Life Tracing

In complexity theory, there is the idea that even in extremely chaotic and complex systems where there are initially no patterns, order eventually spontaneously emerges. This “spontaneous order” then becomes a pattern that propagates throughout the whole system. I think that this is an incredibly powerful idea because we can apply it to one of the most complex systems I know: our own lives. However chaotic our lives might appear, what if there is eventually a moment when spontaneous order emerges? When somehow we realize that our life takes shape around a central theme? When we see seemingly disparate and random events as suddenly connected in a pattern that leads up to the present moment? I have had moments like that – moments when my life’s events ‘click’ into place – and I believe that here must be a way to explore our life’s shapes and patterns in more systematic ways.

Life Tracing – Methodology

I came up with a method that seems simple and effective enough as a first prototype that I call life tracing. The purpose is to draw an unbroken line from birth to the present for several different ‘threads’ of activity in our lives and observe their changes.

Tracing Materials:

1. Professional Resume and/or LinkedIn Profile
2. Unofficial Transcript or Academic Record
3. List/Pictures of Hobbies

Tracing Rules:

1. Every path starts as a straight line in some initial direction.
2. A path change in a totally unrelated/distinct direction is at 90º.
3. A path change in a different but still related direction is at 45º.
4. The length of a path segment is related to time (months, years, and so on).
5. Professional/Career paths are black.
6. Passion/Hobby paths are orange.
7. Fascination/Intellectual paths are blue.
8. If need be, a path can split into multiple segments, each of which then follows the rules separately.

Tracing Process:

1. Start with the professional/career path (black), with changes in direction according to job transitions, academic major declarations, and so on.
2. Continue with the passion/hobby path (orange), splitting where necessary to indicate multiple major passions/hobbies at a time.
3. Finish with the fascination/intellectual path (blue), changing in a continuous manner.
4. Extend any professional/career paths beyond their transitions to show “intended paths” and/or “paths not taken.”
5. Reflect on the finished map.

Life Tracing – Results

My life trace.

My life trace as of January 2014.

Life Tracing – Insights

I have decided to cover my insights as a series of questions that I asked myself right after seeing the visual of my own trace.

1. What is the pattern for professional transitions?
In my life, there have been no absolutely sudden transitions after the first one: all of my transitions (e.g. from history to engineering) have had an intermediate step (e.g. international relations with a focus on engineering).

2. What is the relationship between the levels?
In my case, fascinations drive professional choices that then drive my passions/hobbies. Right now, for the first time, my fascinations and personal passions drive my professional choice, and all are in perfect alignment.

3. What are the paths not taken?
There are a lot of paths I have not taken at all three levels, and they are conscious choices. There is a difference between taking a path because it is the best option of all the ones made possible or because it is the only option left from all the ones not wanted. In choosing not to pursue being a historian or a lawyer to their logical ends, for instance, I have chosen to pursue other paths. This does not mean that I am not a historian or that I am not a lawyer – it simply means that I did not pursue the paths far enough into a long-term profession.

4. What is the relationship between paths not taken?
If we take a look at the directions of the paths I have chosen to abandon, we can see that they exist in 3 natural pairs: artist and engineer, lawyer and investor, historian and educator. This is interesting because the pairings are actually accurate. When I became an engineer, I re-discovered a lot of my artistic skills because we got to draw diagrams, color maps, and re-create crystallography. When I became an investor, I re-applied a lot of my lawyerly training because we got to draft contracts, set conditions, and oversee negotiations. When I became an educator, I re-kindled a lot of my historian tendencies because we got to analyze transcripts, infer motivations, and track institutions. This implies that while I might not have pursued those paths to their fullest extent, they absolutely inform my overall journey.

5. What is the fastest path from beginning to present?
The trace shows the path I have taken from the beginning to the present, and it is also the fastest path. This is because even though there is a shorter linear distance (literally from point A to point B), the actual landscape is not like that. Chances are that, based on our family, academic, and professional environment, the landscape is not perfectly flat, but more filled with hills and valleys. I choose to believe that, given my opportunities and proclivities at every stage of life, I seized path transitions as they appeared. I believe that a life guided well by reason and intuition shows gradual rather than sudden transitions. Sudden transitions might be (in my opinion) last resorts of our own life trying to adjust.

6. What is the shape of things to come?
There is obviously no telling as to what will happen over the next few years. With that caveat, I can see an interesting possibility. My immediate future career can converge on some combination of these three prevalent forces in my life. My professional transitions will continue to increase in frequency and decrease in length, so that I find some professional equilibrium. That is, until a new shift propels me along a different path. Alternatively, it could be that my professional path folds these multiple strands under a single thread.


I cannot claim that there is a pattern to our lives that we help unfold or that there is no pattern other than the one we envision. But I do know that engaging in this fast and simple exercise helped me see my life in a new light (or, shape). Understanding some of the patterns for previous transitions is also now helping me look out for indications of possible future ones. I will keep iterating on this exercise to see how far we can take it without adding too much complexity to the methods. I think that there are definitely two or three more tracks that might be worth adding: important relationships, community belonging, and physical endeavors. For me, one of the key takeaways from the exercise is that it has provided me with an especially visual vocabulary to communicate my journey. In other words, I have taken greater ownership of my own self-story.

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