I have often heard the famous line from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
And, even after reading the entire poem, I always took it to mean that we should choose the less popular option (“the path less traveled by”) from time to time to explore new things and make our lives more interesting. In my own life, this seemed redundant since I often stray from the more trendy choices.
It wasn’t until later in my life that I came to appreciate that it isn’t just the more uncommon choice that can benefit one’s life, but it is just as important to choose the more challenging option. I led something of a charmed life in high school and college. I performed well in the academic environment and my writing skills and extroverted personality helped me to impress teachers and professors. At my small liberal arts college, which earned more than its share of Fulbright Fellowships, I was quickly put on the track to apply in my senior year.
When the process was over, and the results came in, I was offered a Fulbright to spend a year in Germany working in a world-class cell biology facility. It seemed that my destiny was to travel abroad and pursue a career in science.
Then, another professor presented me with a different choice. She had a colleague in North Carolina with a burgeoning research lab focused on a newly-discovered microorganism. This professor and I spoke on one of her visits to the area, and she offered me a spot in her lab as a graduate student.
For the first time in my life, I had a very difficult decision to make. In front of me was a fork in the road. On one side was a clearly unique and challenging experience: The Fulbright Fellowship. One the other, a valuable experience that could be postponed until after the other: graduate school. In a comparison of pro’s and con’s, the former outweighed the latter in every important way. The only benefit of choosing graduate school was that it would be easier–I could visit my family and girlfriend often, and I wouldn’t have to learn a foreign language.
I made the easier choice and turned down the Fulbright Fellowship. This path has led to happiness, professional success as an educator, and a loving family. I don’t regret the decision.
But, at times, I worry that I will always choose the path that is easier, less stressful, less of a disruption from the status quo. I am concerned that I won’t experience the challenges in my professional life that are needed to help me grow. I may choose the path less traveled by, but will I ever pick the steeper path? Will I ever face my fears and seek out more challenges?
These questions in my mind are a big part of why I chose to leave the comfortable confines of my current school–where I have spent my entire career–to join the founding faculty of a new school with a different mandate and a specialized mission. As I look up at the steep path in front of me, I am trying very hard to put aside my fears and confront the challenges that lie ahead with enthusiasm and courage.
When have you chosen the steeper path, and why?