The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line
Monday, March 17, 2014 at 6:24PM
Robert Twigger

The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. It could be a spiral, a slow spiral around one point and then a loop into the other. Or a zig zagging path (I got this from my friend Tahir Shah who really introduced me to the whole idea of indirect paths to achieving something). The more I observed my own failures, setbacks, turnarounds, and successes, the more I saw there was NO correlation between directness of route and success, or rather, there was: a negative correlation. The direct approach was the more likely to either fail or take twice as long.


Twice as long- how often does an 'expert' estimate, be it for a building job or paint job, take twice as long? Or for computing work- say four times as long? And treble the price? The world of business prides itself on its direct approaches, its planning, its careful just-in-time delivery systems. These work- but at some hidden human cost. Look at the bored people working in Lidl. In the real world- meaning the one where we live with consequences rather than cleverly pass them on- we know that things kind of bumble or spurt forward and sometimes work and sometime fail and no one can ever quite be convincing about why one does and another doesn't.


As a child I was pretty direct. If I wanted something I went out and got it. No, even that isn't true. I wanted this girl to be my girlfriend but then a much higher status girl let it be known that she fancied me. I dropped the first girl straightaway. Traded up. The warped path to success.


I wanted to be a writer. Tried for years. Nine in fact. Then I gave up trying and spent all my time instead doing martial arts. That gave me the material for my first and, to date, most successful book. I went backwards to go forwards. Pretty much every book and article I've written hasn't been a 'straight shot'. Most of them involved doing something first, bunking off from writing. But I often have to con myself to do this. Tell myself I'm only taking a short time off from my 'vocation'. But then every time I do, I get great material. I turn away from writing and get better results. But I don't learn from this. My first novel was a direct shot at the first. But then it got derailed, abandoned, picked up again and ultimately 'fixed' and years later. The slow way is the straight way.

But now I’m trying an experiment. I’ll report back on how it goes. Now I am deliberately, at long last, attempting the winding, looping, spiraling, zig-zagging path to any desired goal. If I want something I’m going to force myself first and foremost to think of the most convoluted way of going about it. Then I might do a slightly less indirect route. I will, for sure, stop worrying that time committed to something else is somehow time ‘uncommitted’ to writing. Writing is, after all, just a habit that sometimes pays off.

Is it possible to be more specific? Wouldn’t that be rather too direct? The English make a fetish of the opposite. Even orientals can sometimes find them too ‘oriental’. Though more and more I see directness is in the ascendant- when people are in a rush, or corralled by greed. I’ve been there myself many times. Holding doors open is not done out of politeness, it’s a stratagem for seeing what else might happen…

The charge of the Light Brigade was the result of a series of errors- astonishing directness, inescapable failure. Heroism is the triumph of courage over impossibility. Or an attempt at it.

Battles are often won by the indirect approach. Strategist Liddell Hart made much of this. And whilst it is true that Colonel H. Jones charged straight up a hill to get at the Argentines dug in during the Falklands war, there is a case that this rather insane head on attack was ‘indirect’, because, though it initially failed, his example spurred his men on to finally succeed.

Of course it is hard to really say. It always is. Which is yet more proof if you like that the shortest distance between two points is never via a straight line.

Straight lines are not to be found in nature. Look at the cracked mud of a field recently in the sun. The three and four junction vertices fork out like lightning, another non-straight phenomenon, very jagged in fact. Water is curved as it lies in a glass- surface tension. Trees branch, even very straight trees waver at the top. There are no poles growing. Straight things, slabs of fallen slate, are fragile and small in comparison with things that are not straight. Mountains. Gorges. Waterfalls.

We accept the convenience of a straight edge. It makes building easier- once you have straight planks from the B&Q. But if you start with trees then building is easier using bent and curved timber. Benders- by their very name- announce a curved kind of dwelling. I know someone who has happily lived in one for twenty years.

Look at bicycle tracks recorded on a muddy track- more mud- there is always a wobble, a sort of slow ‘S’. Bullets describe a trajectory- seen as a weakness- or a strength when it comes to the high parabola of the howitzer, getting inside an enemy’s defences. The lob, the serve, the free kick- all are immeasurably improved by exaggerating their natural curvature. He threw a curve ball- a sure sign of success.

I think we have to look at the motion of bees, flies, wasps, birds- pendant, undulatory, wavering, fast, undecided, iterative. I watched the birds massing on the south coast before beginning their long migration to Africa. They flew inland! Out of sight, then, in twos and threes they wheeled about, spiraling out further and further, gaining momentum or confidence over the sea it was hard to say. They travel with unerring inaccuracy- in the short term- but always arrive.

I walked in the Borneo jungle with jungle dwelling Lundaiya tribesmen. They loathed my compass, and laughed at it. We walked instead along ridges, always aiming to get higher, always on paths. We’d walk double the distance on a path rather than take a short cut. My guide told me: “a short cut is a way to a short life”.


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