My sister and I won the lottery when it came to parents. Name a quality you want your parents to have and mine had it. However, my parents either chose to not tell me or forgot to tell me certain things. (It’s possible they told me repeatedly and I either ignored them or forgot what they said.)
Among things I wish my parents had told me is “When it comes to listening to your heart or your head, let your heart lead you.” Especially during the early years of my career, I tended to over-think things. I over-analyzed them to the point of having paralysis of analysis.
I still believe in performing analyses. But I don’t believe in blindly accepting analytical results. Why? Not everything that needs to be considered is included in the analysis. It could be something you forgot to include or, more likely, it’s something you don’t know how to include. The former includes quantifiable things you failed to consider, whereas the latter includes non-quantifiable things.
Often, seniors struggling with which job offer to accept sought my advice. I never indicated which offer to accept. Instead, I pointed out that life presents us with a maze to navigate. Most importantly there isn’t a single path that takes you from where you are to where you wind up at the end of your career. There are multiple paths, many leading to happiness and satisfaction. So, enjoy the journey through the maze and, as Yogi Berra said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” closes with “I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I love the poem, but it poses life as a set of binary choices.
In their book, BUILT TO LAST, Collins and Porras address “the tyranny of the OR.” Too often, when something is posed as “do this OR do that,” we fail to look for ways in which we can “do this AND do that.” I faced such a choice when I completed my doctorate: pursue a career in academe or pursue a career in business. Against advice I received from many, I opted to pursue BOTH. I let my heart lead me. (Of course, it could have been my stubbornness.)
My teaching, research, and service to the academy and profession kept one foot on the academic path. My consulting experiences and service on multiple corporate boards kept the other foot on the business path. Traveling both paths was not easy, but it served me well in my positions as engineering dean at Georgia Tech and chancellor at Arkansas, where I engaged in discussions with numerous business and academic leaders.
Reflecting on my leadership journey, when life presents you with a binary choice, look for a way to replace “or” with “and.” For me, when it came to choosing which path to take, I found a way to choose both and, as Robert Frost said, “It has made all the difference!”