The Road to Nowhere
January 8th, 2010

Across the street from my office building is an empty field which is being developed.  I know it is being developed because for the past several months bulldozers and all other manner of heavy duty construction equipment have been building a road on that land.  It started out with grading equipment, drainage runoffs, cement trucks, and so on. Now it has curbs, streelights, and a sidewalk.  But at the end of it is, well, nothing.
It strikes me as strange to build a road with nothing at the end of it.  I suppose I would have expected them to build some sort of temporary passage - a gravel access road, perhaps.  And as the project has progressed I’ve continued to be surprised at all the finishing touches that have been added, especially since it continues to lead to nowhere.  Why on earth should they go to the trouble to put in sidewalks and streetlamps when clearly this road is getting no traffic?  My curiosity has been further piqued by what will be built at the other end.    
And then I got to thinking about this construction project as it relates to my own life, metaphorically speaking, that is.  How do I go about building my new roads in life?  When I want to try something new, do I pick a destination and then build the roads that will get me there?  Or do I start preparing the land and let my destination be determined as the road evolves organically?  And further still, is one way better than the other?
As with many things, there are probably pros and cons to either approach.  On the one hand, having a destination is probably more efficient.  I am going “there.”  So I should put an intersection here and an off-ramp there.  I know what my end goal is and I can map my course accordingly.  With a goal in mind I will not be deterred by rough terrain or inclement weather.  I can organize my toolkit for this journey at the outset.  I can be prepared.  I like this approach.  I like to be efficient and pragmatic and all manner of similar qualities that lend themselves to the making of spreadsheets.  
However, what do I miss in the process?  Without a destination I might discover things I didn’t know about.  This road-building thing is tough.  Lucky for me I found this nice shady picnic spot to stop and take a break.   I might discover new things about myself if given the opportunity to wander.   I might stumble upon something wonderful that I would have otherwise passed in a blaze of goal-oriented fury.  I might meet new people.  I read an unusual book.  I might, say, start a blog!  And I might find those things to be fruitful and satisfying.  A pleasant surprise, if you will.
As I mentioned before, in looking at my own approach I definitely fall into the destination category.  I’m a planner, a list maker, a goal-setter.  But why?  How do I know that the plan in my head is the best one? The right one?  And what if my vision is too small?  What if I create a plan for myself that seems attainable, but could be so much more?  (And if I am happy in my life am I just disturbing the peace by asking these questions?)     
My life so far has unfolded in much the way I might have guessed had I been asked for my prediction fifteen years ago.  A few route changes here and there, but no major diversions or course corrections.  Does that mean that my original plan was perfect?  That there was no room for improvement?  I struggle to accept that this could be the case.  And as I consider what other paths I might have taken I’m curious about what I’ve missed along the way.  Might I be happier if I’d strayed from the original map?  Might I be curled up in the fetal position on the side of the road? 
I don’t know.  And I won’t.  And that’s hard for me.  But it spurs me to look for unexpected turnoffs as I move forward.  Perhaps I will find that pleasant surprise.

15 Responses to “The Road to Nowhere”

  1. Nicki Says:

    As I read, I kept thinking we all build roads to nowhere. We enter into jobs, not knowing what is truly coming. We build relationships, not knowing if they will prevail or end. Life is a big road to somewhere but the intermediary locations are unknown.

  2. Jan Says:

    I used to have a friend who would note that certain topics are “preachable.” This one certainly is, and also good for discussion on several levels. But I must say, it’s prompted me to think that I don’t believe many goals are worth “whatever it takes” to achieve. “It” is the journey, and as we age–and the journey gets shorter–the quality of that journey becomes more and more important. Since none of us knows how long our journey will last, I think the “doing of it” should always be where we focus.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Interesting metaphor, Gale. My life has turned out NOTHING like I planned, so I guess you could say my life has been constructed with all sorts of unplanned thoroughfares and byways. In fact, I only recently accepted the fact that these “roads to nowhere” were actually my “somewhere.”

