“Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”, wrote Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken”. Many read this poem as an encouragement to do something other than what is safe and expected — and doing what’s unsafe and unexpected can lead you to greater creativity.
What is the road less traveled?
The poem describes a person at a crossroads, trying to decide which path to follow — a well-trodden one or a less popular one. Taking the main road means doing what most people would do, while the less-used one is the riskier, possibly more difficult one. Consider a recent college graduate, trying to decide what to do. Most people would choose to become a well-paid banker on Wall Street rather than a struggling artist in the tiny alleys of Montmartre.
In my own life, I was a successful competitive middle-distance runner because I chose to compete in the less-popular 3000m steeplechase rather than the flat middle distances. When my former employer asked if I wanted to go to New York or Asia, I picked Asia because my odds of finding continuing work were better there, and I chose Vietnam over Singapore or the Philippines because I knew I would learn more and advance faster in a smaller office. And in the end I walked away from a prestigious and lucrative job in Hong Kong so I could begin my evolution into a leading creativity and innovation expert in Asia.
Why is this a big deal?
On the main road you travel with a crowd. The road less traveled is more peaceful. Fewer people are on it, it’s less hectic and stressful, and you have fewer constraints, both external and internal. There is less pressure to conform, fewer “traffic signs”, and fewer rules to follow — notably, less of the dogma that warps your thinking and judgment. Due to the many turns the road less traveled takes, you’re often not in plain view to others, which gives you more freedom to be yourself — to read and think, daydream and imagine, act and create. The road less traveled is also full of unexpected turns and twists, which reward your choice of path with insights and knowledge not available to those who followed the crowd.
How does this foster creativity?
The less-trodden path provides stimulation as well as the freedom and time needed to imagine and think and come up with breakthrough ideas:
- After working for years on what became relativity theory, Albert Einstein finally had his breakthrough when he left his safe university position behind and instead worked as a patent office clerk. Although unglamorous, this job let him read state-of-the-art patent applications, which fed his mind. It also gave him enough time to indulge in imagination experiments and to think while walking the literal less-traveled paths in the Swiss mountains (where he also had his Eureka moment while being on a hike with his best friend Michele Besso).
- Charles Darwin left his life in England and went on a 5-year voyage around the world. During this journey he observed the natural world, and had time to start puzzling out the principles of evolution.
- Steve Jobs dropped out of college but continued to attend the classes he found interesting but hadn’t had time enroll in as a student. His interest in calligraphy later led to the inclusion of high-quality typography in the interface of the Macintosh.
Twelve years ago, I started down the path of creativity and innovation as a novice, with no knowledge of the field. Although I sought knowledge from some of the world’s foremost creativity experts, I never considered following the usual path of a master’s degree in creativity, or pursuing official certification. Instead, I took the road less traveled and stayed in Asia, where I took the time to think and gradually develop our innovation company Thinkergy and our systematic innovation methods. When I looked at the most widely used innovation methods, I found significant bugs, which produced inferior ideas and innovation results. I am sure that had I followed the usual path to innovation, I would not have noticed these flaws, let alone dared to criticize these sacred cows. My unconventional location in Asia also let me see what intercultural traps cause many innovation methods, which work well in the West, to fail when used in Asia. All of these learnings and insights that I gained on the less-trodden path culminated in the creation of our award-winning innovation process method X-IDEA.
How can you get on the road less traveled?
Taking the road less traveled is easier than you think. Whenever you face an important choice, ask yourself which is the usual, safe option, and which the oddball one. If you always choose the normal option and feel good about it, that’s fine — for you, the main road is the right road. But if you find yourself drawn to the weird choice, go for it. Welcome to the road less traveled. I look forward to meeting you there, on that dangerous, fascinating, wonderful, creative path.
Got curious about how to reconnect to your individual creativity on the road less traveled? Take a look at our creative leadership method Genius Journey, which is all about helping you to realize your genius in you and become an authentic creative leader. Contact us to find out more.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. This article is published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on 2 April 2015.