Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Don't Stand on the Tracks When the Train's Coming Through

With those immortal words, Jack Parkman plowed into Rube Baker in Major League II, dislodging the ball from his glove, and giving the White Sox a one-run lead.  Though the line was funny and made Parkman even more of a shitheel (if that's even possible), as I was rewatching the movie for the 1,526th time thinking of topics for posts, it jumped out at me as having a much broader significance.

Whether we know it or not, a lot of our lives are dictated by whatever “tracks” we’re on.  You know what I mean.  It can be anything ranging from the route you normally take home from work to the career path you’re supposed to take with a given degree.  Tracks set you on a given route with little flexibility or margin for error. 

As humans, we are creatures of habit.  For whatever reason, many of us are hard-wired to avoid excitement and stick to whatever routines we develop.  Maybe it’s some sort of deep-seeded evolutionary mechanism for helping us to avoid being eaten by lions.  Or, maybe it’s just that we prefer certainty and the reassuring influence that repetition brings to our lives.

Regardless of why we embrace these “tracks,” you have to be careful not to let tracks run your life.  Sure, tracks are good for a lot of things, not the least of which are tenure, partnership, and railroads.  Tracks put you squarely on the road to a destination, without much (if any) room for deviations.  Tracks are good for focusing you on a goal or set of goals that require a long amount of time to come to fruition.  They allow for planning for the future, as well as providing milestones to guide your progress.

But where tracks become somewhat more sinister is when you blindly follow them to the detriment of exploring other interests.  When you’re on a track, it’s easy to focus on that carrot out in front of you.  As you get closer to realizing your goal(s), you might start to neglect other aspects of your life (friends, family, hobbies, sleep, sanity) for that “final push” toward whatever you’ve been working toward.  Thanksgiving?  Who needs Thanksgiving when you need those ten billable hours to show people that you’re partner material?  Obviously, such thinking is incredibly dangerous.

If nothing else, you have to recognize that most “tracks” are illusory.  There’s no reason why you “have” to follow a given route just because you got a certain degree, or have put in X number of years in a given industry.  It may be easier to do so than not, but the sooner you realize that you’re in the driver’s seat of your own life, and not obligated to follow the track like a train engineer, the better off you’ll be.

Like I said earlier, tracks aren’t inherently evil, since they provide a level of focus that is shirked far too often in today’s world.  Just make sure that when you find yourself on a track, you are there for the right reasons.  Don’t stay on a track just because it’s there; make sure the goal at the end of the line is worth your time, effort, and sacrifice.  Otherwise, you’ll end up somewhere far down the line that you don’t want to be, and farther from your true destination than ever.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and former attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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