Roughly 40 years ago, I thought I knew where I was going in life. I had my path figured out. I was in high school, and I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, so I was taking math, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects I’d need to get into an engineering program.
And then during my final year, my path came to an unexpected fork – I failed a key math course (advanced geometry if you must know). Despite having done well in math all the way to this point, I had hit a level of math that I just could not figure out. Without high marks in all of the math disciplines, I had no hope of getting into an engineering program, so I had to take a decision about where to go. I chose a sharp turn and switched my goal to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.
As I progressed through university, I didn’t know where that BA would take me. What do you do with an English Lit degree? Teach? While I didn’t really want to do that, I also didn’t know what else I could do when I graduated. Then out of the blue, a friend at school told me about a great part time job, answering customer calls in a help centre for a bank. I didn’t realize it but applying for that job turned into a major fork-in-the-road life choice, partly because that part-time help desk job eventually led me into a career in software development, and more importantly because the person who hired me eventually became my friend and then my wife.
Looking back now, as I watch my son finish high school and prepare for university, I can see that I eventually did end up more or less in an engineering role, it was just in software rather than aerospace. A call centre help desk led to managing an ATM network, which led to managing problems and changes in a large data centre, which led to developing software and process solutions to handle problems and changes, which led to requirements gathering and project management, which led into general software development, and eventually to consulting in the field of program and problem management.
That’s the thing about choices and life paths. You make plans and choose paths, and sometimes those paths go where you want them to go, but other times they take you in unexpected directions.
When I walk, I will often set off along a particular route or to a specific destination – Sunnybrook Park, or the Lower Don Trail, or whatever. And while most of the time I’ll follow the path I had intended, there will be those odd occasions when life will put a fork in the road. The City is reconstructing a trail, so there’s a detour. I’m getting a blister. A thunderstorm is brewing. What do I do? Going off the trail has taken me into some interesting neighbourhoods I otherwise might have missed.
If every walk was predictable, every path foreseen, would it be fun? Probably not. Deep down, we want our paths to fork unexpectedly every once in a while, as long as it’s not too drastic a fork. Who hasn’t accidentally missed a turn and stumbled across a great little coffee shop, a beautiful garden, or a cool shady park? Those serendipitous finds are part of the charm of a good walk.
And once in a while, as well, the fork will be a big one. A career-changing opportunity to move to a new city? That chance meeting that leads to a new friendship (or marriage)? And then there are the sudden reversals – sometimes the opportunities we lose are the ones that change us the most, rather than the ones we get. And sometimes the paths we don’t chose affect us more than the ones we do. I can never know where we’d be if my wife and I had not chosen to move back to Toronto from London?
What I do know is that when a fork arrives, you have to choose and keep going, wherever that takes you. Pausing and thinking and analyzing and deciding is all well and good, but life doesn’t wait – so pick your path, and go for it. If I’m turned about (never lost, of course!) on a walk and unsure where to go, I’ll pick a direction and just start walking – eventually I’ll come to something and figure it out from there, and like as not, I’ll eventually end up where I wanted to be, at the cost perhaps of a bit of time but with the benefit of learning something new and seeing something interesting along the way. Just as my English Lit degree led to software development, often forks are simply unexpected turns in the path that get you were you want to go by more interesting routes.
So for me, 40 years gone from failing a math course, I could never have foreseen that the fork I chose then would take me to Toronto, point me at software development, lead me to work in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Montreal, introduce me to my wife, and wind and meander to the place where I am today. It seemed like a road block then. Looking back, it was more of a lesson – if you come to a fork in the road, take it.