Monday, April 8, 2013

The Road Not Taken

“Two roads diverged in a wood,” Robert Frost famously wrote, “and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” His poem addresses the age-old question: which path in life leads to success and happiness – the conventional and theoretically more secure one, or the riskier but theoretically more rewarding pursuit of a personal dream?

In a series of interviews with PBS mainstay Bill Moyers in the late 80s, mythologist Joseph Campbell rocketed to pop culture fame – a status academics don’t usually enjoy – thanks to his advice to “follow your bliss” in life. It was a credo that resonated with the Me Decade and was often incorrectly interpreted as license for hedonism; in fact, he was urging people to pursue work that fulfilled one’s soul (he later wisecracked that he should have said, “follow your blisters”).

More recently, frenetic wine vlogger and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk echoed this by urging young people to throw caution to the wind and pursue their dream, the thing they really love, rather than play it safe. Instead of looking ahead, he suggests, picture yourself looking back: “The question really becomes what’s going to happen when you’re 70 years old and you look back at your life and you’re like, Why didn’t I try?” Don’t be steered down the beaten path, he advises, by a guidance counselor or parent:

They’re worried about your next ten years. I’m worried about your last ten years. And in those last ten years, you’re going to be thinking back… and realizing, Why didn’t I go to Austin (or L.A. or Nashville… wherever you’re going)? Why didn’t I take a chance? And really regret that. And that – that tastes a lot worse than going for it.

It’s true – most people regret things they didn’t do, not things they did, and regret is like a cancer of the soul.

But “going for it” can just as easily lead to regret as well. Many a starry-eyed hopeful has passed over real world opportunities in order to chase a pipe dream. Campbell warned that many have spent their lives climbing to the top of the corporate ladder only to discover that the ladder’s against the wrong wall; but there’s no guarantee that following one’s bliss won’t leave one stranded atop the wrong wall as well.

Many have interpreted Frost’s poem as an endorsement of taking the road less traveled. But Frost doesn’t say in the poem that his choice was the right one. After all, the poem is not called “The Road Less Traveled” but “The Road Not Taken,” and the memorable lines I quoted at the outset actually begin with this cautionary phrase: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” – the “sigh” suggesting wistful regret rather than satisfaction.

Each of us stands before life-altering, divergent paths at some point in life – perhaps even at numerous points – and each of us must choose with the full awareness that, as Frost wrote, “way leads on to way” and we are very unlikely to get a do-over. How can we be sure which is the right path? How can we know that we’re not committing an irrevocable mistake?

We can’t. That’s life. We can only weigh the information available to us at the time, make a careful decision, then pull the trigger. We have to balance head and heart, commit to a purpose that feeds our soul, and have the flexibility to correct our course when we go astray or as we become wiser about the world and ourselves. By all means, follow your bliss, conventional or not, but be realistic about it, take concrete steps to achieve it, and perhaps one day “ages and ages hence,” you won’t long for the road not taken.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/5/13)