When you come to a fork in the road, take it

“When you’re given an option or come to a crossroads or a fork in the road, there’s either the right decision or the decision you had to make to learn something to be able to make the next right decision. And that’s it.”   So says Josh Ryan, actor, comedian and You Tuber, in an interview with Ryan Holliday.  Josh’s book Happy People are Annoying was recently published and he was talking about it. 

The conversation sparked my thinking about the baristas at the Crossroads Cafe I used to go to.  They wear T-shirts printed with the phrase ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it’.  That phrase has stuck with me over the years.  I like it because it’s an instruction, but not directive.  It doesn’t say take the left fork or the right fork.  It leaves you an open choice, but implies that whichever you take is going to take you somewhere – destination, perhaps unknown, unimaginable, and unexpected.  The quote is attributed to Yogi Berra, a baseball player.

The Crossroads Cafe is run by the Delancey Street Foundation it ‘s a ‘self-help organization for substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom.’  For over 40 years the Foundation has been ‘developing a model of social entrepreneurship, of education, of rehabilitation and change that is exciting and full of hope.’

A fork in the road is often associated with a pivotal life decision, e.g. if you have hit bottom, either take what Delancey Street is offering, or continue on your self-destructive path. In these instances the phrase means “when you are faced with a watershed moment in life, be assertive in recognizing its opportunity.

In the literal sense, “it” in the phrase ‘when you come to the fork in the road, take it,’ refers to the fork.   In many life decisions you don’t have enough information, or crystal ball gifts, to know whether you are supposed to take the right leg or the left leg of the fork – thus the phrase is a recognition of the difficulty in recognizing the appropriate decision to make when one is faced with a pivotal life decision.

Not all forks in the road are these pivotal life decisions.  Almost any choice is a fork in the road.  Forks in the road litter the day.   For example, last week I was having a discussion with my grandson.  He wanted a particular type of ice lolly and I said we could see if the corner shop had them.  He was adamant that they would not have them.  I said we didn’t know if they had or not, and they might.   

The fork in the road was try out the corner shop or not try out the corner shop.  I waited to see which he would choose, but offered the idea that his choices were to think the shop won’t have that lolly and perhaps not even go in to look, or he could choose to think it may have the lolly (though no certainty of that) and we go in and look.  If they didn’t have that lolly they might have an acceptable alternative, or we could then try the shop on the next corner.    

We went to have a look and they had the right lolly.  I wondered what he was learning from this discussion.  Regarding the daily, more mundane forks in the road, over the years I’ve learned:

That some forks in the road are best chosen by using a learner rather than a judger mindset.   Marilee Adams has some interesting work related to this.   In her view, ‘Our mindsets are determined by the questions we ask. Some questions have the potential to catalyze breakthroughs and inspire transformations. Others lead to stagnation and demoralization. The difference lies in whether you ask Learner Questions or Judger Questions.

“Learner Questions” are open-minded, curious, and creative. They promote progress and possibilities, and typically lead to discoveries, understanding, and solutions. By contrast, “Judger Questions” are more closed-minded, certain, and critical.

That each choice moment might offer enticing possibilities and picking just one of them is an affirmation that there will be consequences of the choice – albeit unknown – and I will work with the choice I have made right now.  Having made the choice I’ve learned, for the most part, not to regret the choice or wish I’d made a different choice, or kick myself for making that choice etc.  In taking one fork it closes off the other fork.    Oliver Burkeman, in his book Four Thousand Weeks, talks about JOMO – the joy of missing out.   It’s a lovely antidote to FOMO – the fear of missing out – that makes choosing the fork in the road so difficult.  He says, ‘JOMO is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything’.   That’s ok in some choice situations but not when the presenting choices all look bleak. 

Even so, it is usually possible to deal with bleak choices somehow.   Both Admiral Stockdale and Jocko Willink offer advice on how to do this.  Admiral Stockdale’s is to have ‘the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’  While Jocko Willink explains how we can see everything that happens to us as good. (Though this is not so easy, in my view).

Oh, the mission got canceled? Good… We can focus on another one.

Didn’t get promoted? Good… More time to get better.

Got injured? Good… Needed a break from training.

That you’ll never know which is the ‘correct’ fork to take.  But I’ve found I can apply some principles to help me choose.   Choose the fork that:  

  • appears to do most good and least harm to others and myself.
  • looks to open up possibilities  
  • my ‘confederacy of selves’ will support – this is all the different roles that I have that have to reach consensus on a course of action,  i.e.what I as a mother think is a good choice, may not be a good choice to myself as a friend.  (See also Margaret Cavendish and The Power of Debating with Yourself) –
  • makes best sense/feels right given the current context and the circumstances as far as I can ascertain
  • I have the resources to draw on to pursue that path – time, money, skills, energy level, etc.

How would you respond to the instruction ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it? Let me know.

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