How to Take a Trail, or Not

By Jon Miller Updated on June 18th, 2018

While shopping for gifts with my family this weekend, I noticed the store had many cards, mugs, printed items on the theme of, “Don’t follow the trail made by others but make your own.” This is spectacularly bad advice for national parks or when trekking through extreme climates. The “make your own path” message appeals to those of us who like to create, live by flexible hours, or don’t find standard career paths appealing. The store offered cards and gifts for a variety of ages, genders and family situations, so the singular bias towards avoiding the well-worn path struck me as odd.

American philosopher and author Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” and may have inspired generations to go West, stake a claim, seek their fortune and otherwise leave their mark in this land. Henry David Thoreau, on the other hand, differed in how he viewed paths from his friend and benefactor Emerson when he said, “Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, which you can walk with love and reverence.” Finding a path one can love and respect may be more important than creating our own.

Paths exist for a reason. They are proven to get your from point A to point B. As a result, they are well-used, shared, maintained and updated by people over time. Paths are similar to standards in lean thinking, in that they are best known methods but also undergo improvement. Chinese sage Mengzi observed, “A trail through the mountains, if used becomes a path in a short time. If unused, it becomes blocked by grass in an equally short time.” We can say the same about standards. They erode unless used and improved.

“Don’t follow the trail made by others,” is also bad advice when we are at a point in life when doing sensible, proven things is in our best interest. When we are young, full of energy and unencumbered by family responsibilities we can blaze a path. On the other hand, youth who easily find their way into trouble may benefit from guidance along a straight-and-narrow path. As we grow into adults with responsibilities, it saves precious time to follow proven paths for planning one’s finances, family, health and future. After retirement, we may find one path ending, and an opportunity to follow or make a new one. Why not have inspirational quotes about paths that are situation-appropriate, such as, “Leave the jungle of debt and ask your financial advisor about getting on the right path.”

Pope Benedict XVI urged us to “Choose the path of dialogue rather than the path of unilateral decisions” which is wise advice regardless of whether we are following a trail or making our own. In life all paths are shared in some way. As we meet people along our journey, they can teach us what they have learned about the nature of paths and trails.

Sometimes the words on a gift card not to follow “the trail made by others” is advice not meant to be followed, but to be used as an opportunity for reflection. We are all on a path. Are we taking a trail or making our own? Are we wandering around or nearing our next destination? Did we set out on this course through dialogue with others or unilaterally? How much of our path to this point has been a result of our choices and how much by happenstance? Being aware of these things can help us see the path forward.

  1. Luis Loya

    June 19, 2018 - 10:32 am

    Great post with a great message for self reflection. All treks should start with a clear purpose and goal, which should help determine the correct path to take .

  2. Kent Bradley

    June 20, 2018 - 10:17 am

    Interesting read Jon, thanks.

    Brought to mind a conversation with my father. He was an Architect, and he and his firm did a lot of campus type work for both large corporations and various universities. In an article his approach was aptly described as “a pragmatist, with imagination”.

    For the sake of planning he would sketch in sidewalks, access roads, etc… and put in temporary routes based on best estimates connecting the buildings and areas of work, but always insisted on “going to the Gemba” to observe the actual flow and inevitably ended up adjusting the “trail” to more closely meet the needs of the various stakeholders.

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