Schwellenangst — Why You Should Take The Road Less Traveled By

Bet on the future, just don’t bet the future

Germans have a word for just about everything. Schwellenangst is the fear of embarking on a new adventure. For some, it’s the first time they fly in an airplane, while for others it’s the start of a new job, a new relationship, or a move to a new location. In all cases, it is something everyone is familiar with — the anxiety that comes with crossing a threshold to a place you’ve never been before.

Like a lot of German words, schwellenangst combines several concepts. “Schwellen” means swell, while angst means the same in English, angst.

Verstehen?

It is why choosing the path your life will take can seem deceptively simple. You find what you want to do or what you’re good at, then devote time to learning, and then you’re told to jump in feet first. That’s when you understand the meaning of schwellenangst.

Reach vs. Grasp

“Set goals you can’t reach,” Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, would tell his staff. “So you have something to live for.” He knew this first hand. Ted’s father made a vow to become a millionaire and then committed suicide after doing so. When his father was unable to muster the courage to proceed, it was clear to the son that fear of crossing the threshold into the unknown was a factor. Why? That he might not accomplish as much as he had already? Ted’s answer was to think beyond yourself and what dream. When setting goals, make sure they are slightly out of reach, and revisit them frequently to stay one step ahead of the pace.

In fact, there are so many roads to choose from, it gets confusing sometimes. As Yogi Berra famously said, “when there is a fork in the road — take it.” The American poet Robert Frost also said somewhat the same thing, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

I’ll try to explain why the befuddled baseball catcher and the Nobel Prize-winning poet were saying the same thing.

Forks In The Road

Berra was a well-known barroom philosopher prone to grammatical inventiveness that left people bewildered while nodding their heads. “It’s so crowded no one goes there anymore” is illogical yet requires no explanation. If listeners laughed at his malaprops, Berra cackled all the way to the bank. He was the third highest-paid ballplayer on the Yankee team because when he saw the fork in the road, he took it.

If you look back on life, you’ll see perhaps inadvertently, that you have taken many forks in the road. Some worked out. Others were detours that appeared to lead somewhere, and some did, others did not. The important thing is you took the step. When I left college without finishing my degree It was never clear how and when I would close the chapter. Years later in my thirties, I wrote my final thesis on medieval literature at night while selling advertising by day. Sometimes a fork leads to oblivion, and you need to rethink your steps, but as long as you move forward there is no need to regret your path.

While Berra would never call his idea a ‘thesis,’ it mirrored the meaning of Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” He wrote it in 1916 at age 42. According to the Paris Review, “The signature phrases of “The Road Not Taken” have appeared in advertisements for Mentos, Nicorette, during the Super Bowl and in more than four hundred books and is arguably the most popular of the 20th century.” The poem also inspired Scott Peck’s massive international bestseller, The Road Less Traveled. Phyllis Theroux of the Washington Post said, “was not just a book, but a spontaneous act of generosity.”

A careful observer will say something is not right here.

Christmas Story

Is the line the road less traveled or the road not taken? Those are two interesting but dissimilar ideas like tigers and lions. The answer is that Peck borrowed his title from the end of the poem, “I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.” His meaning is different from Frost’s title, The Road Less Traveled, and it goes to the heart of the thesis about why some people have extraordinary lives. Because I lived in the house where Robert Frost spent his Christmases, I feel a certain insight into the story.

Frost hated Christmas as much as Scrooge. He was not a “bah, humbug” type as much as he was fastidious about whom he spent his time with and what he did on those occasions. He loved a good chat, not small talk. There was only one person whose company he could stand for an entire evening, as he said in another poem, “Hyde Cox, the Laird of Crow Island where I spend Christmas would be an island if not for an isthmus.”

The prior owner of my stately Crow Island in Manchester by the Sea, MA, was a wealthy literary bon vivant who liked to ride on the back of the garbage trucks in his spare time. that tells you why Frost so adored the man. I never had a chance to meet him as I bought the home from his estate. He was the largest private owner of Andrew Wyeth paintings, having discovered the artist as a young man, and became a close friend. His famed literary salons were held in the living room, which I converted into a dining room, where he had such a keen ear he could recognize different labels recording of Mozart. If you are a Dartmouth graduate, he donated all his possessions to the college library, including my $6 million purchase.

Try New, Try Now

Frost and Cox made a Laurel and Hardy couple. One was short and spare, the other large and curvy if not rotund, and as the Scotch poured forth, their cynicism filled the room. In this way, they celebrated Christmas night every year, smoking unfiltered cigarettes to their heart’s content while scoffing at materialistic fools who didn’t know better. They weren’t going to give in to that materialism of the middle classes. Instead, poke fun at the Hoi polloi while gazing out to sea sipping expensive scotch in a million-dollar mansion.

The oxymoron may have been lost, either due to consumption or confusion. But what was really going on was they took a different path, and for them, it made all the difference. Had Yogi Berra been present as Cox refilled Frost’s glass, I am sure he would say how great it was that when they saw the fork in the road they took it. And that has made all the difference.

It is why I believe the line was not about what Frost might have missed in life. After all, he was still in his forties: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” His last line is “I took the road less traveled by,” suggesting we should try the new and try it now, to take our best shot to be somebody when we get the chance. If it doesn’t work, we can always try something new.

The Road Not Taken (1916)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

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.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes