October 2018 – One supposes there are many pivots of decision in the life of a country, in the life of a business, in the life of an individual. I remember sitting with Ken Whitacre, both in our early 20s, when we made the decision to launch Produce Business magazine back in 1985.
When assessing one’s own life, one wonders how things might have gone had that pivot turned the other way …
Yet the idea that one can somehow imagine an alternative path and know where it would have taken you is impossible to do. And, indeed, in life we are always compelled forward, with one thing leading to another thing, etc. Robert Frost reflected on this in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which we’ve printed here.
The poem can be read semi-fatalistically: You make a choice and take a journey; one decision can transform a life — “I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The poem also can be read as enormously empowering. After all, we reach pivot points of decisions every day in our lives. Every day, you wake up and decide whether you are going to eat right and exercise, or not. Am I going to launch a new business, read a new book, write a new book, fall in love, mentor a younger person, invest in a friendship, be courageous or cowardly, kind or indifferent, generous or miserly?
Indeed, the poem itself speaks of renewal. The opening is in a “yellow wood” — in New England yellow leaves are from birch or alder trees. But these species are known as pioneer species, because they grow first when a forest has been leveled by a fire or logging. Mature forests are filled with maple trees, whose leaves flare red. So even while he writes of definitive choices, he also points out that things can begin again.
There was really no basis for choosing one path or the other. The strongest claim made is that one path had “perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear;” though even that is quickly dismissed: “though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same.”
Today, the poem is often read with a romantic notion. The Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society gathers his students and asks three to walk around. He quickly shows that their individual strides are abandoned and settle into a conforming gait. The teacher passionately tells the children the final lines of the poem: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
He reads it as a paean to individuality. It is Frost who hears Thoreau’s “different drummer.”
Yet perhaps the most important lines are the ones that lead off that final stanza and complete it:
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.
For perhaps the choice of roads is random, and the choice we make is infused with meaning by the narrative we create for it after the fact.
Robert Frost later pointed out that of this poem: “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem – very tricky.” Perhaps the trick is that we know nothing about whether the difference was for the better or for the worse, and for the most part, choices are not determinative.
When Ken and I summoned this magazine from our dreams, we did not know there would be websites or that we would run international events or publish in Spanish and Chinese. We took a path, and we made of it what we could.
To lament paths not taken is silly. All one can do is enhance the paths that appear before us. So today, on the 33rd Anniversary of the launch of Produce Business, we pledge to do just that. Pb