The Road Not Taken

7 minute read

Prologue

Have you heard the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost? If the answer is no, then your answer is probably actually kind of. You’ve probably heard the oft quoted ending:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Few other phrases evoke as much thinking back on one’s life as that. In all the times that you’ve had to make big decisions in your life, how many times did you make a decision based at least partially on the fact that fewer other people made the same choice? How many times did you take the well-paved road in defiance of the less traveled road? Most of us have taken both paths at one time or another. Sometimes we even think we took one side while actually taking the other.

Which is the right path? Yes

Wait, but doesn’t that phrase tell me that choosing the less trodden path results in something better?

Well, it matters what you mean by ‘better’ (I’ll throw in it matters what the meaning of ‘is’ is - bad joke? Okay, moving on). Let’s dive into the poem and see what it was all about:

The Road Not Taken

BY ROBERT FROST

leafy path

If you want to hear the poem, go ahead and play this video. Either way, the text is below.

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;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Epilogue

path with tree over it

Did you see it? The second stanza, as opposed to the popular interpretation of the last stanza, tells us that the road less traveled actually turned out to be more similar to the other road on closer inspection.

Going into the third stanza, the traveler indicates that they wouldn’t mind going back and trying the first road (albeit they recognize they may just not be able to, since there will be more forks in the road to choose from).

At this point in the poem, I can’t help but think that the traveler knows that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ and might as well continue onward. After all, they can either go backwards to visit the other path, or continue going forward and choose yet more paths.

By the time we get to the popular quote, the traveler even lets out a sigh before saying it. That one word really evokes the emotion that we’ve all had: a sadness in wondering what could have been.

  • What if I had taken that job?
  • What if I had shared my feelings with X?
  • Why didn’t I spend more time with Y?

No matter who you are and what paths you’ve taken, we all have some form of that sigh when we tell our stories. The traveler is no different. When they tell their story of taking the road less traveled by, they are 100% right in saying that it made all the difference. Not because it was a better path, simply because it was different than the other path and resulted in who they are now.

But Matt, isn’t that a depressing answer?

No! Absolutely not! We all are the way we are because of the choices we’ve made until now. Like the traveler, we all get to tell our story (yes - and even sigh a bit). Some of us will tell stories where we’ve come across the same forks in the road and made the opposite choices as other people (each potentially having a different perception of what each path looked like). Each of them can tell us how their choices went. Because even though there are multiple roads to take, whatever road you take, does make all the difference - to you.

I love the thought that each of us is free to wander the roads and try different paths. Some of the things I love most about talking with people is learning about their stories: what paths did they take? Why? What causes any sighs when they tell their story? Everyone has learned so much and has some unique perspectives on life that we can all learn from.

As the listeners to these stories, we gain tools on our journey that we can use when we come to forks in the road. We may or may not make choices mirroring what others have made, but when we make it, it’s our choice to own.

path

So, going back to the popular interpretation armed with what we know about the poem, I think we can realize that the notion of choosing the road less taken being the better path is both true and false.

It’s true that simply having chosen a road meant that they continued moving onward and did technically impact how their journey went (at least from a standpoint of what they did along the journey).

It’s false to imply that the chosen path was better because of what that path was. The path wasn’t better implicitly. It made the difference because that was the chosen path and not the other.

If I could change the popular interpretation to be something different, I would make it be about choice. The better road to take is explicitly choosing a road. Choose one given the knowledge and inclination you have. Sure, the other road may have equally good reasons to travel on, but by making a choice you know own the road you’ve traveled on. And that can be a powerful thing.

Choices and change often come in a pair. Not always mind you, but often. In order to be ready for change, we need to make choices. The greatest enemy of choice and therefore change, is indecision. So make choices. If you do the same thing you did yesterday today, choose that explicitly, don’t just wander aimlessly. As you make these choices, it both pushes you forward and introduces potential points of inflection where you have opportunities to introduce change somewhere in your life.

My Roads

We are free to tell our stories and believe what we want about the roads we’ve taken. I would be the first to tell you I love the roads I’ve taken. All of them. Even the ones that contradict ones I took later. I’ll sigh a little bit, wondering if there was some opportunity I missed, but I’ll proceed to tell you all about the roads I’ve traveled and how they’ve made all the difference. The roads I didn’t follow aren’t a part of my story and for better or for worse don’t influence who I am today. But more often than not, that was my decision. Either way, I own it.

That is what this blog is about, and is why I’ve chosen this poem to kick off talking about change. We are all in the middle of our stories and have upcoming forks in the road. Through talking about choice and change itself, we enable ourselves to understand the implications of our choices and open our minds to more paths that we may not have seen or further enlighten paths we already followed or know about.

Now, I couldn’t just talk about The Road Not Taken without talking about the origin of the logo for this blog:

logo

When I came up with choices for the logo, I tried a few things: the Greek letter used in mathematics as change (Δ / δ), the Korean word for change, visual representations of change (like a fish jumping out of water), and a visual representation of the two roads from The Road Not Taken. After consulting with higher powers (i.e. my beautiful wife, Jolin) I settled on the representation you see above from this poem. This poem and it’s representation here embody choice and change; the logo doesn’t imply which direction is the right one, it only presents the choice and leaves it up to the viewer.

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