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Renewal on the Pathless Path | #8
Navigating uncertainty, non-doing, and seeds of renewal
Good morning from New England. It’s officially spring here. The weather is warming up and life is returning to the land around us. Buds are emerging on the trees and bulbs are bursting out of the ground. It's our first spring here so there's extra excitement in discovering what emerges unexpectedly.
I wrote about these themes of renewal and uncertainty in a guest post for as he savors his first month of parenthood. I’m sharing it below for everyone who isn't already subscribed to Paul’s newsletter
I love the way Paul explores our relationship with work and shares ideas about discovering new possibilities in life. His book The Pathless Path is a must-read for anyone interested in new stories and paths. Paul is truly one of the most generous and supportive people on the internet. It’s inspiring to see the success and impact he is having by doing it his own way.
#1 Renewal on the Pathless Path
For most of my life, I have tried to plan, predict, and control. Perhaps, it is just my personality. Or, maybe it was from attending school, playing sports, studying economics, and working in consulting. These structured activities reward goal-setting and strategizing.
Yet when you embrace pathless paths, you acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in life. You recognize the futility of trying to control everything. You open yourself to the possibility of discovering things you could never plan or predict.
New questions emerge:
How can we increase our capacity to respond to change? How do we create conditions to nurture our vitality through the winding journey? How do we become capable of rising to the uncertain challenges of our future?
To me, these questions point toward self-renewal. The idea that an entity like ourselves can have the capacity to adapt to a changing environment. We can build in the resources and skills within us to sustain and thrive through uncertainty. This applies not only to us as individuals, but also to our organizations and even our society.
Instead of people that become more rigid and resistant to change, we can become more resourceful and resilient. Instead of organizations that are stagnant and prone to disruption, we can design them to be innovative and responsive to the evolving world. Instead of accepting a society that is bureaucratic and protects the status quo, we can contribute to one that is dynamic and unleashes the creativity of its citizens.
I know this might sound dramatic and maybe even a bit naive. Yet, I believe this is one of the most important activities of our time. As John Gardner says in his powerful book “Self-Renewal” (written back in 1961):
"Unless we attend to the requirements of renewal, aging institutions and organizations will eventually bring our civilization to moldering ruin. Unless we cope with the ways in which modern society oppresses the individual, we shall lose the creative spark that renews both societies and [individuals]. Unless we foster versatile, innovative and self-renewing men and women, all the ingenious social arrangements in the world will not help us."
The renewal of society depends on the renewal of individuals. It starts with us.
This may sound daunting or depressing. But the good news is that by embracing our own pathless paths we become these types of people. We hone our ability to question, explore, innovate, and adapt. We push back against the “default path” that celebrates the status quo and stifles the creativity of so many. We throw our unique gifts into the world and inspire others to do the same.
To me, a pathless path is about knowing that we don’t know exactly where we are going or who we will become.
Self-renewal is our ability to respond to the inevitable change we encounter in ourselves and the world around us.
#2 Rediscovering “Non-Doing”
More and more, I believe a big piece of thriving on a pathless path and being capable of renewal lies in the concept of “non-doing.”
I’ll never forget when I met Paul last February during a curiosity convo. I described my detailed plan to begin writing and expanding my business online. He just laughed and said: “You have no idea where you’ll be in a year. Just start and give yourself space to see what happens”
Paul was nudging me towards non-doing. He was reminding me of what he had said in his book that “nothing good gets away, as long as you create the space to let it emerge.”
The irony of Paul giving me this advice was that I had built my entire fitness business around the same concept. My goal is to help people shift from "forcing themselves to exercise" to creating an enjoyable, evolving, and intuitive approach.
But I wasn’t applying this idea across my broader life. In many areas, I still obsessed with planning, goal setting, and grinding my way to success.
Thankfully, once I joined Twitter (because Paul demanded I create an account during our call), I started to see non-doing everywhere. Even better, I met other people who could guide me to embrace it in more domains:
There was Rob Hardy talking about “non-coercive marketing”.
Michael Ashcroft teaching us to “withhold definition” and “expand our awareness”.
Sasha Chapin helping us write by realizing that “grinding away at sentences isn’t working hard, it’s inhabiting the flow of language.”
Cécile Marion encouraging us to take a sabbatical to “create space to awaken our curiosity.”
