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Will I Ever Find My Way Back to the Road Not Taken? Will you?

If I had a nickel for every time I racked my brain about the road not taken, I’d be beating myself up on a 60-foot yacht docked just outside my own private island.

Lots of things can trigger chronic, self-inflicted torture. Usually, it has to do with whether I should have stuck with my dream of being a singer-songwriter or author longer, instead of casting my lot with a more secure position working in corporate communications for a giant, global company. Maybe I’ll see an old college friend’s byline in a newspaper or magazine article, or have lunch with a friend from my folk-singing days who won a Grammy in 1990.

And it doesn’t have to be someone I know; it can be someone I greatly admire, as in the case of one of my favorite columnists, Roger Cohen, who wrote his farewell op-ed for The New York Times the other day.

Here’s my favorite passage from his swan song:

The best columns write themselves. They come, all of a piece, fully formed, a gift from some deep place. They enfold the subject just so, like a halter on a horse’s face. Such inspiration is rare. Most columns resemble exquisite torture. Having an idea is not something you can order up like breakfast. The battle between form and subject is ferocious.

Maybe it was the ferocity of that battle, the inevitability of that torture, that caused me to hesitate many years ago when I came to that fork in the road between the romantic, rough and tumble allure of a newspaperman’s life, versus putting my communication skills to work for a big corporation.

Hindsight is a cruel judge. Its voice speaks harshly in my head and refuses to be ignored. My latest confrontation with it inspired the title of this story and sent me on an internet journey to revisit the source: the famous poem by Robert Frost that I’d first read in high school or college. It goes like this:

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.

Now here I stand, “ages hence,” still pondering the two roads that diverged on my earlier life’s path. All the second-guessing led me to travel the internet in search of answers. I came upon a critical analysis by David Orr on a site called Literary Hub titled, “You’re Probably Misreading Robert Frost’s Most Famous Poem,” and subtitled, On the Many Tricks and Contradictions of “The Road Not Taken.”

I gave it a careful read and found myself gobsmacked by the complex, contradictory, and elusive nature of the seemingly simple poem about questioning life’s decisions. Hidden in the words and structure of the poem are a puzzle of interweaving conundrums that pose and leave unanswered a series of existential questions. Or perhaps that pronounces the questions themselves meaningless.

According to Orr, the poem’s multiple meanings including that it was a clever way for Frost to tease his best friend and daily walking partner, Edward Thomas, who would invariably start whining whichever path they took when trails diverged on their wonderings in the countryside.

Another is the most common reading — that it’s about having the courage to take the “less-traveled” road, the one holding greater risk along with the prospect of greater reward, thus leading to the more exciting and exceptional life in either event.

Yet another interpretation is that the poem reflects Frost’s lament that life only offers each of us, as individuals, the capacity to take one road or another, not both.

Still, another is that even if we were able to go back later and try the road not taken, the effects of time, experience and change would have altered both us and the road; thus the dilemma is unresolvable and the point moot.

Or, for a perhaps more down-to-earth rendering of a similar opinion, consider the words of the actor William Shatner, 89, who played Captain James T. Kirk on TV’s original Star Trek series. When asked in an interview about his philosophy about life and choices taken and not, he responded, “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.”

I hope this is the last time I allow myself to backslide into the road not taken mentality. That way lies futility and sadness for all of us. Better to listen to the commander of the USS Enterprise and simply say, “Aye aye, Captain.” Then just give her all she’s got on the road you’re on.

Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Martin, This is a great question by Frost, He ponder and by deduction or by chance he chose his path. As one that literally traveled the lower southern states when I was 16 for a whole year hitch hiking or jumping freight trains, . A lot of the roads I traveled we by opportunity as opposed to choice, yet you could argues they were the less traveled road. To this day I long for the road often. Thank you for sharing

    • Glad you liked the piece, Larry. In retrospect, the roads traveled, at least in my case, seem to make sense and follow a very direct route guided by the interests and aptitudes of my youth. I’m glad those inclinations got me to where I am.

  2. With Roger Whittaker and “I don’t believe in if” playing in the back of my head, I notice that Frost writes that he did take the road less traveled. At least as he saw it.
    I also can’t help noticing that by logic the other way will always be the road less traveled by the traveler in question.

    The wisest words I recall on this mind game is “remember that it is the whole packet.” While we may daydream about what could have been if the recognition we see in somebody else’s life were ours, we’ll never know what hardships and losses other people went through to be where they are.

    Would I give up having children for fame and fortune? Never.
    Could I have had both? I agree with Shatner; it is not a relevant question as I am content.

    • I’m content, too, Charlotte, with “the whole packet,” and at this fairly late stage of the game (I turn 69 next month). Would have been nice to have gotten to this place sooner, but I guess that would have been another road in itself. To draw upon one of my favorite quotes, by the late Curtis Mayfield, “It may not come when you want it to, but it’s right on time.”

  3. This must be a time of introspection in more of us than I’d realized, Martin — your article (and my latest one) largely on decisions made or not.

    Now, of course, I’m rethinking my original thoughts on Frost’s poem … but I still like how I first understood it and how it’s gently shaped my life. I’ve made a lot of “less traveled” decisions, much to the chagrin of my parents early on, then maybe of my kids, and others.

    For me, the real beauty of the poem is that we each will find different ways to respond, to react, to think and feel about his words. But I look back and see how things all played out for me, and I marvel at the seemingly random directions that my guardian angel pushed me to follow … and I love how things turned out!

    I would certainly wish this contentment for you and everyone else who looks in the mirror and wonders about the person they see.

    Oh, and by the way, about those cliffs … I fell off more than I can say. 🤣

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