The 'Evolutionary Nomad' Ladder to Success


The road to success is dead. Long live the roads to success.

Back in 2012, The Wall Street Journal announced that Goldman Sachs would be scaling back its junior analyst program. Two year contracts for college grads? Gone. A bonus for completing the program? Nope. For a generation, these analyst positions were a secure first step onto the ladder of success for many financial graduates. Not anymore. Thanks to ongoing global financial turmoil, the times, they are a changin’.

What’s really changing, however, is much, much, bigger than a faltering economy. We are witnessing a cultural phase shift. Or, more specifically, a shift in our cultural metaphors.

For better or worse, the metaphors we accept shape our reality. One particularly limiting metaphor is the idea of linear success. You’ll find it hidden in plain sight in phrases such as, “the road to success,” “the ladder of success,” “climbing the corporate ladder,” or even, “the peak of success.” Success is a singular, idealized state at the end of a long road.

The only problem is, it doesn’t work.

The financial tumult of the past several years is just the latest tremor in an earthquake that has crumbled many traditional “paths to success” and shaken loose our confidence in the linear metaphor. Now that it’s gone, what will replace it?

The fitness landscape.

Born from the field of evolutionary biology, the “fitness landscape” will become the metaphor that opens our minds to the multidimensional nature of success. But what is a fitness landscape?

Imagine for a moment that you are a bartender in a dive bar that only serves vodka with two mixers in 3-ounce glasses. You’re a nice guy, so you’ll make sure each customer gets at least 1 ounce of vodka. This leaves 2 ounces for you to fill with mixers. You can use 2 ounces of one mixer, 2 ounces of the other mixer, or any combination thereof. Some combinations will be tastier than others, and some will be downright disgusting.

In your quest to create the tastiest (or most optimal) drink, despite your limited resources, you try hundreds of different combinations and come up with an objective taste scale to rate your concoctions against. Better tasting mixes receive higher ratings than poorer ones.

Now that you have all this data, you want to see if there are any patterns, so you sit down at your computer and start plotting your data on a graph. The x- and y-axes correspond to the amounts of each mixer you used (ranging between 0 and 2 ounces), and the z-axis corresponds to the rating of the combination on your taste scale.

What you may find is that mixer combinations with better taste ratings will appear as “higher” peaks than combinations with lower taste ratings. A number of peaks and valleys appear, corresponding to the ratings or “fitnesses” of each combination. Voilà, you’ve just created a fitness landscape!

In the world of evolutionary optimization, fitness landscapes are used to solve all sorts of problems, from finding the most streamline shape for an airplane wing, to optimizing supply chains for maximal efficiency.

For really complex problems, it can be tough to visualize this landscape in such a way that you can easily discern the highest peaks. This is where the “evolutionary” part comes in. Using computer programs, scientists can send out a sort of “scouting party” by testing several combinations of random parameters (a tiny fraction of all the possible combinations). Using special algorithms–inspired by evolutionary processes found in nature–the best performing “scouts” are selected, and a new generation of scouts is generated based on variations of the successful parents.

After several generations, the variation between the generations may stabilize, indicating the scouts have converged upon a peak of “relative optimality.” I say relative, because it is quite possible there are other, higher, more “optimal” peaks out there in the fitness landscape.

So, what the heck does this have to do with us, in the real world?

We can imagine our linear paths as well-trodden routes up a few local peaks. We are so focused on the road ahead that we don’t see the enormous fitness landscape stretching out beyond us in all directions. Of course, if we only look down, we become abnormally sensitive to the fluctuations and tremors in this one road.

The time has come to look up.

Unlike computer programs, our lives and realities are defined by countless parameters with infinite variations. Rather than stay anchored to one path on one hill, we must wander the landscape and constantly search for new peaks of success and new peaks of experience. Once we see this vast landscape for what it is, we will never let the crumbling of one path or one dead end defeat us. As we make choices and summit each peak, a new vista will open before us and new peaks will emerge from the mist.

I happen to know a nomad who is already making this journey. [Her name and some details of her story will be changed to respect her privacy].

One of my close friends from college–let’s call her Anna–was all set to follow in the footsteps of her parents, both of whom are successful executives. She was a top student and was about to enter a prestigious business program when, like many graduates, she experienced a moment of doubt.

Is this the right career path for me? Is this really what I want to do with the rest of my life? Will I be happy doing something else? How will I know if I’m making the right choice?

Anna’s education and culture trained her to believe that success meant following a set of culturally acceptable paths to culturally acceptable professions. She was taught that if she left the path, she would be settling for a mediocre existence and always wonder what could have been.

Instead, after an emotional exchange with her family, she took the next flight to Thailand and embarked on the most exciting adventure of her life. In the past four years she’s traveled across Asia, received an online master’s degree in teaching, and married a fellow expatriate that she encountered along her journeys.

Anna now sees that for each path of “success,” each choice that she turns down, an innumerable number of new paths open up, taking her to peaks she could never have dreamed of.

You don’t have to become an expatriate to reap the benefits of the “fitness landscape” mindset. All you need to remember is that there is no such thing as a singular “road to success.” Most “ladders to success” are leaning against a few, overcrowded peaks. You know better now.

Don’t settle. Always keep moving. You never know what’s just beyond the horizon.

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