Over the last century, there have been a series of fascinating studies which have tried to figure out why humans can’t walk in a straight line.
In one experiment, a man was blindfolded and, starting from a road next to a field, was told to walk in a straight line without stopping. All the while believing he was walking linearly, the man instead moved in a series of shrinking concentric circles, crossing the road where he had started twice and eventually crashing into a tree that was behind him when the experiment had started.
In another example, three men left a barn on an extremely foggy day. Their destination was only a half-mile away, but instead of arriving at their intended target, an hour of walking a series of loops led them back to the barn where they had started.
Each experiment (explained brilliantly in this video), ended the same. Absent some external force to aid in direction — such as a sun, moon, star, mountain, or river — those walking were unable to stay in a straight line.
Despite our expert’s best efforts, as far as I know, the phenomenon still cannot be explained… at least scientifically. Taking these experiments as a metaphor for our character, however, I don’t think we need much evidence to understand why humans can’t “walk straight” on their own. We fail to stay straight on the paths we’ve chosen for ourselves because something is crooked in our human condition.
The Crooked Timber of Humanity
In his work Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Perspective, philosopher Emmanuel Kant famously declared, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
Kant, like many great philosophers before and after him, saw in human nature a fundamental flaw: we are inconsistent creatures. Our paths, often despite our best efforts, are crooked instead of straight. I myself have made the exact decisions I said I wouldn’t make, but I’m sure nothing like that has ever happened to you!
I’d imagine many of you reading this do not need to be convinced of this truth. You already know and believe the words of thinkers like Kant. That doesn’t mean, however, that as a culture we’ve got this idea down. It’s just the opposite. I see more and more tweets, articles, posts, and comments that seem to ignore our flawed nature as a fundamental truth. Posters on hip Etsy stores declare things like, “Passion is All You Need.” Graduation cards contain inspirational statements like, “Everything You're Searching for is Already Within You,” and comments on Instagram posts say things like, “You’re So Perfect.” Speaking plainly, these sentiments are not only BS, but they give young, aspiring leaders exactly the wrong idea about their own growth and success.
Feel-good greeting cards, posters, and posts teach us that the central conflict of our lives is going to be between our perfect internal “truth” and the forces outside of us trying to keep us from expressing ourselves or achieving our goals. Personally, I’ve found that the greatest challenges I face aren’t external at all — the greatest conflicts come from within. My internal nature leads to deviation more often than it does to consistency. That person inside of me isn’t my great truth, he is my greatest adversary.
In his book, The Road to Character, author David Brooks speaks to this reality, “Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success.”
A brief but important aside about what I am not saying: marginalized groups such as women and minority groups are not always able to act, speak, or present themselves authentically for fear of how they might be perceived. When I discuss the flaws of following our “internal truth,” self-expression and authenticity are not the forces I am disparaging. Everyone should be free to express their personalities, preferences, or perspectives without fear. I’m not so concerned with our personalities as I am our character.
The way of personal growth in life is mostly a lesson in constant recalibration. We don’t discover some great righteous goal or passion and, carrying that clarity with us for the rest of our lives, chase it until our end. No one’s life is like that — not even those who we look up to for their discipline and clarity of purpose. Instead, each one of us moves forward to the best of our ability, and after going for a while we look up to that great force around which we have oriented our lives — be it a faith, value, goal, or person — and in reflecting upon it we realize that we have accidentally veered off course. We adjust our trajectory and keep moving forward. That’s what personal growth looks like.
In the same essay in which he likens us to crooked timber, Kant himself proposes this same solution of recalibration, “All the culture and art that decorates humankind, as well as its most pleasing social order,” he says, “ are fruits of an unsociability that is forced by its own nature to discipline itself and thereby develop fully the seeds that nature planted within it by means of an imposed art.”
This “imposed art” of character recalibration is actually our best hope for achieving our most important goals in life. I wish someone would write that on a graduation card.
I’ve become convinced that anyone who thinks they can find the guidance they need for life by only looking inwards is, well... lost. And if they would stop reading comments and buying into motivational posters long enough to look up at their actual progress, they’d likely find that they’ve been walking straight into circles.
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