by Jeremy Nulik
Years ago, I was a teacher’s assistant for an introduction to poetry course. People generally chose to enroll in the course for two reasons: 1. It fulfilled a 200-level humanities credit. 2. There was a perception that it would be less reading. The second reason I judged from the student’s passion for the subject matter. To be fair, poetry is not something that most people find redeeming in actuality. It’s like working out. Pithy phrases end up displayed proudly on office walls next to “success” quotes, but deconstructing verse is not an activity most find enjoyable.
One verse that has been problematic within business is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” I would like to offer for you two paths that diverge in this column. The first is that most common interpretation of the wisdom embedded in Frost’s work, and the second is one that I hope will be more helpful to you in the kinds of decisions you have to make as a leader.
The first path: The narrator of this poem is sharing a perspective on how to make tough decisions. This read tends to focus on the final three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The poem is an almost self-help lesson. When faced with indecision, you ought to lean into the challenge and choose novelty.
The second path: The narrator of this poem is offering a window into the human condition –to the circumstances and the mindset that accompanies indecision. This read focuses on the description of the woods, the setting and the sense that there is a fork that presents itself: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
While you are welcome to keep the first path’s reading, I would entreat you to consider the second. When we face indecision, we are not limited to just one or two paths. We instead have an entire woods of possibility we could explore.
How often have you felt as though your decisions were like a ransom? It is this or that. It is A or B. We either start the new business unit, or we do not. We hire this person, or we do not. And that kind of myopia would have to believe that you could use the first reading philosophy. So choose the one less traveled. The more novel choice.
The trouble with this is, of course, that it may not be the most optimal route. There may be good reason it is not traveled. A more interesting and ultimately a more useful reading of the indecision is to ask yourself: What are other options that are possible? What are outcomes of those decisions? Who would I be or who would we be in those outcomes? Would my principles still hold true?
Here is why: There are always more roads. There is always another way. The human condition is that of possibility. So we can always pause when facing indecision. We can ask ourselves better and more meaningful questions about who we would be in alternative scenarios of the future. Life is not a series of forks. It is not A or B. It is a yellow wood.
To see the forest, ask your team to create multiple scenarios – best case scenarios, worst case scenarios, scenarios in which the unexpected could happen. The correct way to traverse will become obvious to you and your team. And you can tell yourself upon reflection that you took the path less traveled and that made all the difference.
Jeremy Nulik (email@example.com) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.
Submitted 2 years 162 days ago