Lou Tamposi highlighting the way we can “fight against the current, or you can be like water” in our cooking and broader life.
Jonny Miller reminding us that “we do not DO sleep, instead we create conditions for sleep to emerge in the nervous system.”
Kristen Haaf explaining that the first step to landscape design is “to just be on your land, the next steps emerge out of that space.”
And so many others. Today I find myself applying “non-doing” in many more areas of life. But I’m still struck by questions like:
Why do I need to repeatedly relearn these lessons in different domains? How can I be so comfortable embracing it in one area and so blind to it in others? What would it look like to welcome non-doing more fully into my life?
#3 Seeds of Renewal
This all may sound a bit philosophical so let me share a few concrete examples. If you’re like me, you may need some extra deconditioning and inspiration on ways to incorporate these ideas in your life.
Try Embodied Exercise
I’m clearly biased, but I believe that one of the best places to start is by reconnecting with our bodies. After all, our body is the vessel in which we navigate our pathless paths. Exercise gives us the energy and resilience to sustain the long game of life.
But there’s a deeper way it creates conditions for renewal. If we take an embodied approach, we experience the physical sensations that arise as we move our body. We notice the way that stretching our capacities can feel good. We get stronger, fitter, and faster. The change is tangible. Our progress is visible.
Experiencing this growth reminds us of all the ways we can change. We start to notice subtle shifts in more subjective areas like our mood and confidence. A sense of possibility and progress ripples across our life.
Like so many areas, it matters less where you start than that you start. So I invite you to reimagine exercise from within:
Start a Garden
After exercise, nothing has helped me embrace these ideas more than starting a garden. You’ve likely heard of the “Metaphors We Live By”. Well as a former college athlete, my dominant metaphors were sports-related. Gardening has shifted my day to day lens from competition to creation. From winning to nurturing. From chasing goals to creating conditions to let them unfold.
A funny part about gardening is how quickly you realize that you can’t force things to grow. And, you definitely can’t beat nature. All you can do is create a fertile environment and be patient. The seeds, soil, and sun do the rest.
Gardening gives you a visceral sense of change, death, non-doing and renewal. If you’re not sure where to start, I documented the beginning of my journey in this thread.
Create a Project
Now this last one isn’t quite as easy as planting some kale or strawberries, but it’s likely even more transformative. Something special happens when we start a creative project or a business. It’s a chance to “bring forth what is within us” and share it with the world. Whatever we put in, we usually get more back.
A moment that stands out over the last decade is when I left the corporate world to launch a local food business. It was my first step down a more pathless path and it shaped me in many new ways.
We eventually sold it to our chef and some local investors but the experience taught me way more than just business. It showed me how when we work on a project, the project works on us. If we plunge into new terrain we encounter new ideas, new challenges, and new ways of being. We evolve and increase our capacity for self-renewal.
#4 Book Recommendations
This wouldn’t be a proper edition of Boundless without a few book recs. So here are some favorites on these themes:
1 // Self-Renewal By John W. Gardner – I hope I’ve already piqued your interest in Gardner’s seminal work. It’s perfect for anyone interested in how we can support renewal in ourselves, our organizations, and our society.
2 // Tao Te Ching By Lau Tzu – This is a great starting point if you have an interest in non-doing. I recommend starting Stephen Mitchell's translation and then reading a few others (the Ursula K. Le Guin one is another favorite).
3 // Timeless Way of Building By Christopher Alexander – A book on architecture? Yes, it’s technically about how we design spaces but it’s really about how order and beauty emerge naturally. It highlights how can enable more aliveness in ourselves and the environment around us. Here’s a twitter thread on key ideas if you want a preview.
4 // A Natural History of the Senses By Diane Ackerman – This hidden gem brings to life the power and beauty of each of the senses in exquisite detail. It explains how “The senses don’t just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern”
I’ll leave you with one final quote from Gardner that captures why I’m such a big believer in the community Paul is building around the Pathless Path.
"The future is shaped by men and women with a steady even zestful confidence that on balance their efforts will not have been in vain. They take failure and defeat not as a reason to doubt themselves but as a reason to strengthen resolve. Some combination of hope, vitality, and indomitability makes them willing to bet their lives on ventures of unknown outcome.