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Moving Forward


If you want to move forward or get ahead, you’re not alone. For many of us, life is a journey or pathway and taking certain steps will mean we end up where we want to go. This is a common metaphor that pervades everyday speech: I’d like to move forward; we’ve come a long way; my life has ground to a halt; I need to change direction; he’s always one step ahead; she’s at a crossroads in her career.

As Mark Johnson explains in The Body In The Mind, our lives are filled with paths connecting our world—from the bed to the bathroom, from the cooker to the kitchen table, from your house to the supermarket, from London to Birmingham, from the earth to the moon. While some of these paths are physical and some are imagined, the concept of a path (with a starting point, a goal and a series of points connecting one to the other) is familiar and important to us all.

When we evoke the ‘path’ metaphor to describe parts of our experience, the experience naturally takes on all the qualities of real paths. For example, we think of path as directional. They’re not really—the same path will take you to the supermarket as well as back. But, because we tend to have purposes for going along paths, we tend to experience them as directional.

In an analysis of 30 client (Symbolic Modelling) transcripts, I found that 24 people had utilised the ‘path’ metaphor to some extent—with around half of them relying on the metaphor to describe their current situation and/or their desired outcome. Indeed, no fewer than eight of the thirty had said that they wanted to move forward or to have a way or route forward. Others had described wanting to see clearly ahead, to see other pathways or to know where to go and how to get there. These outcomes were sometimes qualified with phrases such as ‘at my own pace’ or ‘the fastest and most effective route’ or ‘directly from A to B’ but the outcomes tended to have more similarities than differences. Moving forward appears to be an objective that many of us share.

But when it came to metaphors for what was preventing people from moving forward, these varied greatly. If you are among those who’d like to move forward—but aren’t for some reason, see if you recognise your predicament amongst those of my clients:

15 metaphors that could explain ‘not moving forward’

  • You don’t know what you want or where you’re going.
  • You fear the unknown. Or you’re frightened that even if you do go forward you may end up back at square one. So you never take the first step.
  • You feel like you are on a roundabout or going round in circles. If only you could stop and get off… but it keeps on going round and round... and round.
  • You feel trapped or stuck in a certain situation. It is like your feet are stuck to the ground and you can’t move forward.
  • It is as though you are in a tunnel or a maze. You can’t see where you are going. You keep bumping into dead ends and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
  • You are being pulled in two directions—forward and backward—at the same time. So you may take one step forward and two steps backwards. Or you may simply stay exactly where you are.
  • You have a burden or weight to carry that is so heavy, it makes moving forward really difficult.
  • Your life has just ground to a halt. You’ve stopped and can’t get going again.
  • You are stuck in a rut. The wheels are going round, and you’re moving forward but the journey’s not very exciting and you’re not really sure you want to go in the direction you’re heading.
  • You are in limbo or lost, disorientated. You don’t know where you are; let alone where you’re going.
  • You can see where you’re going but there are so many hurdles or obstacles in the way, you doubt you’ll ever get there.
  • It seems like such a huge step, like you have a mountain to climb, that it’s hard to get started.
  • You know where you’re going and you’re even moving forward, but things keep coming along that distract you and take you off the path.
  • You are moving forward—but it doesn’t seem fast enough—all your steps are pigeon steps.
  • You seem to be going in the wrong direction completely—away from your chosen destination.

As well as talking about what they want, and where they currently are in relation to their outcomes, clients often suggest their own solutions—ways to get what they want. You won’t be surprised to learn that people who think of themselves as being in dark tunnels often hope for that a light will appear to show them the way, those who are easily distracted wish that the distractions would stop coming along and those who are going round and round are eager for the roundabout to stop so they can get off. Having someone come along who points them in the right direction or gives them strength were also popular suggestions for solving the problem.

However, according to Robert Fritz, solving the problem will not generally result in ‘moving forward’—not in the long term anyway. He suggests that the predicaments we find ourselves in, the things that stop us moving forward are created because we follow ‘the path of least resistance’ - being inherently lazy, we tend to take the easiest route, and it is that route that has led to ‘trapped’ or ‘lost’ or ‘wrong direction’ or ‘can’t see’. So while we might get free from the trap, find the right way or grab a lamp to light the path, the chances are that our own habitual ways of thinking and behaving will lead us straight back to where we started—be it trapped or lost or going round in circles. As Albert Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

Fritz has coined the term ‘structural conflict’ to describe this oscillation from the problem to the solution and back again. He says that if we truly want to move forward—we have to create ‘structural tension’ instead. This means stepping out of the problem and asking ‘What do I want?’ or “Where do I want to go?” Knowing the destination organises our efforts; we use our creativity to work out how to get there; and moving forward becomes inevitable.

Of course, this also fits the structure of the basic ‘path’ metaphor (a path has a starting point, an end point and a series of points to join the two). It also makes sense when you relate it to a ‘real-life’ journey. If you really want to get to a certain place, then you’ll sit in the traffic jam if there is one, or find another way round, you’ll call the AA if you need to, you’ll do what it takes. Now and again the obstacles you face will mean you miss an appointment, or arrive a day late for your holiday—but that doesn’t stop you from starting out on the journey.

So what does this mean if you are one of the many people who wishes to move forward but is stuck in a rut, is carrying a huge burden or is simply lost?

It means that if you really want to move forward, you just need to know two things: which way is forward and how to move. To know which way is forward is as easy as knowing where it is you want to go. And the amazing thing is that when you know where you really want to go, moving in that direction is such an obvious and natural thing to do that ruts and roundabouts become irrelevant.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. David Campbell


Fritz, R. (1989). The Path of Least Resistance (revised edition). New York : Ballantine

Johnson, M. (1990). The Body in the Mind (paperback edition). Chicago : University of Chicago Press

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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