Why it’s Traction not Tracktion

Nathan A. Cunningham
3 min readJul 27, 2023
Photo by Yulian Alexeyev on Unsplash

When we’re stuck we might say we’re off track.

And yet its rare that we hit our goals as smoothly as though riding on rails. In fact, if a train is off the tracks, a huge disaster has occurred.

Most impediments to progress are not “train wrecks”.

Variation is part of the territory. Change is a constant.

Distractions. Delays. Detours. Obstacles. These are what “derail” us.

The analogy of setting rails or tracks to prevent us from getting stuck can be an aspirational way to think about personal effectiveness. Who doesn’t want efficient systems in life — the smooth predictable efficiency of a life on rails?

However, I think that tracts may be a better way to think about our productivity than tracks.

“Grammarphobia” defines a tract as:

an extent or expanse of something (like a plot of land), or for a system of organs

For navigating and progressing in our lives, families or businesses, this seems to match the complexity level better, and may help us set proper expectations of the nature of the journey.

I like the idea of a roadmap in the context of building things, whether it’s designing your life, navigating your career, creating a product, or a business.

Here is how one writer describes a roadmap within a framework for thinking about product strategy — which assumes also a vision and mission.

(roadmap is) the manifestation of your strategy in concrete steps towards your product vision, inclusive of rough milestones and timelines. This, too, often changes given new data.

Rough milestones and timelines. Steps. Toward. Changes. New Data.

That’s the way it is with life and personal effectiveness. Things are rough and approximate, not precise and finely tuned. Adaptability is needed.

Tracks aren’t adaptable.

Tracts are.

Think about rezoning property. The term for civil engineering in German is “tiefbau” implying that in addition to building up you also have build down deep (tief) beneath the surface. You can tunnel under a tract and completely reshape it by regrading.

Much could also be said about how a system of organs or any complex system of interdependent systems is a better model or how neuroscience is helping us understand better ways of thinking about navigating change.

Is this why the word we use when it comes to progress in life, business, etc. is traction and not tracktion? It may just be an idiosyncrasy of the English language — I’d have to research to know. But it did get me thinking.

There is comfort and ease in moving on rails. We yearn for the stability and normalcy that “getting back on track” implies. But it’s good to expect it’s going to be a little bumpier.

Achieving and maintaining traction requires intentionality and effort.