By Michael Bennett. Ed.D.
IT'S AUGUST 2013. I AM in Switzerland. In the Jungfrau Region and the Lauterbrunnen Valley, to be specific.
And it is here that I find myself quite literally and figuratively at a crossroads.
I have been hiking for about 3 hours by now, up a steep switchback trail from the town of Lauterbrunnen, where my hotel is located, to the town of Wengen, on the east side of the Valley. I stroll through its cobblestone streets lined with flower baskets, bakers selling fresh breads and cheeses, and coffee shops serving warm beverages (including hot chocolate) to tourists gawking at the otherworldly scenery.
I cruise through town, heading deep into a wooded forest. I see no one for over an hour, and while part of me enjoys the solitude, another part of me is starting to get a little concerned.
Where am I? Did I take a wrong turn? Am I lost? And where are my pants? (Kidding.)
About a minute before I launch into full-on, no holds barred panic mode and begin screaming for help (or at least some cheese), I see a sign teasing me in the distance. I am elated ... Until I get there.
The sign in front of me mocks me: On top, it reads ‘Lauterbrunnen: 2 hours’ with an hour pointing to the right. Below that: ‘Lauterbrunnen: 3.5 hours with an arrow pointing to the left.’
Fascinating. And slightly confusing.
It strikes me that, interestingly enough, this sign – this crossroads – is a perfect metaphor (or is it an analogy?) for my life, and in particular the challenges I am experiencing in my work.
Some context is important here. In the summer of 2012, I decided to start my own adventure travel company, Muddy Shoe Adventures. After over a decade of working for others, first as an admissions officer at a small college in Philadelphia and then as an organizational development consultant and coach in Los Angeles, I decided that I was no longer going to ‘blindly acquiesce to corporate career safety’ (thanks for that gem, David Whyte). Instead, I was going to heed the words of Joseph Campbell and ‘follow my bliss.’
This was partially inspired by me being laid off (again) due to the recession in the summer of 2012. It was also partly inspired by the relatively sudden death of my father due to an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. And finally, I was inspired by the fact that I was a newly minted Doctor of Education; with a degree in hand and three fancy letters after my name, I was itching to do something different and meaningful with my life.
I had been traveling as frequently as my budget would allow for years, I knew enough about leadership and entrepreneurship to be dangerous, and I was passionate about helping others bring more passion and purpose and meaning into their lives. And so, that summer, full of motivation and inspiration, Muddy Shoe Adventures (MSA) was launched.
What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward to August of 2013. I am staring at a sign on a lonely forest trail high in the Swiss Alps, equally confused by the sign and by my life. As I stand there, I begin to think back to the past year: I have spent the past year birthing my baby, Muddy Shoe Adventures. On the one hand, things are going well with MSA: I have already run local programs, have a handful of client success stories to tell, and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback and interest from the adventure travel community. I am also beginning to set my long-term sights on bigger and loftier goals: Running programs in international destinations and developing critical strategic partnerships that will allow us to touch even more lives with our programs.
At the same time, I am a complete and utter mess. My finances are in shambles. My career as an organizational consultant is down the toilet. And I am clinging to this dream of traveling around the world with people, helping them figure out what they want to be when they grow up, all the while not really sure what it is that I want to be when I grow up. If I ever grow up. Fear grips me daily. Sleep is sporadic at best. More than once, I wonder aloud (to myself and to my cats): ‘WTF are you doing with your life?’
The cats do not answer. Purr.
Back to the sign. (I swear I hear it laugh at me.) It is suggesting that I can get to Lauterbrunnen by going either direction. Left to Lauterbrunnen ... or right to Lauterbrunnen. I begin to think existentially about this: Where do I want to go in my life? What is my destination?
And which path do I take to get there?
I know the path to the right – the shorter path, that is – will lead me down a winding switchback to the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor. I had seen it the previous day while strolling through the Valley, gazing up at the waterfalls and 4000-meter peaks. The trail is largely nestled along a hillside full of towering trees, meaning my views of the Alps would at least be obstructed, if not blocked altogether. But it was the quicker route down to the Valley, back to my hotel, back to the rösti (a delicious traditional Swiss dish of potatoes and cheese) and beer that are calling my name. Back to temporary happiness.
This path feels sort of like taking the easy road, the boring, been-there-and-done-that-before road. The ‘blind acquiescence to corporate career safety’ road. I know where I am going, I know how I am going to get there, and I know what awaits me at the end. Beer and rösti. Perceived happiness. Temporary fulfillment. And maybe a buzz.
To the left is the longer trail. I have absolutely no clue where this one will take me, but I am intrigued: The clanging bells of cows grazing, the faint sound of a rushing waterfall (or was it a raging river?), and the hint of snow-capped mountaintops sneaking through the clouds call to me. I feel as if the Universe is daring me – tempting me! – to go left. Sort of like how the Universe, with the whole me-getting-laid-off, my dad dying, and my dissertation being completed thing inspired me to take a leap of faith and start Muddy Shoe Adventures.
I think about my life and my work. The parallels are too obvious to ignore: To the right is safety, security, and stability. To the left? Adventure, uncertainty, and possibility.
After what feels like hours of intense deliberation – I can’t remember if I made a pros-and-cons list or not, but I wouldn’t doubt it – I finally decide to go left.
Within 10 minutes I am rewarded: I stumble out of the woods into an open, grassy Alpine meadow. There are over a dozen cows, bells clanging melodiously, to my left. To my right, a waterfall that must be 500 feet tall crashes down into a river forged by the glacial runoff. And in front of me are the three great peaks of the Jungfrau Region: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.
I sit down, stunned by the beauty. It is all I can think to do. I sit and stare at this:
According to my watch, I am there for close to three hours, simply being present in this incredible, breathtaking place that quite literally touches my soul. Three hours feels simultaneously like an eternity – I feel as if I become part of the landscape and the beauty – and at the same time, I feel like I am there for no more than 5 minutes. Any sense of time or space or place escapes me. I simply am.
I take out my journal and I write. And write. And write. About life. About love. About work. About fears and limiting beliefs. About who I am and what I want and what holds me back from having those things that I am so desperately chasing. I dump everything in my brain into that journal, or so it seems.
Doing so proves incredibly therapeutic and cathartic. I feel refreshed, inspired, energized, and enthusiastic. I feel content and satisfied. I know that things are going to be fine. That I am following my passions, following my bliss, going after my dreams. And despite the struggles of the past year, I realize that I am happier now than I have been in quite some time.
I smile. For a very, very long time, I smile.
Eventually, I stand up. I say goodbye to the cows, the rivers and waterfalls, the mountains. I thank them each by name. I leave my perch and continue to follow the winding path for another 3+ hours down to Lauterbrunnen. The views along the way are simply unreal.
I arrive famished. I quickly order my rösti and beer. I feel content, happy, and fulfilled. But it’s not the food that fills me. It is the journey that I have taken today, the journey into my heart and my soul, that nourishes me. That will continue to nourish me for the days, weeks, months, years, and decades ahead.