It’s a well-used metaphor for the points in our lives when we face a decision: the crossroads. Whether the decisions are big and weighty or seemly insignificant in the moment, once we make a choice at the crossroads our lives are never the same.
This is why crossroads moments are popular subjects for artists. Blues musicians have written songs about confronting the devil at the crossroads. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Traveled,” speaks of the crossroads in a more serene but no less inconsequential tone. NBC has a new show called “Ordinary Joe” (which I haven’t seen) that explores three different versions of the main character’s life based on decisions he made at an early crossroads in his life.
If you’ve lived long enough to experience life’s ups and downs you can point to one or more key decisions from your past that set you on your current path. And depending on how you’re feeling about your station in life, previous decisions can weigh more heavily.
There are the obvious ones – where to go to school, to marry, to have kids, to take a certain job. But often it’s the unexpected decisions, the ones that at the time didn’t feel nearly as significant as to marry or to accept a new job that can have an equally important impact on our lives.
For me, the decision way back when during my agency days to work on a new project with a cable network forever altered the trajectory of my career. It seemed like nothing in the moment but if I’m not on that account I don’t work with Sean Hanrahan who later left the agency and hired me at ESPN, launching my career in media.
At the time I didn’t give it much thought. It sounded like a fun diversion from my other projects. Often the best decisions we make are ones like that, when we come to the crossroads free and unencumbered with the weight of expectations.
Of course, not all decisions are created equal. The choice to marry or go back to school to get a degree requires more thought and consideration than the one I made to help on a new project at the agency.
But there is something to be said for approaching the crossroads in our lives, both large and small, as light and unburdened by expectations as possible. This can be particularly hard for those of us who are older because we carry with us knowledge of the impact of decisions we’ve made, both positive and negative, earlier in our lives.
Seth Godin calls it “sunk costs” – the feeling that our choices are limited because of the amount of time, energy and resources we’ve invested in doing things a certain way. You see this all the time in people’s careers – “I’ve spent the past 20 years in marketing/finance/law. I have too much invested to throw it all away.” So, we solider on unhappily, making the wrong decision at each subsequent crossroads because we are burdened by the past and our own personal “sunk costs.”
The other challenge those further along in their careers bring to the crossroads is the sense that time is no longer on your side. It’s very easy to feel locked into a certain path because the finish line is in sight, even if continuing as is means we collapse when we cross it, completely spent and exhausted. Our hopes of the triumphant finish are long gone, all we want now is for the race to be over.
The shame of it is that when we do this, we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the wisdom that can only be accrued from our additional years on the planet. We should know that life is too short to waste time on things that make us unhappy, no matter how much we’ve invested in a certain career path. Examples abound of people who’ve successfully made mid or late career pivots into new industries.
And while the work horizon at 55 is not the same as 25, if we take care of ourselves and have the good fortune to avoid serious illness, those in their 50s can still enjoy many years of professional fulfillment.
The most important lesson about time is the one we all know but seem to lose sight of. No matter our age or station in life, each one of us only gets 24 hours in a day. The present moment is all we are promised. Each day we come to the crossroads with a chance to decide what we want to do with it. The more we carry from our past triumphs and disappointments into those moments the less likely it is that we will clearly see the opportunities in front of us.
Next time you read “The Road Less Traveled” you’ll notice how the subject of the poem is out for a leisurely walk, not burdened by life’s troubles. Such an attitude leads to the choice to take the less trodden path. And that, as Frost wrote, is what made all the difference.