You may have heard of the famous poem by Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken,” in which the poet reflects positively on having taken the “road less traveled.” I love this image, and the pioneering, tenacious spirit it conjures. At the same time, I have to admit that selecting the optimal way forward isn’t always easy. In fact, most people struggle to figure out what is the “right” road to take at various times, especially when change is required. In reality, there is rarely one perfect road to choose.
When I think about roads, three categories come to mind:
- The Desirable Road
- The Unknown Road
- The Road to Nowhere
The Desirable Road
Most of us desire a road resembling the one in the photo above. A road like this one has some very appealing characteristics:
- It is straight, and we can easily see what lies ahead
- It is flat, with no big hurdles to overcome
- It is pretty, with attractive and appealing sights along the way
- It is well-lit, with no place for threats to hide
- It has a pleasant climate, making us feel comfortable as we travel
Were it possible, I would choose this road every time. On this road, I can easily get where I want to go, while feeling confident and successful as I journey along.
Unfortunately, I don’t come across many roads in my life that look like this one. Instead, I tend to encounter…
The Road Unknown
I seem to run into this road all the time. Unlike the desirable road, this road is overwhelming:
- It twists and turns with an unclear destination
- It is dirty, dusty, and uneven
- It offers plenty of places where threats can hide, ready to pounce
- It is full of distracting pests, bugs, and critters
This road is intimidating. Even when I want to move forward or make a change, I hesitate before stepping onto this road. Anxieties easily get the best of me when I face this road, and I worry about things such as:
- What if I get lost?
- What if it costs me money that I don’t have?
- What if I fall sick on this road and there is no one there to help me?
- What if I get far along, and then have problems?
- What if I want to turn around but can’t get back to my starting point?
Roads like this can be frightening, especially for the risk-adverse among us. Many people loathe the idea of taking this road. As a result, we end up on…
The Road to Nowhere
At first glance, we look at this road and think, “I would never take such a road. It clearly doesn’t lead anywhere.” Nevertheless, most of us end up on this road at one point or another. As much as may not want to admit it, the road to nowhere has some advantages:
- It is familiar
- It is safe
- It is predictable
Of course, this road also has significant drawbacks:
- It is short, with few options
- It offers nothing new and/or potentially better
- It offers no relief from a bad situation
- It provides no chance for growth and learning
- It is lonely
- The view never changes
We may want to go somewhere new, but due to feeling scared, intimidated, threatened, or otherwise unsettled, we rationalize staying put on the road to nowhere.
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So, what is the lesson? Is it always better to boldly venture out onto the unknown road if the desirable road is unavailable? Not necessarily! When we want to make a change, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
1. It is rarely wise to begin down any road without a bit of preparation.
Do your homework, consult other people, count the cost as best you can, and assemble resources. Courage is admirable, but planning is just as valuable.
2. Waiting is sometimes a wonderful option.
There are many instances in which the best course of action is to be patient and watch to see what unfolds. For example, we may lack sufficient information, but believe more will be forthcoming. Or we may be waiting for another person to act first. Alternatively, a situation may be evolving, so we want to delay until the dust settles. There may even be seasons when the change we desire is simply unrealistic.
It is a skill to be able to wait patiently, making the best of the current situation while we watch and wait for the right moment to act.
3. Admitting when we are “stuck” is critical.
If we are perpetually unhappy, complain a lot, or repeatedly talk about how we wish things would change, we may be stuck on the road to nowhere. It can be hard to get off of this road, especially if we’ve been on it for a long time. Being honest about a desire to take a different road is an important first step. As long as we rationalize staying in place, we are unlikely to pursue meaningful change.
Most people find themselves in this place at one point or another. It is important to resist feeling ashamed or embarrassed. Having a hard time doesn’t mean you should be suffering in silence. Instead, acknowledge your anxieties and struggles, and share them with someone you trust. Friends, family, and professionals can often help us see options for breaking away from destructive patterns of thought and behavior. If the people close to you are not helpful, look elsewhere! One of the few upsides of the pandemic has been the emergence of online resources to help people facing any number of challenges.
4. We can move slowly on the road.
Time pressure makes any situation more stressful. It is okay to move at a pace that is comfortable. Admittedly, we may need to add target milestones and accountability to keep us moving forward, but it isn’t necessary to run. Instead, we can celebrate slow and steady progress.
5. When we encounter setbacks, we can simply try again.
Most roads are twisty. We are likely to stumble, fall down, and even take a few steps in the wrong direction. This is normal! We may need to pause, heal, pivot, or regroup, but we can always get up and try again. The most powerful thing we can do is resolve to stay focused on the goal, refusing to give up until we have it. As Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going!”
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Which road are you traveling at the moment? How do you motivate yourself when you encounter the road unknown?