  4. Emily Says:

    What a terrific metaphor. I have never thought of my life in quite this way. But now that you have inspired me, I think I do a combination of both. There are clearly places where I have a desintation in mind but no distinct path (usually bigger picture stuff) – but I find that building the road has yielded better results. Just doing things — like trying a new class or submitting to a new publication — without huge expectations has sent me places I couldn’t predict. So I am a fan of roads. Thanks for the psychoworkout today Gale!

  5. Jeff Says:

    Interesting topic to ponder. So now that I have pondered it, I think the more concrete the goal, the more you need a destination and a road, (or at least a map), and the more nebulous the goal, you are probably better served with less structure.

    If you want a graduate degree, or a career in a given field, or to reduce your golf handicap to a given level, there are certain, specific steps you can define, and you should take. But, if you are looking for something like happiness (as discussed in today’s “Life in Pencil”), the map is necessarily much more blurred, and much more subject to numerous midcourse adjustments.

  6. Anne Says:

    Oh, how I can relate. I’m a BIG builder-of-roads. These days, what I’m trying to do is go ahead and build some roads–maybe just to a half-way point–not all the way to the end. And I’m trying to find the courage to scrap, forget, or destroy the road when I feel it isn’t carrying me in the right direction. It’s so hard to build a new road–it takes a ton of energy. But when we ignore potential other paths, we ignore a little part of ourselves.

  7. christina Says:

    My life HAS NOT been as I would have predicted and I am a list-making, plan-and-predict-it kind of girl.

    But the unexpected off-roading, has been the most painful, crushing, humbling, amazing, freeing journey ever.

    I live with very little emotional fear now and a predictable life doesn’t offer that luxury.

    Enjoying your blog so much.

  8. Mimi Says:

    Very nice Gale. With 2009 coming to an end, I was pondering on what my resolutions for 2010 should be. I wanted them to have sincere meaning and resolutions that I actually can say at the end of 2010, I accomplished! So many things in my life have not gone according to my master plan. As one of your replies said, it ended up being a road to “somewhere” I concur! I feel there is a plan for everyone. We may take different roads and even wrong roads to get to whatever our plan is, but if we focus on the journey and the task at hand, we will have more in our “plan” than we could have ever imagined.
    Now for me I am “mapping” out how I want to acheive my 2010 resolutions. It may the wrong way, but it is my way for now.

    Thank you for your thoughts, and making me think more about my own.

  9. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    You write beautifully. It does seem odd, doesn’t it, building a road to nowhere?

  10. Gale Says:

    Mimi – Welcome to TDT! And thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s hard to accept that “somewhere” might not be exactly what we envisioned. But sometimes that’s key in finding new and wonderful things that we didn’t know to look for. I wish you the best of luck with your 2010 resolutions. I hope your road-building efforts are fun and fruitful!

  11. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Kitch. I really enjoy all of your humor and recipes, and am flattered that you’ve stopped by. I actually saw some traffic on that road to nowhere yesterday. Can’t imagine where they were going!

  12. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    We should always look for the “unexpected turnoffs” in life. Thanks for this reminder. Another great post!

  13. Kristen Says:

    Such a ripe topic. Like you, I am a planner, a life cartographer. Or at least I think of myself as one. Sometimes I wonder, though, if my plan actually changes all the time – I take unexpected off-ramps more than I realize – but I just move forward, operating under the assumption that those changes of course were part of the plan all along.

  14. Elaine Says:

    In my forever years of experience I have learned all roads lead somewhere. You can plan forever, but life will change those plans with little or no notice. Embrace the changes; however, if you’re unhappy with your situation, then plan again and work towards your new goal. It’s the roads to “nowhere” where you learn that you are capable of so much more than you imagined. Goals can be lofty or unbearably simple. If they’re your goals, they are important. You don’t get “years of life” back so treasure every choice and love every minute of every road.

  15. Jen Says:

    While I’m a list-maker and I have ambitions that I would like to at some point make strides toward, the biggest and most lasting moments in my life have been determined by unexpected turn-offs. I am fortunate, I know. And yet, a clear road seems like a nice luxury at times. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.