MIKE MASTERSON: The roads we travel

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Editor’s Note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published on October 9, 2007.

The literature is replete with references to the roads we choose to follow in life and how these choices inevitably intersect in all directions, making all the difference in how our realities unfold.

Each change of direction will lead us to new horizons or different perspectives, and sometimes dead ends. It sometimes takes years to realize where the winding roads we’ve chosen along the way have left us.

I dropped into a rocking chair on the deck last week and took a few minutes to relive a few of mine. You might want to do it one day just for perspective.

In my early twenties, I was adrift and looking for the right passage that would lead to a career. I had failed as a management trainee at Osco Drug in downtown Little Rock, after being summarily fired for handing out Brach’s candy to weary customers waiting in long lines.

I had briefly considered the road to law school, and another that would have taken me to the gates of the US Coast Guard Academy. Other paths that caught my fantasy meandered to retail and even seminary.

I finally decided to follow Interstate 40 to complete my undergraduate degree in Conway at the State College of Arkansas (now the University of Central Arkansas). On the day of registration, I came across an instructor by the name of Dean Duncan sitting behind a folding table under a banner proclaiming “Journalism”. Over the next two years, this man would guide me on the road to my career.

The path I had chosen would also lead me to the young woman who was to become my wife and the mother of my two children.

One by one, the roads I chose to follow led to others. Over the years, many professional and personal journeys have presented themselves at unexpected times, each forcing me to confront myself at the deepest levels. Would we move to Dallas? Kansas City? Seattle? Chicago? Phoenix?

In retrospect, I can see that the trick to making the wisest choices at the intersections of these endless arteries was more complex with variables than I could have imagined, especially once the decision involved more lives than mine.

My advice to someone who is now deciding which forks to follow would be to ask questions only they can answer. Could the detours ahead leave you and those you love more fulfilled and happier than you are now? Is the extra money you’re being offered really worth sacrificing where you are on your road today, especially when it’s going to be eaten up in a big city by unforeseen extra taxes and expenses?

There is more. Is this road likely to lead to an enriched life for you and, if so, for those who now rely on you? Is this choice more about saving your ego and/or natural insecurities than living with reality? Is there any chance that by choosing an obviously dangerous and overgrown road, filled with sharp rocks, risks and dangers, you will fall into a deep ravine from which there is no escape? Is this the best path for your career but perhaps the wrong path for the well-being of your relationship with your loved ones?

Too many of us choose dangerous paths, even when it is obvious, watching others fall away, that they lead to disaster. Later, we are inclined to wonder what made us take the first step in this direction.

Luckily, I seem to have been blessed with an internal counter that always let me know when a road looked good or bad right now. Even when the money was better and the thrill of “bigger” was in sight in another direction, I found myself politely declining and staying the course. I believe most of us have that same personal GPS, if we clear its purpose clear enough to follow.

Each time I headed down a new road, it always led to others that always branched further and outward. For example, my decision to leave Hot Springs for Los Angeles led me to Chicago, then back to Arkansas, then Phoenix. And it all opened up a new path that led me to five rewarding years at The Ohio State University.

Those of us who have lived more than a few decades can’t help but wonder where we would be today if we had only made one different choice in the roads of our past. What experiences would have been entirely different and what other people might we have known?

There comes a time when the choice of routes is more restricted and one is content to make differences where his previous paths have taken him. As varied in altitude and extent as mine, every road I chose at all those intersections finally merged here on a wooden deck in this rocking chair, where I pondered the importance or futility of every kilometer.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, has served as editor of three Arkansas daily newspapers, and led the Ohio State University’s Masters in Journalism program. Email him at [email protected]

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