Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Fork in the Road

In the early '90s Greg Mortenson attempted to summit K-2 in Pakistan. His attempt failed, and on the way down the mountain he became lost and ended up in a Pakistani village where he stayed long enough to make friends, learn a bit about the culture and problems of the people, and eventually embark on a new career raising awareness of the need for education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and raising money to build schools there. He recounted the early story in "Three Cups of Tea" and has recently released a second book that tells about the school-building endeavors of the past 10 years. The new book is "Stones into Schools".

At a lecture last evening he told the audience that there are no words in the Balti mountain language for "success" or "failure". The closest equivalents are a word that means "reaching the end of the journey" for success, and "fork in the road" for failure.

If you look at Greg's own story it seems to fit those words. His original goal was to summit K-2, but a fork in the road brought him to this remote village where he began a very different journey in life. Over the years he has certainly reached the end of that first new journey - and many more.

Vice President Al Gore may well have felt that he reached a fork in the road at the end of the 2000 presidential election process, but he certainly found another route which has led him very successfully in another direction. Senator Clinton seems to be on a similar new journey. I'm not much of a sports fan, but I am guessing there are examples galore in that arena, too.

For those of us who are not famous, the examples may not be so public, but they exist. Most of us can think of a job we didn't get [or perhaps one we lost] that caused us to move on to something different. Nearly 20 years ago I was invited by my employer to find another job [I think we call that fired!] and I found something that paid half what I was making, but which has led to a career that I love with people who are top notch. I certainly have always thought of that experience as a failure, but looking at it in Balti, it truly was a fork in the road. When I retire in a few years, I will definitely feel that I have come to the end of a happy journey.

The current economic mess certainly feels like a lot of nationwide failure, but perhaps it
will cause our whole economy to take a different fork. They say we are spending less, saving more and paying off our credit cards now. That's certainly not new advice, but apparently we are now taking that fork instead of the "put it on the card" fork.

I like this positive way of looking at the seeming ups and downs of life. I believe that as a people Americans are hard on themselves and others when it comes to success and failure. We tend to measure success in monetary terms, and to regard failure as permanent. Perhaps we need to ease up and see both as steps along the way - forks in the road that lead to the ends of new journeys.