Don’t Fret Over A Career Path; Take The Road Less Traveled
“The road less traveled” is an iconic idiom that has bounced around for decades, but sadly, not enough young people are taking it as they head into adulthood. Paraphrased from a line in the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, the road less traveled conjures the image of a young person acting independently, freeing themselves from conformity and perhaps making bold choices or even ill-advised, risky ones. It sounds exciting and can lead to spectacular successes – or failures.
Most, of course, prefer the safer path, with a four-year college degree becoming almost cliché as the most secure way to go forward in life. And there are other conventional routes: getting a stable job right out of high school, a training program leading to a career, etc.
Look, college is still a great gateway to your future. It’s one I took and recommend. I teach writing in college now. But what I’m saying is, whatever you do, don’t let societal conformity or expectations, peer pressure, know-it-all professors, parental pressure, or your own fears and insecurity prevent you from taking the road – or several side roads – less traveled.
There cannot possibly be a better way to learn about yourself. Take the scenic route down the dirt path by the creek. Through the woods, over the mountains. The road less traveled. Follow your heart wherever it leads.
Give yourself a green light
Allow me to flash a blinking red light on your safe path as an absolute danger to the quality of your life, your development and potential, and not least of all, to the wealth of your memories.
From the luxury of looking into my own rear-view mirror, I can tell you that being spontaneous, courageous, and zestful can lead to extraordinary experiences that will make your life far richer than it otherwise would be. Most of us grow up being told what to do by well-meaning parents or at least guided in some ways. And that’s as it should be, to a degree; on the other end of the spectrum, the overbearing or helicoptering parent snuffs the freedom out of you before it has a chance to breathe once you’re out of the house. You feel obliged to a life of conformity. But as you teeter on the threshold of your adult life, having this golden chance that will never come again, I want to tell you some things.
First of all, use your voice and be big in the world. Be big and loud and bold. After 18 years of being told how to think and what to believe in, this is your chance to show who you are and to decide which direction you want to start in. Don’t feel guilty. Try owning your voice to reject what doesn’t feel true and right, and then consider what you’re passionate about, what enthralls you. Go for it then; don’t wait to have time for it later. Otherwise, that time might not come as life’s conformities start coming at you in waves – the 9 to 5 job, marriage, children – all before you took the grand opportunity to explore and discover more of yourself.
Don’t worry about choosing the "wrong path", if there is such a thing. You can change your mind again, and then again. Remember that we are a result of our experiences and surroundings, and perhaps the "wrong path" will open doors that you never knew even existed.
Live in the moment – and live largely
That’s the incredible thing you don’t realize yet: Life is more fluid than fixed. You get to jump streams, change paths until you find the one that’s singularly yours. And while you’re looking for your path, you can also stress a little less. Getting A’s in college is commendable, sure, but grades aren’t the real stuff of life. That comes with impromptu adventures and midnight escapades, meeting new people, even messing up a little. These are some of the best years of your hopefully long life, and there’s a lot of fun to be had and things to discover – including yourself.
So, with that, you might think about leaving the library now and then and shedding the nickname “bookworm.” Cram less. Live more. Maybe even crawl into the bell tower and drink beer with your friends. You do not want to look back with regrets. I had fun in my younger life as an adventurer, but one major event stopped me in my tracks when I was in college and really before I embarked on out-of-the-box choices and the road less traveled.
I was driving home on a dreary December afternoon in the middle of final exams, shortly after getting the call that my father had died. Our relationship had long suffered. I wondered what I could have done differently before losing him, and I would spend decades trying to heal my broken heart. From the vantage point of midlife, people who suffered similar losses in their distant past can finally see the truth behind the pain. For me, my difficult relationship with my dad was part of my journey, and looking back now, the perpetual ache I felt to connect with him propelled me, led me around the globe to the most magical places. It led me to Asia to teach. To Europe, where I fell in love with languages. And South America, where I stumbled onto a spiritual path.
Sometimes taking the road less traveled may create the impression you’re running away, but this is all part of your search to find yourself apart from your family. You’re beginning on the edge of adulthood as I did, a shy, 18-year-old worrier, constantly wondering if you are doing the right thing for your future. The right thing is being you, and the journey is about discovering you.
Whatever road – or roads – you take, don’t worry about "wrong turns", and just keep living forwards, not backward or sideways. You’ll find your way, in part by stumbling into your truths far down the road. Every step, every mistake, every regret and every moment of incalculable joy is essential to this journey you are on.
Sandra A. Miller author of Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She previously worked in the editorial department at NAL/Penguin and later worked as a literary agent. She has written stories, articles, and essays that have appeared in hundreds of regional and national publications, including Modern Bride, Glamour, The Boston Globe,Yankee, and The Washington Post OnParenting blog.