Robert Lee Frost was an American poet who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Known for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial speech, Frost frequently wrote about settings from rural life in New England in the early twentieth century, using them to examine complex social and philosophical themes. In this vein, one of his most celebrated poems, The Road Not Taken, written in 1915, includes in it’s last verse the lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.

Breaking news - the cost of taking the road less travelled has tumbled! No this isn’t a Black Friday offer or and invitation to rethink your holiday plans. The world may seem to be a dangerous place – war, terrorism, climate change, Miley Cyrus….., but we are collectively living in the safest, healthiest, most prosperous times in history.

Consider a few supporting anecdotes:

  • Life expectancy in the UK has increased by 28 years since 1918 (53 to 81)
  • The number of deaths from natural disasters has declined by half over the past 100 years, despite the world population increasing more than 3 fold over the same period.
  • Murder rate in Britain has declined from 25/100000 people/yr in the 13th century to 1/100000 in the 21st
  • If you found yourself at a crossroads in a wood 50 years ago, your main tools to decide which path to take would probably be limited to a map and compass. Fast forward to 2018 and, for most people in most woods, this would have segued into a 4G enabled mobile phone equipped with Google.

In the past (and in evolutionary terms, until fairly recently), the tribe was everything. For the vast majority of our species’ existance, we have congregated in these social groups of between 100 and 200. The groups were self sustaining and by far and away the best route to thriving and procreating successfully was to make decisions which enabled you to remain within the group. And one way to do this was always to take the road more travelled. It you came to a fork in the road 100000 years ago, taking the path less travelled represented a considerable risk. The more trodden the route was, the more likely it was that success lay in it’s taking. The less travelled route was likely to have been longer, more rugged or even going right past the lair of the sabre toothed tiger. Those that travelled it would report this upon reuniting with the tribe. Those that didn’t return would send a stronger signal. Consequently, those that adhered to following the crowd were more likely to pass on their genes so that their descendants were ever more likely to continue to follow the crowd. This manifested itself in extreme discomfort in becoming (or even contemplating becoming) alienated from the tribe.

Fast forward to the 21st century. From the anecdotes, it is clear that while risks remain, their likelihood and severity have dimmed considerably, not just compared to antiquity but within a handful of generations. In other words, the risk of taking the road less travelled has attenuated considerably. I would go further in fact and argue that, within the context of our modern society, the risks of not taking the road less travelled might outweigh the risks of taking it. As our brains have evolved little since we roamed the African plains in our tribal groupings, we have the same epicurian weighting – the balance of fear and desire. The problem is that we have created a new and sophsticated world, a world in which the hazards are not readily sensed by our array of senses. We can still see, hear and smell the sabre toothed tiger (to be able to avoid feeling it), but unfortunately can only do the same for a major Process Safety incident when it’s probably too late to take evasive action.

The ultimate expression of taking the road less travelled within your tribe is to orientate yourself in exactly the opposite direction. It means, speaking up when you sense there is an unacceptable risk; it means, calling out human errors – most egregious amongst them being violations; it means, leading by example – whether you are the leader or not. It means accepting the temporary discomfort of taking the road less travelled and benefitting us all in the process.