Desire Line 11
Photo by szczel on Flickr.

You know how, occasionally, you’ll stumble onto a person, thing, or concept that you’d never heard of before, but that all of a sudden starts turning up everywhere? Even better when it’s something you find intriguing or inspiring, and each appearance helps you crystallize some idea.

The most recent occurrence of this for me wove itself through a few skeins of thought, which didn’t necessarily provide me with one of those overarching Eureka! moments, but did provide something of a framework for consideration in the future.


The first concept was desire lines. A concept I’m aware of, having used them myself, but I never stopped realized or wondering about them having a name or field of study.

The desire lines were mentioned in Amber Simmons’ excellent article: You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners. She used the concept in referring to how users get around websites.

A couple days later, I spoke to the monthly gathering of Communitech’s Web Software Developers Peer 2 Peer group, about community management and how it can intersect with development. And one of the participants mentioned to me afterward she’d been struggling a bit with how to define what she did, how her past work experience fit into her current and potential future roles, and how to market herself.

I knew exactly what she was talking about, having had that sort of mixed bag, eclectic career myself to date, and having wondered how to tweak my resume, which jobs to apply for, etc. Conveniently, just such types of mixed experience can be very valuable in community management (which I do officially now, and which she does sort of unofficially in her role).

And it clicked in my head that my — and her — career path was a good example of desire lines. We may have started in tech writing or administration or web development, but before long we started meandering off that defined path. Perhaps due to what we wanted to do; perhaps due to what we saw needed to be done; perhaps because it was asked of us.

Over time, as these desire lines grew more entrenched, they may eventually have been incorporated into our “other” job descriptions. Since measuring performance is all-important in a lot of companies, and you can’t measure something if it’s not on the list to begin with. Or perhaps we were penalized for doing so much of this non-codified work, and we left for somewhere where our desire lines skills and experience were welcome, and actually became the (at least somewhat) codified part of our jobs.

Some people, certainly, figure out what they want to do professionally early on (or even later on), and it happens to be something very easily defined. I’m a lawyer; I’m an electrician; I’m a sculptor. But then there are lawyers who write books; electricians who do woodworking; and sculptors who take pictures. Sometimes even as secondary businesses (or, eventually, overtaking as primary businesses). Desire lines that, over time, erode their way into What I Do.

Of course, desire lines need to be worn into something. You can’t etch air. And so, conveniently, arrived the second part of this mental framework for me, in a blog post by artist Hazel Dooney. The content of the post, like most of Amber’s, is about another topic, but then one word in this line caught me: “…there are those geekish, dull-witted trolls who get a kick out of spilling vitriol over anyone with any ‘surface’ in the blogosphere.”

Surface. I’d never considered our existence and experience — online or elsewhere — before in that context. But it makes perfect sense. When you first “join” the internet, you don’t really exist. You lack mass and volume But over time you add email and instant messaging accounts, social network profiles, and content — comments, forum and blog posts, email messages, etc.

You develop a persona (sometimes a lot like your “real life” self; sometimes not, especially in the beginning); you develop a voice. People get to know you, and you, them, and you interact and your network evolves. This is your surface.

For yourself, but, more visibly, for others, this compiled version of you is how you are reflected into their brains and filtered through their attitudes and experiences. And the better you get to know people, or the more content you create, the larger your surface grows. The thicker and more textured and coloured with more nuance. (And it’s what the aforementioned trolls try to chip away at or fling toxic waste at…)

Apropos of nothing, I’ve been reading about paleontology and paleoanthropology lately, and was at the Waterloo Potters’ Workshop Fall Sale on Friday, so my current idea of surfaces looks very much like millions of years of history-revealing, fossily-cradling rock strata, or artfully molded or thrown ceramics.

Getting back to the first idea of desire lines, just as in the online sphere, our careers have a surface as well. And, for some of us, our online lives and careers, over time, have surfaces that have melded. When you get your first job, be it babysitting, or a paper route, or at McDonald’s, you’re largely starting from scratch. Remember trying to craft your first resume? You didn’t have much of anything to put on it (which, ironically, often means it comes out way too long).

But then you got that job, and another job, and perhaps with schooling, perhaps without, you started getting jobs that used particular skills and experience, probably with succeedingly greater responsibilities, higher pay, etc. A career was born. Your career surface expanded and thickened and texturized and coloured with what you learned and what you became good at and with the reputation you developed. (And yes, we all have a reputation.)

And, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve been wearing desire lines into these career surfaces as well. Some of us with deep grooves from years of practising law or building houses. Some of us with what appear to be many shallow grooves from writing, explaining, building, and fixing.

But the apparent shallowness of those grooves and their often messy, meandering-looking paths is misleading. Because the desire lines of people like me, and the woman I talked to after the P2P session, do not exactly reflect specific expertise or one career path; more so, they reflect our nature.

Our nature is to organize, to clean up, to help people understand or get things done. There is not just one career path for people like us. There are many. And no matter what job you put us in, we will end up doing these things. My motto is Make yourself useful. And that is the most entrenched desire line in my career surface.

Companies that recognize the value of our somewhat messy and meandering-looking work benefit better from our abilities, and tend to keep us happier and more productive. They recognize that the real measurement is in how we help people get things done, in how we help people learn and understand what’s going on and what needs to be completed, and how we fix what’s missing or broken.

The real measurement isn’t in how strictly we follow a set of narrow task parameters laid out in a Word document that gets printed and reviewed once a year. And honestly, how often does that format benefit anyone when strictly adhered to? We add depth and texture and colour to companies’ surfaces as well as our own.

And for those who’ve been at it a bit longer, the desire lines we’ve blazed can help make the existence and validity of these career paths — our nature vs. our function — clearer for those who’ve been doing the same without definition, or for those who come later.

3 Comments on Lines and Surfaces

  1. You may be onto something with “company surfaces” as a buzz-phrase. Though I think the career surface is sometimes more complicated, in that there may be lines of desire, but also lines of comfort, lines of necessity…

    Maybe it's personal success if the topography is pleasing in the end.

  2. I mean to comment on this when you tweeted about it the other day. I love the way you've woven these seemingly disparate ideas together to make something lovely and intriguing.

    My career has also been marred–if I can say that–with desire lines as I meandered my way from project to project doing things I wasn't supposed to do or wasn't responsible for simply because I wanted and had time. I'm not sure if I”m better off for it, though. Sometimes I wonder if my desire lines are indications of how little I like to be boxed in, or if it's just an indication of my being fickle.

  3. I mean to comment on this when you tweeted about it the other day. I love the way you've woven these seemingly disparate ideas together to make something lovely and intriguing.

    My career has also been marred–if I can say that–with desire lines as I meandered my way from project to project doing things I wasn't supposed to do or wasn't responsible for simply because I wanted and had time. I'm not sure if I”m better off for it, though. Sometimes I wonder if my desire lines are indications of how little I like to be boxed in, or if it's just an indication of my being fickle.

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