When the going gets tough on the pathless path

In his book The Pathless Path, Paul Millerd invites dissatisfied employees to walk away from their jobs with no clear sense of where they are going. There’s an obvious downside, but is it really that scary?

When the going gets tough on the pathless path

What do you do when you’re tired of your job? The standard answer is that you look for another one, through either a promotion or a change of employer. “Never leave a job before you’ve lined up another” is broadly considered wise counsel.

In his recent book The Pathless Path, former corporate strategist Paul Millerd argues for a more adventurous approach, encouraging restless employees to leave well-paid positions while endowed with only a vague sense of what they’d like to do next.

Millerd acknowledges that such moves are available only to those who can secure food and shelter while bereft of an income. But he suspects that more unhappy wage-slaves are in that position than wish to admit it.

Imagining a new story

The point of this leap into space is to relax your grip on the belief that adult life is foremost about making money, an assumption that Millerd claims plausibly is widely held and less widely examined.

The Pathless Path (2022) is subtitled Imagining a New Story for Work and Life, and at the bottom of Millerd’s proposal is a shift in focus from making money to making a contribution. And not just any contribution, but one you experience as satisfying your desire to contribute.

There is an echo here of the 1932 Bertrand Russell essay In Praise of Idleness, in which the renowned mathematician observed that his contemporaries over-valued productivity and were much the worse for their mistaken priorities.

Over the 90 years since, the knowledge economy has become much more fertile. Millerd proposes that a determined individual can eke out a subsistence living, at least, from participating as a sole trader in the market for ideas, if that is the work that they want to keep doing – his description for work that is intrinsically motivated.

Millerd’s Twitter account has offered this proposition anecdotal support by revealing the sums earned from his self-published book, which exceeded US$130,000 in its first 18 months.

Not as much as he was making in a year from his corporate job, but more than enough to support him in Taiwan, with his wife and new child, while he figures out what will come next.

Too good to be true?

Keen-eyed readers will spot the metaphorical fly in the ointment here, which is the possibility that what comes next will not generate enough revenue to replace Millerd’s book sales and savings.

He is not so silly as to assume this won’t happen. Millerd believes that he will sustain himself, and the book has been only one of his projects. He has slashed his expenditures, and recommends planning. But he recognises that in living his sort of life, prioritising what he can offer over what he can earn, he will feel more exposed to the risk that he will meet with hard times.

That is not to say that he actually is more exposed. Employees are at risk of losing their jobs and even, through no faulty act they foresaw, their reputations. It is to say that in turning down contracts he sees as unsatisfying, Millerd renders himself vulnerable to the anxiety that he may regret his insouciance.

Inside the abyss

What if the prospect of penury comes to be realised? I have experienced this on my own pathless path, which I would not have so named before I read Millerd’s book. I’ve spent most of my life prioritising satisfaction over earnings, and that has brought me, as might be expected, much more satisfaction than earnings. I have allowed myself to slip into the abyss of dependency, more than once, and have eased myself out.

Life down there is not as bad as it looks, at least in welfare-state economies and for people with talent and warmth. Experiencing oneself as down and out brings opportunities for profound personal growth, to adopt with a touch of irony a phrase Millerd uses. It’s humbling. I’ve been surprised by how many good things can grow from humility.

That is not to say that the humbling experiences won’t be distressing. Millerd says that he grew up feeling loved and encouraged. He argues that the pathless path fosters resilience, and I’m sure that he’s right. The open question is how much resilience you need to bring to that path, if you are to thrive once you’re on it.

Most recently, I had cast myself adrift from a job that was comfortable but had ceased to engage me, so that I could devote myself, under some pressure, to hunting down an alternative. And then I found that I didn’t want, after all, the alternative that had been my first thought.

Everyone has a plan

This is another Millerd theme: he too had a plan when he abandoned employment, and he too found himself uninspired after plan became practice. What you think you want when employed may not be what you want when you’ve set yourself free.

I had thought that as a stopgap I might find paid work editing news pages, in print or online, as I had in the past, and that I would enjoy the immediacy and fellowship of that work. I had not admitted to myself that my soul had moved on. I could not even deliver a convincing interview. What I wanted to do was to finish my novel, which had been 10 years in development and was on its fourth rewrite. But that wasn’t where I had thought I was going.

I reached a point where I had used up my savings, maxed out my credit cards, abandoned my rented flat and moved in with a friend, and applied successfully for unemployment relief. As a condition of my subsisting on welfare, I had volunteered to create content part-time for a disability resource provider. I had recently turned 59.

Pride and humility

It is easy to see why people want to fortify their positions against the intrusion of such eventualities, and will sacrifice much satisfaction in order to do so. Paths are paths for the very reason that they look easier to follow than untrodden alternative routes. The cultures supported by market economies tend to applaud self-sufficiency and to condemn, as irresponsible, the dependent. It is easy to see yourself through these lenses.

Nevertheless, several surprising things happened after I accepted that I would be writing feature stories, unpaid, in which people living with profound physical limitations shared their experiences. Among them: I found a fluency in non-fiction writing that I had never possessed; I accepted well-paid writing commissions that I would have declined; key friendships grew deeper; a romantic opportunity proved even more exciting than it had looked; I completed my novel.

What relation applies between these events and my enforced humility? I may say more about that in subsequent posts. Here I will observe only that if my path had prioritised security through steady employment, I cannot see how it would have led to so much satisfaction.

Am I wilfully blind? Considered answers are welcome in comments.

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