The Path less Traveled
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. – Robert Frost, The Road not Taken
The above passage is from one of the most beloved, and unfortunately most misunderstood poems in American literature. It is a quote that is thrown around so often as to be almost cliche. Many assume the poem is simply an instruction manual – take the lesser traveled path and everything will turn out spectacular! The common reading is simply to take it as a given that you should take uncommon and unpopular paths in life and that by doing so you will achieve greatness. That those ‘less traveled by’ choices really will ‘make all the difference.’
Unfortunately, that’s not what Mr. Frost meant to imply when he wrote the poem. If you look a bit deeper you can find his real intent. An intent meant to humble, not elevate those who think their small choices make all the difference in the world.
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
The entire first three-quarters of the poem describe how the paths look exactly the same to any reasonable person. The final, and most famous, stanza pokes fun at the people who look back on their lives and elevate the small choices to outsized influence over the outcome. The small choices you make, the little turns in the road here or there, don’t actually matter that much. People just like to think they do.
At this point, you must be asking – what in the heck does this all have to do with financial independence? I’m about to get to that.
Taking the Path Less Traveled
When you read the title of this post and read the poem I’m quoting, many would simply assume that I was about to go into a long expose about how the grizzlies are about to head off on the ‘path less traveled’. That by doing so, we’re going to be radically changing our lives for the better. And then many, many years from now we’ll look back and see that everything was worth it and that taking that ‘less traveled’ road was what made all the difference in the world.
But that’s not the lesson. The poem correctly points out that the small choice, taking one path vs. another actually doesn’t make that much difference. We only think it does. We elevate its importance in our minds many years down the road. The final leap the grizzlies are about to make, abandoning our jobs, striking out on our own, is not the biggest point of differentiation in our story. It’s not what will actually ‘make all the difference’ in our lives. The real difference is not some bend in the path we decide to take. Our lives diverged far, far earlier.
It’s not the path, it’s the forest
There’s no single turn in the path to financial independence that guarantees success. There’s no trick, no decision, no magic formula that will ensure you make it. There’s no ‘path less traveled’ that you can simply take and end up at your goal. The real difference is not some bend in the path. The real difference is that we’ve been walking in a different forest for quite some time.
That is the lesson from pretty much anyone who successfully reaches the dream of independence. You simply have to approach your entire life differently. From a very early start, you have to start saving, investing, and living below your means. Grizzly mom and I have been saving since we left college. We’ve maxed out our IRA’s and 401ks since we were 22. We went through a brief period when we spent a little extravagantly, but it lasted a couple years and we quickly reigned it in. We don’t spend extravagantly. We don’t buy fancy cars. We don’t buy useless crap. We worked damn hard at jobs and in school to get to levels in our careers where we could make high salaries.
We shouldn’t deceive ourselves that we’re making some singular choice that will dramatically change our lives. It was not some singular choice, but many. Getting to the point we are now, financial independence within a short time, occurred over many years. We chose to walk in a different forest long ago. That has made all the difference.