bad. The problem is that they have been defined by others and that they represent the expectations of others. On the pathless path one can set one’s own constraints and fix points, in fact, this process of defining fix points is part of the learning along the pathless path.

“The pathless path is an alternative to the default path. It is an embrace of uncertainty and discomfort. It’s a call to adventure in a world that tells us to conform. For me, it’s also a gentle reminder to laugh when things feel out of control and trusting that an uncertain future is not a problem to be solved. Ultimately, it’s a new story for thinking about finding a path in life.”

The first observation that Millerd makes and that resonates with my own research is concerned with work-life balance. The concept of work-life balance does not really apply anymore in the 21st century. An entire generation of workers believes that work is the most important thing in their lives and that it enables them to thrive in non-work aspects of their lives. Work has become so prominent in peoples’ lives that almost everyone identifies as a worker first and foremost. Few people pause and think what working means for them and what kind of work they want to be doing rather than just going with the flow and doing the work that others expect them to do.

“Similar to expectations around meaningful work, far too many people limit their imagination of work worth doing to things that either come with a paycheck, require qualifications, or have a socially accepted story of impact.”

The second observations is concerned with local communities and the role they play in this new world of work. Because our connections to local communities are slowly deteriorating, we are looking more than ever for traditional signs of prestige such as money, status, and fame. On the pathless path, the goal is to search for the work that you want to keep doing. Finding something that you want to keep doing indefinitely is more powerful that any form of security or certainty. Millerd’s recommendation is that you should experiment with work and life until you find something that helps you continue move in a positive direction. This is work that you enjoy doing and that naturally leads to new opportunities that make your life better.

“This is not just a lesson for individuals to unlearn, but one for society to unlearn, and we’ll be amazed at the energy that’s liberated when we do.”

One such experiment that pushes people out of their comfort zone and naturally leads to new opportunities is to live overseas. Moving abroad and living in different places makes you resilient to change and makes you become aware of your steps toward the default path. Millerd argues that the capacity to embrace change and reinventing oneself over and over are some of the most valuable meta-skills in today’s society. The pathless path is all about having the courage to walk away from an identity that only makes sense in the context of the default path and to embrace things that one does not understand yet. It is about experimenting in new ways and remixing your path to develop your own definition of freedom.

“As more people invent new paths and enter new environments, communities, and online worlds, many will be forced out of their comfort zone. The sooner this happens the better because the era of living your entire life in a small, local, and familiar community is over. Whether we want to or not, we’ll have to keep reinventing ourselves.”

Interestingly, Millerd also riffs on the relationship of work and time. Our relationship with work is changing primarily because our understanding of time has changed drastically. Only after the invention of clocks did people start to think about time as something related to money. These observations resonate well with ideas discussed around modern time management and the historical evolution of work more broadly.

Lastly, Millerd talks about the notion of gift economies (something that was also referred to in Sapiens). He argues that our economy is largely based on a zero-sum game. This organisation is in opposition to a gift economy, in which more for one person is also more for another person. Gifts are the manifestations of a participation in something greater than oneself which, yet, is not separate from oneself. In other words, the self expands to include something of the other. Gift giving is different from a financial transaction in that it creates a persisting tie between people, a kind of temporal relationality. After gifting a feeling of gratitude or obligation remains between the parties. Generosity is not only a skill worth practicing, but it has compounding benefits over time.

“The world is changing and the pathless path is just one way to exit the world of bad tests. As more and more people decide that these tests are silly, we can create new and better games. Ones that aren’t optimized for how employers like to see the world, but rather align with how we are motivated to learn and grow through our lives.”

Paul Millerd lives, what I would refer to, a digital nomad life. That is not only because he working from Asia with his laptop, but also because he embodies many of the core digital nomad lifestyle ideas around freedom, autonomy, independence, and mobility. He condenses all of these ideas into his metaphor of the pathless path. Many of his ideas are very interesting on an abstract, theoretical level, but I am not sure how many actionable insights the average reader who seeks to make changes to his or her life can pull from this book.