In May of 2001 — when I was about to graduate from high school in my suburban Illinois town — I had a conversation with an Army National Guard recruiter. Their table had been outside of the school’s lunchroom every Friday for nearly the whole year. Sometimes they had a decent group of students standing and chatting with them, other times, barely a soul. But there was clearly always an open invitation to every student who wasn’t quite sure where money for college was coming from: Be all that you can be.
I’m not sure what motivated me to visit the table on that particular day. I was, and had been largely a pacifist since I was quite young, and had no appetite for the regimentation of the armed forces. Really, more than anything, it was the fact that I knew where I was going to college, but was pretty surprised by just how much in student loans it would cost me. I was ready to explore my options.
One version of the story is that I decided to stay true to my youthfully idealistic pacifist principles, and refused to join the military-industrial complex. Another version of the story is that I heard how long I would have to commit to a strict schedule, tough physical training, and possibly being shipped to harm’s way — and I chickened out.
It wasn’t until a few months later — as my roommate and I watched black smoke billowing from the Pentagon — that I realized that however close I was to actually taking up that recruiter on his offer, I dodged one hell of a bullet.
How Many Different Ways Could Your Life Have Been?
Fast forward 18 more years, and I find myself wondering about what might have happened if I had decided to become a soldier. Would I have ended up in Iraq? Afghanistan? Germany? Perhaps just one of the Carolinas? I’ll never know.
But part of me thinks that I may have ended up in roughly the exact same place I am now. For all of the things that circumstance provided in my life, there seems to be quite a few things that — given the proper understanding of my disposition and traits — seem inevitable.
Am I saying that I believe in fate? No. I don’t think that we’re all doomed to end up in some certain way no matter what we do. But I also don’t believe that a fork in the road always represents two radically different paths. As a consequence of this, I also don’t believe that the determining factor in one’s life is where and whether or not you go to college, what your major is, where you get your first job, and so on.
While there’s no denying that there are certain paths one should probably consider in order to become successful, those paths are rarely direct.
The Path Worth Taking
For every great journey in a classic biography or inspiring story of successful people, there are a series of ups and downs, and twists and turns that deviate substantially from what one’s guidance counselor would recommend as a path to success. And I don’t think it’s helpful to ignore that, and pretend like the steps are well-defined, straightforward, and fool-proof.
The path is rarely direct. And if it looks that way, it’s either not a path worth taking, or you’re just not close enough to it to see the meandering twists and turns.
The journeys of the great lives we know (and many more we don’t) are filled with sharp turns off course, diversions into unknown territory, unforeseen obstacles, fear, doubt, and anxiety. And those turns off course — if we were to take them out of the equation, and only consider the straight line from childhood to success in any given great biography — we would likely lose the most valuable parts of the journey.
Don’t Avoid the Detours
We seem to have this deep-seated desire to take the shortest, most direct path to get to where we’d like to go. And in turn, we get frustrated, hopeless, or afraid when things take us off that direct path — and into the challenging and familiar. But we often don’t realize that those challenging and unfamiliar things that look like they’re not part of a path to success are actually the things that contribute most to it. They are the fuel for growth. They enrich us and strengthen our resolve. They provide a rich tapestry of new ideas and skills.
Don’t avoid the detours — at least not all of them. They may seem inconvenient or even detrimental at the time, but you need to stay open to the new and unexpected experiences that life throws at you. It is often on these journeys where we thought we knew exactly where we wanted to go that we end up finding an even better place to end our journey. As long as you allow your convictions and your principles to guide you, the circumstances can play out however they want, but wherever you end up will be somewhere close to where you needed to be.