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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

3 Roads Not Taken

I am no Robert Frost. I am not even really a fan of poetry. I find most of it to be self-indulgent and wildly overrated crap. But when it comes to “The Road Not Taken”, I find a metaphor so pure, so true and so unavoidably relevant that I have to give in to it. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” In our prepackaged, fame-obsessed and vicarious society, so very few of us really make this kind of decision once, let alone with a lifetime of choices. And while I make no other claims to an extraordinary existence, I can say that I have really and truly lived this paradigm - consciously or unconsciously - and to my profoundly undeserving benefit. But as I take stock of all the often ill-advised choices, I also think back on the roads I didn’t take, and how, even in hindsight, I am immensely grateful for taking the path I did - as I see where those other roads might have led, and how glad I am not to be there. So, in celebration of my sometimes crazy life, here are 3 roads not taken, and why I’m happy not to have travelled them:

1. Legally Bland. I knew at a young age that I was going to be a lawyer. And the moment I knew it, I knew I would attend law school at Harvard. For a small town kid from Colorado, the storied Boston campus loomed as large as the government buildings in Washington D.C., the epic New York City skyline and Cat’s Lair on Third Earth (hey, I was a dork, what can I say?). It would be the culmination of an academic career to star in my own Paper Chase; to make good on the promises and sacrifice of a youth spent buried in books rather than well, enjoying it. As I muddled through academic institutions where I didn’t quite ever fit in, I found solace in the idea that once on the Crimson campus, I would finally meet kindred souls and settle into a scholarly Valhalla, where I would be welcomed as a champion of my common roots. But along the way, something had changed. I didn’t escape my roots, I became them. My disdain for the blue-blooded entitlement that I subsequently discovered filling the proverbial halls of Harvard grew with a surprising fervor - as I could never shake how it felt to be a young man in a uniform on the east-coast private school campuses I visited. And as I folded up my Harvard acceptance letter to begin my legal education at Stanford, I knew that if I became any part of the self-righteous old-money bigotry that nests there, I’d hate myself just as much as I hated the smug prep-school, popped-collar clowns that I knew it for. Which is not to say that Stanford was a perfect fit - it wasn’t - but whereas I know only a few truly great people from Stanford’s Law School - I’ve never met one from Harvard’s.

2. It’s Not Just A Job. I graduated high school fifth in my class - with a grand total of one ‘B’ in all of my (albeit public) schooling to that date. I was not an athlete, (inasmuch as I would have been more likely to have been struck by a comet than earn a varsity letter from good ol‘ Centaurus High). I was not a leader, and I was not strong. So when I made the decision to abandon my acceptance at Brown and Duke Universities, and my scholarships at Colorado State and the University of Northern Colorado to join the Navy, you would have found a great deal of company were you to conclude that I had, at best, lost my mind and, at worst, thrown my life away. After all, enlisting in the military was not the most cerebral of activities, and it appeared to demand a physical and mental fortitude that I was not even marginally capable of at that point. And yet, there I was, shipping off to boot camp while my friends shipped off to campus. It’s hard to even begin to recall the inanity of my 18-year-old brain - addled with raging hormones, paralyzing social ineptitude and a wildly unfocused intellect - but I do recall knowing, even back then, that I’d never survive college. I understood my own drastic vulnerability - and knew that were I to head off to state school, I would (a) never escape the low orbit that my tragic high school existence has placed me into and (b) fall victim to the first sufficiently seductive thing that I encountered away from home (e.g. girls, drugs, frat life, alcohol, etc.). The Navy was a reset - a new start on a life where my past not only wouldn't matter, it wouldn't even exist. And while the Navy led me to Annapolis, submarines, and the life I have today, I see, annually, a few friends from back then who never escaped similar orbits - or even worse, who ultimately crash landed as a result of them. There were plenty of people who didn’t need the separation, the structure or the restart that I did - fortunately for me, I didn’t follow them down that road.

3. Firmly Wrong. It is the dream of many young law students to begin their practice in a group of tall and shiny buildings on the west side of Los Angeles, known as Century City, where dozens of national and international law firms have offices catering to the business elite of southern California - a stone’s throw from Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, a heartbeat from the Hollywood hills, and in the center of the glamour of L.A. And after an interesting, if not altogether uneventful, stint at law school, I realized this dream. And not long after, I found it to be a nightmare. The real law firm has no more similarity to the law firms you see on television than real hospitals or police forensics labs to their own televised counterparts. Everyone is not beautiful, everyone is not making a mountain of money; and everyone is certainly not doing the type of interesting work they imagined during their law school days. They are, rather, oligarchies - disguised as meritocracies to extract superhuman work efforts from aspiring young attorneys, in the (futile) hope that they might someday become partners. Unfortunately, the business model has become obsolete, and exists mostly now to prolong its own existence. The types of individuals who succeed in a place like this is a type I like to refer to as “grinders” - those folks who will spend 12-16 hours per day slavishly tending to work, who have little concern with significant outside interests, who have mastered the art of being effortlessly obsequious. Two out of every three dollars generated by these highly trained worker bees is not even paid to them, and yet, they gleefully toil away, safe and secure and using fancy letterhead to feel important. As you might expect, I lasted just about as long in this world as I could manage to hold my breath. While an excellent place to learn the real practice of law - I also learned quickly that you’d have a better chance of striking in rich in an actual gold mine than in these churches of greed and pomposity. And if you’re not going to get rich at a job you hate - it’s probably time to go.

