Originally published on December 21, 2017
When I was in college I scored an internship in the Walt Disney College Program during the Fall semester of my junior year. My sister and I drove down to Florida from New York—just the two of us on the road. This was without question the furthest I had ever been from home without my parents and it felt exhilarating and intimidating to be that independent.
As it happened, and now I can't remember why, but I figure it had to do with my sister's availability to drive down with me, I had to arrive a few days earlier than I was able to move into my apartment at Disney. Luckily I had a high school friend who lived in Tampa who was willing to let me stay at his place in the interim.
My older sister spent one night with us before she flew home and then I drove her to the airport. On my way back from dropping her off, I accidentally got on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge...a bridge that's just over 4 miles long without an off ramp until you get to the end. These were the days before smartphones that are equipped with GPS or even separate GPS system existed. If you wanted to get somewhere at that time, you needed a map or a piece of paper with some handwritten directions. I was never very good at directions in the first place, so it is not surprising that once I got off the one end of the bridge and turned around to go back, I then accidentally got right back on the bridge in the wrong direction and had to do that all over again. Four miles isn't far if it's the direction you want to go but it's miserable if you didn't want to go there in the first place. Not only that, but when you go four miles in the wrong direction, you really end up driving eight miles because you have to get back to the starting point. Doing this once is miserable. To do it twice is more than miserable--it's painful.
The truth is, not only did I do this twice but when I finally got back to my starting point for the second time, I actually started to do it for the third time! I realized it as I was entering the on-ramp and couldn't believe what I was doing again. I then did something that was almost more unbelievable, I put my car in reverse and backed off the on-ramp. This is even scarier than making a U-Turn in a no-U-Turn zone but I did it anyway because I was damned if I was going to make the same mistake all over again!
So here's my point, have you ever felt this way at work? Have you ever felt like you were going quickly in the wrong direction even though you thought you first thought you were doing the right thing? This can feel horrible because it feels like you are or have wasted valuable resources, not the least of which is time. However, I now realize that once I became aware that I was going in the wrong direction my attention shifted to my feelings. I was angry and distracted. I wasn't trying to learn about my surroundings or appreciate the detour which had me traveling over some of the most beautiful water on a day when I had nowhere else I needed to be anyway. I didn't attempt to take in the details of the setting or try to reflect on what the road looked like right before I lost my way so that I could learn from my mistakes and not repeat them. Instead, I was not only physically lost, I was emotionally lost too. If I had paid more attention to what I was doing in that moment rather than being distracted by the irritation associated with the awareness of being put-out, I believe I might have saved myself from going in the wrong direction again (and again).
In everyone's life, there will be times, like Robert Frost wrote about, where you have a choice to make between taking the beaten path or the one less traveled. Then, like the one I've described, there will be times when you feel like you don't have a choice because you accidentally took a wrong turn. I guess what I'd like to remind us of is that even after we've taken a wrong turn, we have the chance to make it right. We can use the mistake as a chance to reflect and learn about how we got there, whether or not it's a happy accident, and if not, how to find a better path. Because, if we don't use the wrong turn as an opportunity to get back in the driver's seat, we're just going to go for a long ride on the wrong road over and over again.