Stay on the Main Road

The local Trappist Abbey near McMinnville, Oregon is a peaceful retreat for contemplation, surrounded by a beautiful forest and some great hiking trails. Even though the Abbey is nearby, I had not gone there before, so my husband and I set off to explore the woods at mid-day.

Wouldn’t you know it, we had not gone a mile into the woods before we got lost. We dug out the map and turned it upside down and sideways trying to find our way. Yes, we had a map and still got lost! We were on a tiny side trail. We could not find the main road!

All the trails seemed to lead up the mountain, where a shrine is situated overlooking a bucolic valley, so we wandered on.

We slogged upward, through the muck that was a stream running down the middle of the path.

We trekked through the thicket where poison oak was lurking.

Finally, after traipsing up what was essentially a Billy goat trail, we found a spot that matched the map. We were only a third of the distance to our destination, and we had wasted time and energy. It was January, so the sunlight would not last long.

Do you remember in the movie The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is advised to “follow the yellow brick road?” Or do you remember in The Hobbit when Frodo Baggins wanders off the main trail and is captured by giant spiders? In folklore, we are frequently admonished by the sages to “stay on the main path.” Why stay on the main road, though? Isn’t all the adventure in blazing your own path and being an iconoclast?

Of course, there is a business metaphor here. In the business world we frequently hear about the merits of blazing your own path—and I believe that advice is sound, because mistakes and mishaps help build business savvy.  To do something great and truly break through may require you to chart your own course.

But it’s useful to reflect on when you want to blaze you own trail and when you want to follow a proven path. Here’s my advice: When you want to differentiate your services and products from the competition, blaze. But in areas—such which office tools you use—that are not as critical, visible or of high-value to your customers, follow the main road.

After this hiking adventure, I can confirm that by staying on the main road, you can:

  • Get to your destination sooner. Oh, sure, there are shortcuts to quick riches offered daily, but, at least in my experience, you really do have to put in the hard work and long hours in order to gain real insight.
  • Ask for and receive assistance. This is because there are others who are on the main road. It’s reassuring to see fellow hikers coming down the hill as you come up. They’ll tell you “Just a little farther,” or “It’s worth the effort,” and you’ll re-double your efforts.
  • Avoid unnecessary dangers, like poison oak and washouts. When you get off the main path, there are unknown dangers that can slow you down. We came across someone out letting their dogs romp off the leash, eager to jump up on us.
  • Have the safety of guardrails, traffic signs and exit ramps. When you leave the main trail, you may be confronted by a fork where there are two equally bad options. On the main trail, you have the peace of mind of knowing where you are going. You can focus on the beautiful scenery, instead of worrying about if this fading trail is going to end at a cliff.
  • Continually orient yourself to the map. When you leave the trail, you are making it up as you go. On the main road you know where you are and you have less stress.

It’s true that simply doing what everyone else does is not always the best course. A fresh perspective, a new approach, or an alternative viewpoint is often valuable. On this adventure we had an enhanced feeling of accomplishment when we found the shrine at the top and drank in the view, knowing that we’d done things a little differently. We certainly gave ourselves a bigger challenge. But I’m not sure you could argue that we added value, and that’s the question that sparked this post.