Choosing the Steeper Path

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?



Do We Make Our Own Choices?

This is just a short note, sharing some interesting resources about a subject that I find highly intriguing.

One of my favorite interests these days is the question of whether humans really have free will. You might think that this sounds like a paranoid fantasy and chalk me up as a “big brother”-fearing government-conspiracy-believing crackpot. But, hear me out.

There is lots of evidence from brain research, behavioral studies, and even economics that suggest that what we humans perceive as our ability to choose based on our own whims is actually predictable and–frighteningly–controllable by outside forces. The matter is one of much debate, but if you it piques your curiosity like it does mine, here are some resources to explore.

1. “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely: Ariely is one of the most interesting scientists I have ever seen speak. You can appreciate his message in this talk from the 2008 EG conference (not technically TED, but closely related).

2. “The Brain on Trial” from The Atlantic: This recent article discusses how tumors in the brain can cause much of the behaviors that we associate with the worst criminals in society.

3. “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell: This book contains a lot of information about how the brain handles decision-making.

4. “Drive” by Daniel Pink: If you haven’t read this book yet, you’re really missing out. While making choices is not a major theme of the book, Pink spends some time sharing some of the current research.

Check these out and let your brain do a little stretching.

photo credit: “lapolab” via photopin cc