The Road Not Taken

  • Posted: August 31, 2020
  • Category: Blog
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Retirement – the comfortable dream of callow youth and besieged forty-somethings. The reality is the slow drift of a rudderless raft on a slow moving river, a hopefully pleasant but increasingly dull chapter in a life lived well – or not. The roar of a great waterfall somewhere downstream grows ever harder to ignore, but as the raft lacks either motor or rudder – it is what it is. One slowly and painfully learns to live in the moment, taking life as it comes. Mornings, more than ever before, set the tone for the day.

Some mornings are better than others. This past Tuesday morning was one of the good ones. I shared breakfast with an old friend, not near so old as me, his daily bread still earned in honest labor. My friend had just returned from a week in the field, on a construction site in Oregon.

As he recounted the events of his trip, I basked in the memories of old times in old places, warming in the glow of remembered good times. There is an honesty and simplicity to construction sites. The artifice and pretense of the office environment does not survive the sharp tang of weld smoke and clamor of cranes. There is a reality to the people there, a kinship to rural communities.

Danger lurks on construction sites, a moment’s inattention or ill considered action endangers life and limb. This simple reality, the cause and effect of gravity and Newtonian physics on man and machine, holds sway, allowing no room for anything less than straight talk. The obscuring fogs of HR initiatives and corporate “doublespeak” do not offer the secure niches found in the office environment for those familiar poisoners – the incompetent, the indolent or the aggrieved. It is clear to all, either you can do the job – or you can’t. Virtue signaling and political correctness are conspicuous in their absence.

As I sit now, savoring my coffee floating on that slow moving river toward the inevitable waterfall, I wander back into the times and places I have been. The question recurs – “Was I ever happier in my working life than when plying my trade on a construction site?” Back in that remembered time, secure in the mastered rhythms of trade and craft, my wife and I talked of the day when our kids were gone and we were “empty-nesters”.

We talked of buying an “RV, a Fifth Wheel RV” and traveling the country, working projects and enjoying the local countryside. The money I made working on-site would afford a comfortable lifestyle and we could travel almost at will around the country.

The work I did back in that simpler time was satisfying and fulfilling. One day there would be a blank sheet of paper, a place to sketch out ideas. But months or years later those sketches would be reality as towers of steel and the roar of power, as pipeline stretching unseen from here to there.

That daydream was a pleasant one, but it was just that. It took no notice of ambition. Ambition, that polite synonym for the demon of desire, the desire for more, for bigger, for faster, for higher, for power, for just more. There it was, the unseen demon on my back but just as real as the hardhat and boots I put on each morning.

Whatever one believes about the historicity of Genesis 3, it stands as a powerful metaphor for moments of destiny in our lives. Eve, real or not, is a metaphor for us all. We want what we do not have, the shiny apple in the hands of our temptation.

It is the practice of the technical professions to promote good technical people into management. This is the logical thing to do, which is why logical people do it. It also provides irrefutable prima facie evidence as to the weaknesses of the logical mind. Around the age of forty, I was moved into the position of Project Manager, a move for which I had long lusted.

To my considerable surprise, my transition from engineer to manager was a difficult one. In rare moments of honesty with myself, I admitted my hatred for the job. I felt unappreciated and ill-used. I pictured myself in a dark room, blindfolded and stumbling, whacked with a 2×4 at odd times by a capricious reality.

A kind assessment of my performance through the first few years of my career in management was – “Not a Complete Flop”. The sensible thing would have been to graciously bow out and go find another job as an engineer. But there was that snake, continuing to offer up the red shiny apple of “More”.

But eventually I came to an epiphany of sorts, an “aha” moment even though one arriving in slow motion. As has been true of most lessons in my life, the lesson did not come in a classroom, seminar or mentoring session, or even in an after hours round of adult beverages. Those around me at work knew that I complemented the effusive nature of the engineer with the spice of avid history buff. Thus I found social functions, that lubricating oil for those climbing the career ladder, to be a mine field of embarrassment and mishap.

But to compensate for my poor networking skills, I did read a lot of history books. The genesis of my transformation from engineer to something else was planted while reading the nail biting drama of “Lee’s Lieutenants”, Douglas Freeman’s fifty year old account of Robert E Lee’s relationship with his officers during the Civil War.

Freeman’s book chronicled the career path of Lee’s officers, the successes and failures of men in the crucible of war -the star performer as a colonel failing miserably as a general, the accidental general blossoming into charismatic battlefield leader, the dependable plow horse who is the foundation for other’s glory.

Reading through the book’s thousand pages, the obvious nature of the reasons for this state of affairs slowly percolated into my mind – things change as you move up the ladder. The very thing you do well, actually doing something well and earning promotion, is a handicap to the job at a higher level.

But even more importantly, I began to understand that “politics” is not a dirty word, at least if you want to satisfy that invisible demon. People are uniquely talented and uniquely wanting. Politics is an art, not a science – the art of matching the talents and desires of people into positions where they will be both successful and satisfied.

In so doing, my own ambition for “more” would be fulfilled as well. There is something about difficult lessons, once learned they become tools well used. I eventually stopped being an engineer and began my political apprenticeship. And in the process, I actually became my job title, a project manager. Continuing in pursuit of that bright red apple over the years that followed, I stopped being a project manager and became an entrepreneur. And returning once more to the well, I stopped being an entrepreneur and became a CEO.

But Joni Mitchell had a memorable career by singing of simple truths. One of her best known songs, “Both Sides Now” carries a kick, a poignant observation of life’s realities.

“But now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day”

Pursuit of one’s ambition brings changes to one’s self as well as gains and losses. I gained a company with hundreds of employees, but I lost the camaraderie of a construction site and the simple pleasure of just kicking the dirt, rubbing shoulders with the folks doing the work and the satisfaction of pulling my weight, of making a contribution. I no longer made sketches on blank sheets of paper or drove a jeep along the right-of-way through the mud.

Instead I struggled to remember the name of the newly hired designer standing beside me at the coffee machine. I sat in conference rooms, either spinning fairy tales of “ice cream castles in the air” to potential clients or with lawyers negotiating the unhappy endings of those optimistic beginnings. Construction sites didn’t offer the satisfaction of accomplishment, but too often became a dismal swamp breeding costly errors trailing sleepless nights of worrisome angst.

Along the way, I came to learn a final lesson from Robert E Lee, a lesson put into eloquent words by King Solomon 2,000 years before, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”. That invisible demon on my back would never be satisfied. My simple humanity would continue to be eroded pursuing an apple that would always disappoint. Again, King Solomon best put it into words.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in their toil – this is the gift of God.”

And with that understanding, sanity slowly returned but the path had been taken. There is no going back. I made my choices and I have no complaints. Life treated me very well. I got a bushel basket and more of undeserved breaks. God prospered me on my path, though I often wonder if that blessing was truly his wish for me or simply the consolation prize given a student that disappointed, perhaps an “E” for effort.

But I daydream from time to time as I float that slow moving river. I could be in Oregon, spending my day in useful work building something, returning to my wife and RV at night, sharing a beer and barbeque with the other old-timers and up and coming timers who shared the day’s work on site.

But the road not taken is – the road not taken. As Eve watched her grandchildren in the Land of Nod(?), I wonder at her thoughts about apples.


3 Responses to “The Road Not Taken”

  1. Russell G Kyncl says:

    Great writing, solid perspective.

  2. Rex Rinne says:

    Tragically (and joyfully) true. We remain blessed in spite of it all.

  3. Jim Claunch says:

    Great stuff Mr. Bill, I think we both have taken that road at least once. Thank you Sir.

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