Walking Backwards in Life

(from my just published book, Just One Step: Walking Backwards to the Present on the Camino Trail)

It’s fairly easily to understand what it means to walk backwards on the downhills of the Camino but understanding the ways to implement walking backwards in your day-to-day living and leading can be more challenging. Shortly after I returned from my Camino journey, a good friend of mine called me and asked if I could stop by that evening for a chat. I agreed, and he quickly shared with me that he had a very real challenge with his romantic relationship. He was heading out of town for a trip and really wanted to talk to his partner about how he was feeling about several recent events before he left. However, all of their recent conversations hadn’t gone well, and he was struggling to find a way to talk to his partner in a way that would work. After asking a few more questions, he clarified that he wanted to express to his partner how he was feeling about a couple of things, and he indicated that she hadn’t been very receptive to this type of sharing. That’s when I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to walk backwards.”

In response to his expected question of what that meant, I said something like the following:

We know that you sharing your feelings with your partner about certain things that she’s done isn’t working. While I certainly believe that your feelings are important and worthy of sharing, that approach is clearly not working. What if, instead of telling your partner how you feel, you went home and simply asked your partner how she’s feeling about things?

He noted that he should be able to share his feelings, and I agreed, but he also agreed that him sharing his feelings wasn’t moving the communication or the relationship forward at that time. So, he agreed to try the opposite – to walk backwards – and he headed home to try a different approach.

A couple of days later my friend called me back with an update. As planned, he’d gone home and, rather than sharing what he needed to share, asked his partner how she was feeling about things. In response, she began to share more than she’d been sharing previously, and he just listened. While he still wanted to share, he walked backwards and just held space open for her feelings. At the end of what he termed one of their best conversations in months, she thanked him and said that this was the first time that she’d felt heard in months.

This was only the beginning, as their communication began to improve steadily from there. A short time later, he was able to share his feelings, which was the original starting point for our conversation, and their overall communication began improving. While certainly many factors were at work, walking backwards by doing the opposite of what he’d done before opened the door to different and deeper communication and sharing.

After returning from my Camino journey, I discovered that I’m not the first to contemplate this concept of walking backwards. I was reading Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016), and much of his book and its philosophies are based upon the concept of living and thinking counterintuitively. In the book, Manson references the work of two influential philosophical writers, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. Huxley and Watts offered what they called the law of reversed effort, which in simple terms translates roughly to: the harder we try, the less we succeed (aka the “backwards law”). A slightly more complex explanation of this phenomenon is that the more conscious our efforts towards better results are, the more likely it is that our results will diminish.

Here’s what Aldous Huxley had to say about the backwards law:

“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent unknown quantity may take hold. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us.”

In very simple terms, Alan Watts offered this truth: “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

Essentially, Watts and Huxley both suggested that the harder you try, the less success you’ll have. Obviously, this is the opposite of what most of us have been taught throughout our lives. If you’re like me, you were told that you must always try harder and seek to do your best. While this seems to make sense, their backwards law makes just as much (if not more) sense. If you always try harder, there will be an inevitable point of diminishing returns that you hit because of this continual and persistent effort. What Watts and Huxley discovered is that optimal performance requires a mix of effort and relaxation because if you don’t have the combination of both you’ll wear out the machine (i.e. you) with and through your efforts.

Their backwards law tells us that at various points we need to back off from our efforts in order to achieve the most optimal results. While walking backwards and the backwards law aren’t precisely aligned, the foundation is the same – we often need to do the opposite of what we’ve always thought, believed and done in order to overcome and achieve.

The key is to catch yourself doing what you’ve always done or what seems natural, and to instead try something that seems a bit crazy and is often the complete opposite of what you’re thinking or doing. This may seem risky, but if what you’re already doing isn’t working, then why not?

Walking backwards is often required in order to inspire and fuel innovation. While many innovations present themselves as adjustments to what already is, the path to those innovations often demands that we do the opposite in order to create the shifts that feed the innovation.

Our lives and indeed our world have been continuously and repeatedly transformed for thousands of years by men, women and groups who were willing to do things differently – often the opposite – by walking backwards. Where are you dabbling around the edges hoping to change things and outcomes, but finding that the changes are too small or the edges not sharp enough? Where are you hesitating to walk backwards in your business, relationships, families and communities? More importantly, are you ready – are you ready to take the risk, to be bold, to do the opposite, to walk backwards?

Now is the time for radical shifts, dramatically different thinking and, most important, bold and courageous action to change things for the better and the different. Do you hear this call in your organization, with your team, in your life, with your relationships or in your family? And will you heed this call and step differently – to turn around and even walk backwards to be the change you wish to see in the world? Make no mistake that people are waiting for someone to change things – will you be the one to walk backwards?

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