* * *

Of course, for every road I’m glad not to have taken, there is one that makes me wonder what might have been. For every retrospective disaster, there is an open possibility. It is human nature to look back and wonder “what if...” Life is not a series of multiple choice questions with one right answer and the rest of them wrong. It is precisely the number of “right” answers to each of the dilemmas with which we are presented that makes the whole thing so intoxicatingly rich to consider - as there are those who have succeeded (and failed) nearly identically to ourselves, while having taken wildly different paths to get there. But while the line between regret and wonder is a thin one, the distinction is vital. Happiness is not found in the certainty that the path you’ve taken through life has been utterly without error, and we’ve begun to see the impact of an entire generation infused (incorrectly) with that very same notion. In a world where it is increasingly demanded of us to keep our eyes looking ahead, Frost reminds us the simple beauty of looking back - as we are as much where we’re going as where we’ve been. But more than that, he beautifully presents the inescapable truth that we are as much defined by the roads we have taken as the ones we have not.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really liked your article! I have always (as I think it is natural) thought about my own "what if's" and your right. I am happy where I am right now. That makes my past decisions the correct ones for me and those decisions are part of who I am. I liked, thank you! : )

Anonymous said...

It has admittedly been a while since I’ve been on here – but I feel like I picked the perfect time to come back. I too think it’s important to look back - Retrospect is a powerful force. My life has been a series of forks within forks with forks within forks… It’s been an interesting ride and I’m only 1/3 through (knock on wood). In any event, it was really pleasure to read about the forks in the road you took and to know how they got you to where you are today. Cheers!

Jen and Tonic said...

This is my favorite article of yours, and that’s saying a lot because I pretty much love you more and more every article I read…

I don’t have any regrets about the things I’ve done (or haven’t done) in life because my life is exactly the way it should be right now. I make enough money to afford me a comfortable lifestyle, have a boyfriend who is truly my better half, a supportive family, awesome friends, and am happy with how I turned out. I did this while venturing down a path people told me not to go down because it was unconventional.

You have had so much success and happiness in your life doing things your own way, and that’s really admirable. I’m happy we both lived the lives we did because we might not have known each other otherwise!

Kristina said...

I enjoyed this one. I look back at the what if's: Such as that time I took the job at the law offices, instead of the job at the CPA firm. Would that mean that I would've spend the next 10 years working in accounting instead of law, and become a CPA instead? (Some days, that sounds good). I didn't take the easy way, consequences of my choices. Some of which most people say would be impossible (obviously not). Child at 18 first semester of undergrad, another one in paralegal school and then my 3rd in my 2nd semester of law school, doesn't exactly make that easy. (I had a good support group though). But I look at where I am today, good and bad, and know that whatever it is, it is my own fault! hahahaha

(I was 5th in my senior class too! Of course, I went to vo-tech where I received a math credit for 10 key touch!)

Ferrari said...

I take it you're rejecting Frost's intended irony.

In any case, you are you, and I don't think you ever could have made any of those three choices differently. It's not in your DNA. Keep being you, G.

Kerry said...

I know many of the roads I went down were not my first choice, but now looking back they were the RIGHT choice. I think I am a better person because of many of "wrong" choices I made back then.
Sometimes I wonder the "what ifs...", but I am mostly happy now, which is pretty great in my book! I know that I can say I worked my tail off for my MBA and have just recently decided to torture myself again for another Masters degree- haha...but again it is something I might have never been able to do if I didn't choose the roads that I did in the past...

Lewis said...

Glenn, this may be your best post yet and I read all of them. I surprised a lot of people with my decision to go to USNA but have never regretted it. Your comments reminded me of my high school days... You have been on a roll with your last few 3 things. Keep up the good work!

OZ101 said...

When I was about to graduate from high school I was either going to Castleton to study Theatre or to Norwich University to become a cadet. There was a point in time where I believed that I needed some grounding, to have the shit kicked out of me. But I ended up doing the complete opposite that you did, which was a difficult road of self discovery and completely worthwhile. Who knows what would've happened if I had graduated from Norwich? My life would be completely different from that one choice, polar opposites! It's so weird when you think about it. Great 3 Things!!!

bryan said...

Contrary to the popular notion, the poem you reference is actually about how we try too create causality, even when there is none. Beautifully written piece, nonetheless.

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