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May 25, 2013

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Best, fastest way to the top is often the zigzag and detour

DESPITE a scorching sun and steep steps, my wife and I climbed from the middle to the top of Wudang Mountain (more than 1,600 meters above sea level) in just two and a half hours in late April. For most other amateur mountain hikers, it requires at least four and a half hours.

It was not that we were fitter, although we might have exercised more than many of our white-collar friends back in Shanghai. It was that we followed our tai chi coach's advice: climb the steep steps in a zigzag way, that is, from left to right and then to left.

We took the zigzag way and found our legs were much less strained than if we had plowed ahead all the way up.

Deliberate detours can actually create the shortest cut.

In his book, "The Zigzag Principle," American entrepreneur and philanthropist Rich Christiansen also discusses the idea of deliberate detours. He discovers that making detours is not only the natural way to be, but also the way we make progress.

"When I was finally willing to take the time to look back, I saw that my most significant accomplishments ... did not come when I charged directly toward my goal. Rather, they came when I zigged and zagged my way to success," Christiansen says.

"As I've considered this revelation, I've come to realize that the Zigzag Principle has its roots in the laws of nature, with evidences everywhere we look," he continues. "Rivers don't flow in a straight line from mountain springs to the ocean."


For nearly 7 million Chinese college graduates who will flood the job market this summer, the book should be an eye-opener.

Chinese news media have painted a dark picture of job prospects for this year, calling it the most daunting for college graduates in history.

But when numbers are crunched, one finds that most graduates dream of easy jobs with easy pay in the eastern coastal areas. That largely explains why the job market has become so competitive of late.

If most college graduates understand the merit of deliberate detours, they may well start low and land their dream jobs overtime rather than overnight.

Sometimes, unemployment is a pseudo phenomenon -it's not necessarily a lack of jobs, but lack of dream jobs for those who aspire for success on day one.

Harsh conditions

In many ways, young graduates today can hardly match their parents or grandparents when it comes to dealing with harsh work conditions.

Many successful people in their 50s or 60s today, be they bank managers, newspaper editors or professional musicians, found themselves sent to the countryside to work with and for poor farmers in the 1960s and 1970s.

When I began to work in 1991, I often got up at 6:30am to prepare for interviews scheduled at around 8am and went to bed well past midnight after doing all the writing and proof reading. Yet I earned so little that an average woollen sweater for my wife would cost nearly a third of my monthly salary.

And when we were already 30ish, working for a newspaper in Beijing, my wife and I still had to share a two-bedroom apartment with a colleague who often drank too much and became violent with his wife.

One night his wife knocked our door with bleeding fingers and found refuge in our 6-square-meter room, as her husband ran madly after her in the wrong direction, knife in hand.

We've been through all these zigs and zags. We are thankful for where we are today, although we still owe a bank a huge loan for our first apartment.

If you look around at your young colleagues today, chances are that many of them already drive cars, live in cozy apartments and carry luxury handbags, only a couple of years into paid work.

It's not that they earn so much on their own, but they have no qualms about squandering their parents' and grandparents' life savings. They don't want zigzags, they demand gratification now.

But that's not the way it ought to be. Christiansen says: "We have also found, while hiking in the Himalayas, that it is important not to gain too much altitude too quickly. Those who do, often succumb to high-altitude sickness and even death."


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