The Universal Law of Impermanence


Searching through old notepads this morning I stumbled upon some scrawled notes from Steve Jobs’ legendary graduation speech to Stanford University graduates. His “connecting the dots” advice is now an old, and much-quoted, piece of entrepreneurial wisdom from a man whose short life certainly experienced some peaks and troughs.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about life paths. Spending a day working with the Year 13 girls at Rangi, made me acutely conscious how stressful that last year of school can feel when the future is speeding towards you and the pressure’s on to have life all mapped out. I watch Chessie, my recently graduated gorgeous niece and friends, suddenly back from carefree summer travels, face the sobering challenge of embarking on future careers. Faced with so many options, but reality has limited choices. What to do, where to start? Just how are they going to get to where they so want to be?

As I try to wrap my head around what has happened to our family, and step uncertainly towards our own unknown future, I find myself resurrecting the mantra of one of my own university professors, who, when navigating new terrain, constantly reminded us to “Trust the Process”.

Is that what we should do, trust the process? Take one step forward and let life unfold? It has a certain appeal right now, and for school leavers, graduates, and the recently bereaved, I think it’s as good advice as any. Take one step forward, choose a class, get a job, any job, make a decision, and move forward from there. Don’t waste time and energy on endless worrying, or imagine those first steps have to be the “right ones”: hop on board and see what pans out, learn from the experience. What works? What doesn’t? Which paths are ripe with opportunity, which are dead ends? Which aspects of a new job appeal, which turn out to be abhorrent? As long as you learn from the process, trusting it seems a reasonable deal.

As Steve Jobs said, “It’s impossible to connect the dots looking forward in college, but it was very clear looking backwards ten years later. You can’t connect the dots looking forward, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, your life karma, whatever – because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path.” Viewed like this, trusting the process doesn’t imply inertia, rather embarking on small steps forward in the belief that they’ll get you there in the end. Wherever there is. And, in many ways, isn’t that the point? We can’t tell where “there” is, where we are headed, where we’ll end up. The place I find myself in right now sure as hell isn’t a part of any life I ever anticipated.

Many of us don’t have a plan, some do, but rarely does life go to plan. At the Rangi girls’ senior leadership day, I presented alongside three fabulous women: one of whom went to university to be a physio and ended up with a commerce degree; one didn't get into physio, ended up doing law, and later went onto to be the physio for one of NZ’s leading national sports teams; the other started as a nurse and is now much in demand for her design flare. At 18 I travelled north to Edinburgh to study history and am now living way down south in New Zealand doing a PhD in resilience - a subject that wasn't even an academic discipline when I was an undergrad.

There’s a certain art of acceptance in not being overly wedded to the current plan. When things go awry, the best steers often come from the botched, the unexpected, the second best options. Some clever soul once told me to listen out for the whisper, those discrete clues signalling your future direction. I like to think I've picked up on some of those, and am certain I've missed some. I do know that this place I've ended up in is much scarier than I ever imagined life would be, with so much letting go and "trusting the process" required. The only answer, it seems, is to accept the Universal Law of Impermanence and try to be more mindful of all that I have right here and now.

Nothing lasts forever, we only have the present.