30 November 2021


Life pivots, hill climbing and the Red Queen Effect

I had managed to get a window seat near the very back of the plane. It felt weird being in this setting again, up into and with the clouds. This was made all the more novel from it all being part of my last few moments in Gladstone.

As the plane took off and aimed for its cruising altitude, I was greeted by a wonderful panoramic view of the environment that had encapsulated my life for the past 18 months.

There was something about this elevated perspective that had caught my attention, one of the thoughts that emerged was ‘man, my problems were so small in the grand scheme of things!’

Within the ‘ground zero’ of day-to-day living, it is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae, to feel stressed and at times overwhelmed by the problems that needed to be overcome. It is interesting, then, how the exact same problems look and feel different when looking at them from (literally) a different perspective.

Which of the problems were truly important and not just urgent? Really, there were only a selected few.

Making the decision to leave Gladstone was harder than I had anticipated, with its own fair share of problems, but I now hold no guilt for making the choices that I had made. Uprooting oneself from one’s familiar environment, by definition, involves a painful process of cutting ties - with the ideas, people and places that had developed bonds over time.

One thing I have learnt from this journey is to understand and realise that life will go on. That the people and places will continue on their own journeys, as I am on mine. This turned out to be a healthy check for the ego, to recognise that I was not as integral or important as I thought I was; perhaps a worthy mark of achievement could mean leaving behind a good legacy instead of aiming for the impossible goal of being present for eternity.

Hill climbing

It seems like the fear that emerges from even thinking about immersing into a significant life altering decision is this deep set assumption of ‘this is as good as life gets!’ and to mess with the accumulated momentum in any manner, big or small, would be to behave arrogantly or naively.

This is perhaps a perspective that comes from a place of weighting the downside risks too much and undervaluing the upside potential.

In such decisions, the price to pay today seems to be much more obvious and intimidating that what the future gains from executing the change could look like.

A great (and timely) analogy I had encountered recently that illustrates this thought better than I can articulate is from Chris Dixon, speaking on The Tim Ferriss Show.

He spoke to the concept of ‘hill climbing’ from the world of computer science, where taking the next step from wherever you are currently would be one towards the direction that takes you higher, but the risk in this lies in the trap of the ‘local maxima’ - where all the effort possible to expend would take you to the peak of the hill you are currently on but not to the highest, most desirable peak.


Taking this model and applying it to decision making around significant life pivots, the pain point stems from accepting the immediate, short term necessity of making, and what appears to others to be, downhill progress for a stake in future upside potential on the next greater hill.

‘What appears to others to be’ is an important point to touch on, because what makes such short term pain / long term benefit moves even more intimidating and off-putting are the social consequences, such as the pressure of having a straightforward, nicely packaged story to tell when asked the question of ‘so, what are your plans?’

Falling up

Are you on the right hill? How do you know?

Looking back, the earlier stages of my life in Gladstone had felt exponential. The growth trajectory, both personally and professionally, were at an enthralling pace and there were very few boring moments to be had, or even any time to think about the bigger picture of what it was exactly that I was working towards.

Over time, through the myriad experiences, I eventually started to develop a better understanding of myself and consequently, a greater capacity to sit with and think through the bigger questions.

I noticed that while ‘working hard’ and ‘putting the time in’ were still compelling enough to push me forward and continue taking one step after the other, the trajectory had actually started to taper off. This was by no means a bad thing, as it meant that I had started to get a grip on my surroundings through developing some amount of competence in dealing with the world, but it seemed to me that I had crossed beyond a point of diminishing returns.

Upon reaching this stage, it becomes important to ask the question of ‘to what end?’ For me, the choice to move on had emerged as the difficult, but necessary, decision to commit towards because the alternative, of continuing to remain in the momentum of the current trajectory, is to choose to tolerate the diminishing returns.

To what end?

I’d like to acknowledge that this ‘trajectory of progress’ mental model is so nuanced and subjective that every individual has to judge for themselves precisely where on the curve they are situated currently. It is a complicated position that takes into consideration all of the various layers of life — personal aspirations, work, family, social life, finances, community etc.

Is it necessarily a binary scenario? Instead of only ‘up’ or ‘out’, is there a third option of activating cruise control? The Red Queen Effect begs to differ. It makes the point that to merely keep up is to keep running as hard as you can. To do nothing, or in other words to ‘cruise’, is to fall behind, not to sustain your current position.

Going back to the hill climbing analogy, choosing to do nothing is to stop trekking up the hill and to blindly hope to preserve the status quo. However, because the hill is a part of nature, a dynamic world that is perpetually in flux, the hope of remaining stationary becomes a fallacy. Besides, there is also gravity that is trying to peel you off the hill whether you like it or not.

Unfortunately, the default mode of blind, unconscious motions is directed downwards, there is no such thing as ‘falling up’.

To what end?

Over time, I’ve come to recalibrate what success actually means to myself. It is no longer some arbitrary material possession, no longer some arbitrary financial position, but instead something like this:

‘Success is prosperous adaptation into your surrounding environment.’

In summary:

  • Choose your environments carefully.
  • Remind yourself often: is it worth being more afraid of losing who you have become than who you could be?
  • Once you find a hill, you better be sprinting up.
“Albert grunted. ‘Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?’

Mort thought for a moment.

‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘what?’

There was silence.

Then Albert straightened up and said, ‘Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right.’ ”

- Terry Pratchett