The Invisible Assembly Line


“The real question is, do I want to realize my dream or someone else's dream?" —Rosemarie Certo

Whether you're a first-generation college student, adult learner, someone for whom college was always (or never) a given — whatever kind of student you are — the path to and through education is filled with hard choices. And when faced with so many high stakes-seeming decisions, it's tempting to let someone or something else (a school counselor, your family history, an article about the death of liberal arts) decide your path for you.

It's tempting because it's so deceptively easy. We've absorbed so many outside expectations, societal pressures and well-meaning soundbites of advice that we're used to accommodating everyone else's opinions but our own. And yet we're plagued by the fear that we'll wake up one day with the devastating realization that we've been living someone else's dream.

This is what we at Roadtrip Nation call the Invisible Assembly Line: The pre-plotted path to an unavoidable destination. It's the conditioning that pushes us to choose an educational path or career that doesn't resonate with us personally, but gets everyone else's nod of approval. It's what informs us (“for our own good") that our own aspirations are beyond us. It's the root of those future-self fears. And it looks different for everybody.

What's Your Assembly Line?

Pat O'Donnell's Assembly Line was set from an early age: Become an engineer. As he explains it, “I went to college and took engineering for one reason only: That's what my father did." He found himself on a path that didn't speak to who he really was or what he really wanted, and he hated it. So he leapt, and took a low-level job as a park employee at Yosemite, rock climbing in his off-hours and sleeping under the stars. Next, he moved to Lake Tahoe and helped build one of the first ski resorts in the region. With every leap, he was crafting new iterations of himself, landing closer to where he wanted to be — his next one landed him in Colorado running the Aspen Skiing Company.

Pat's Assembly Line told him he had to become an engineer; you might think you can be anything but an engineer because people around you “just don't do that." Maybe your Assembly Line leads exclusively to a prestigious university; maybe college is something you were told you could never reach for. Maybe your Assembly Line leads you away from pursuing higher education or training after a certain age; maybe it leads you straight from undergrad into earning an advanced degree.

The point isn't that any of these are things that you shouldn't pursue. The danger arises when you haven't asked questions about why you're doing what you're doing and striving for what you're striving for. These are the questions that will help you figure out what's next, and how you can get there.

Asking Tough Questions

When you ask questions — the big, embarrassing, touchy-feely questions — you slow down the wheels of the Assembly Line. The slower it's moving, the easier it is to jump off and start living a life that's true to who you are. Here are a few questions to get you started:

- Where am I headed right now?

- What's fueling that drive? Is it my genuine interests, or something else?

- Is this a destination I really want to reach?

- Is whatever goal I'm striving for worth the work I'm putting in?

- If I keep on this path, where will I be five years from now?

Give yourself the space to think honestly about yourself. Don't think about who you are “supposed" to be, or who your friends think you are or the persona you've crafted online. Who are you really, right now? And if the answers are all “I don't know," there's power in that, too. That's the launchpad from which you start defining your own road in life.

Taking the First Leap

Taking back the power to decide your path for yourself can feel daunting. When it comes to hard decisions — especially if you've thrown out the plan you've been given — you can get stuck. And lost. You can feel afraid of the unknown, or incapable of bold action.

But jumping off the Assembly Line doesn't have to be high-stakes. It can look like cutting out activities you're doing solely because you think they'll help your odds of getting into college or appearing successful. It can look like taking a class to explore an interest you never felt you rightly could. It can look like learning more about all your educational options, including apprenticeships or training.

And it can look like continually asking the questions you haven't been asking yourself, and regularly questioning the answers you land on. Use the hard choices as opportunities to learn and relearn who you are and who you want to become. As you question what's ahead, the gears of your personal Assembly Line will start to rattle and slow. You don't always have to feel ready — sometimes you just have to leap.


Want to dig into the idea of the Invisible Assembly Line a little more? Grab a free chapter at

Adapted from Roadmap: The Get-it-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life by Roadtrip Nation.