Success path rarely travels a straight line

Editor’s Note: David G. Allan is Editorial Director of CNN Health and Wellness. He wrote this story in 2014 for the BBC. You can follow him @davidgallan

Story highlights

You are more likely to achieve a goal if you have a realistic expectation of the path

Most people falsely think of progress as linear, but that's usually not the case

Knowing how much effort you need, over what period of time, is key

CNN  — 

I am taking you on a surprise trip and you need to pack for it – right now. Hurry home.

But before you run off you need some answers, don’t you? How long will we be gone? Are we leaving the country? How will we get there? Should you bring sunscreen or snowshoes?

If you set a goal and just start climbing toward it – whether it’s to get rich, become a college professor or learn to speak Portuguese – you will probably fail unless you have a realistic expectation of the path it takes. The trail is strewn with discouraging roadblocks and fool’s gold, and is never in a straight line. Once you know the route, you may even decide you don’t want to take it.

The truth is, you really need a map.

That was my takeaway from a recent column on growth trajectories by David Brooks of The New York Times, inspired by Scott H. Young, a blogger who writes for his own site, Get More from Life. Young’s initial point was that most people falsely think of progress as linear, a steady journey up a 45-degree incline over time/effort. In other words, the more you put into your objective the more you’ll get out of it.

But in reality, that’s not how most goals are met.

Some of the big things we hope to attain in life, such as financial stability and a rewarding career, happen along an exponential growth curve. We have to work at it for a long time — years, even decades — before we see the reward of our labor. Knowing that before you start such a journey is key to staying motivated until the payoff comes.

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Conversely, other progressive goals such as losing weight and learning a new language, run along a logarithmic curve. That means that good habits are rewarded with quick measurable progress in the short term (warning: slipping back happens just as fast), but it becomes harder to sustain progress over time. Knowing that’s the route of these kinds of goals helps you reach the plateau stage and tempers your expectations of continued growth before you do.

In fact, to break free from the point-of-diminishing-returns, you will need to drop the habits that got you there in the first place. “When Tiger Woods was first competing at golf, he had to stick to his arduous practice routine even though success seemed to come ridiculously easy,” wrote David Brooks. “But then, when he hit a plateau, he had to reinvent his swing to reach that final tippy-top level.”

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For other kinds of experiences, Brooks ruminated, “I could think of some other growth structures.” Inspired by Brooks and Young, I’ve drawn out a number of growth trajectories, noting which kinds of goals and experiences they may map out. Click on the images above to see the 10 common paths to success.

These illustrations are just thought-starters. A more accurate sense of what growth pattern your goal follows requires more homework. The next step may be to talk to or read about someone who has made a similar journey. To be forewarned is to be forearmed for success.

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