THE INVISIBLE ASSEMBLY LINE
Here’s a big, goofy cliché: You can be whatever you want to be. We just cringed as we wrote that, but nevertheless it happens to be true.
So how did this corny afterschool-special cliché become a tired trope rather than an empowering truism? Maybe because the world we navigate forces us to ignore its underlying truth. In the name of security, we put aside what we might truly want. We pay our dues. We put our heads down and work hard, chugging along on a preplotted path that promises stability, security, and comfort. But in the quiet moments, we have a nagging feeling. Is this the path we’re supposed to be on? Are we fulfilled? Satisfied? Are we living our lives or are our lives living us? Are there choices we could be making that better speak to who we are? Are we on the right road?
For some people, finding the “right” road is easy (or at least it seems like it to those of us standing off on the side). They seem to be living the life they want to live, they appear to be successful, thriving, and happy in the roles they’ve chosen. For most of us, however, finding that road feels like an exercise in impossibility. We get stuck. And lost. We feel afraid of the unknown or incapable of bold action. We become bogged down by the responsibilities we face and the choices in front of us.
If the road belongs to us, why is it so difficult to get on it? Why can’t we force that cliché back into truth? The answer lies in a particularly sneaky aspect of human nature. Just as a deluge of rain pounding a dry hillside will form rivulets that trickle downhill—beating tracks of least resistance into the earth—as individuals, we tend to fall into the paths that society has already created for us. This process starts early in our lives and is devilishly hard to shake. And while there can be value in the tried-and-true (there’s nothing wrong with everybody wearing pants, for instance), following by rote restricts individual experience and inhibits potential.
Think about it this way: If you live on the North American continent, outside your door is a road that will get you to New York City. You can pull out a map and take any route you want, winding through purple mountain majesties and amber waves of whatnot and stopping at as many roadside tourist traps as you’d like. You can explore sleepy towns off the beaten path, you can stop off for a few cheesesteaks in Philly or roll up to the Grand Tetons, and no matter where you happen to be, you will still be on the road to New York City. But if you punch your destination into your phone, it will lead you directly to the closest highway. It will tell you exactly how far it is to New York and estimate exactly how long it will take you to get there. And it will be a nonstop march that’s as straight as possible. You’ll have certainty but no cheesesteaks, no time for exploring, just you in your car on the very same highway that everybody else takes. This is exactly what society’s formula for “success” is like: a one-size-fits-all, bumper-to-bumper haul that ignores the nuances of who you really are.
This is the Invisible Assembly Line, and chances are you’re on it.
Our personal Assembly Lines are built cog by cog from all the expectations, education, social norms, well-meaning advice, and preprogrammed choices that we’ve absorbed from the day we crawled out of the sandbox and wondered what we would be when we grew up. Whether we’re pushed to become doctors or lawyers or to work in the family business, or told that our aspirations are beyond us, all those fears and all that conditioning define our decisions and our expectations without our being aware that it’s happening. But it is happening.
That’s where we began—on the Assembly Line. Our first road trip was forged by a numbing fear that we were locked into preplotted career destinations: a doctor, a business consultant, or the next in line to run the family business. None of these options had anything to do with who we really were, but they had everything to do with the expectations we had absorbed. And it filled all of us with a jittery sense of panic. We were afraid we’d wake up one day with the devastating realization that we’d been living someone else’s life.
Of course, staying on the Assembly Line offers the seductive perceived comfort of safety in numbers. After all, if everyone is taking the same path, it must be the right one. That’s the trickiest part: When you’re on the Assembly Line, you often don’t even know what your options are. The machinery of the Assembly Line does the work of defining happiness for you; it dictates every step along the way, and in what order, but it’s not made for you as an individual. The folks we’ve met on the road, the Leaders—each with their own constellation of interests, experiences, talents, and ambitions—have all discovered ways to escape the Assembly Line and find their own way forward.
Rewriting the script you’re handed can be one of the most difficult acts in your life. It might upset people close to you, it might shake the foundations of your worldview, and it might be scary. The political activist and BET host Jeff Johnson*
remembers rejecting the Assembly Line while he was in college on a track scholarship.
As Jeff became more involved in student politics at his school’s Black Student Union, his track coach confronted him: “I didn’t bring you here for that. I brought you here to go to class and to run track.” Jeff’s Assembly Line was starkly clear: star athlete, not justice-minded activist.
Much to his coach’s surprise (and his father’s dismay), Jeff made the tough choice to reject the scholarship so that he could pursue his interests in school with a clear conscience. In rejecting the preprogrammed route, no matter how scary doing so was, Jeff found an important lesson that he continues to share with others.
“Most people who are successful . . . didn’t do what everybody else did. They didn’t go the same routes everybody else went. It is the people who think outside the box in whatever discipline they are in who shake the world. No one’s looking around at the people who followed a manual saying, ‘My God, they followed that manual in a way that was just inspiring.’ It is the people who throw the manual away and say there is something beyond this that I can share, or that I can give, or that I can invest, who become successful.”
—JEFF JOHNSON, BET host and political activist
Being stuck on the Assembly Line often manifests itself as a nagging feeling in your gut that things should be better than they are. That gut feeling is what launches the first phase of your journey. ...