Dancing Past Detours on the Path to Success: Alan Watts with Tina Seelig

Dancing along with Alan Watts

I turned 33 on a midnight flight from Thailand back to Bejing two weeks ago. This is my Jesus year, the make or break year. For a brief moment I was tempted to reflect on failures, on things not achieved, and on a hazy path to success.

But I always come back to this video by this talk by Alan Watts. These sets of videos animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone are essential viewing. The message of “Music and Life” is, just as the final note of a composition is not the point of a composition, so too a life’s destination is not its ultimate meaning.

Seelig - What I Wish I Knew When I was 20 coverTina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, in her 2009 book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World examines what makes for a successful career path. “Focused on a simple plot between time and success, when we don’t see a linear rise we get anxious.

She recounts a number of famous failures, the most famous being Steve Jobs. Fired from the company he founded, he went on to take time to create both Pixar and NeXT. Pixar made the first digitally animated movie, and the technology developed at NeXT continues to be the foundation of the Macintosh and iPhone operating systems.

Seelig writes:

Most people feel as though they should be constantly progressing up and to the right, moving along a straight success line. But this is both unrealistic and limiting.

Taking a suggestion from Carol Bartz, former CEO of Autodesk and Yahoo!, Seelig writes:

She thinks you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three-dimensional pyramid, as opposed to up a two-dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid often allow you to build the base of your experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you’re gathering a foundation of skills and experiences that will prove extremely valuable later.

My favourite example is Kurt Vonnegut. Far from a child prodigy, his first novel was published at 30. The first time he published a book that you’ve most likely read, Cat’s Cradle, he was 41. He was on the verge of abandoning the profession when suddenly together he was asked to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cat’s Cradle became a success.

That plane, where I had turned 33, was returning me from getting my advanced scuba certification after diving a sunken wreck. The week before I was meeting Chinese entrepreneurs looking to make connections in Canada. I’ve spent six months learning a bunch of Chinese and a bit about business. I got to climb some holy mountains and saw a towering Buddha made of gold. White space on a resume, but a major movement in a symphony.