Jacob is a close friend. But he’s been struggling lately and he’s become distant, I suspect he’s depressed. When I ask him about his home life he brightens up and beams about his wife and kids. It’s when we talk about work that his mood sours.

He tells me he struggles to find the energy to go some days. He’s critical of his manager. He found himself snapping at a coworker and avoids hanging out with anyone else at work either virtually or for socially-distanced lunches. He’s sure his work has been suffering because he can’t seem to stay focused and he gets headaches all the time. He drags himself home, hasn’t been sleeping well and finds himself drinking more at night to help.

Jason, on the other hand, is also a close friend and he’s had a rough path to get where he is today. He used to hate his work but one day he’d had enough, he woke up and found a new job that he’s excited about. He exercises in the morning and eats well. He hangs out with his coworkers frequently and has made some incredible new friends there. He disagrees with his manager sometimes, but he’s learned to treat it as a challenge as opposed to an insurmountable obstacle. He’s focused and full of energy every day far beyond even when he gets home.

Robert Frost wrote a famous poem called “The Road Not Taken.” It is perhaps the most famous poem of the last century but what’s remarkable is that it’s famous for the wrong reason. Everyone gets it wrong. Everyone assumes it’s about living your best life by taking a road traveled by less people, by being a trailblazer, by thinking differently. But if you know Frost (his biographies are telling and I heard many stories of his acidity from when he had residency at my college) and you read the poem with a critical eye, the truth becomes clear. Multiple times Frost makes it clear that the two roads “equally lay” and were “worn just about the same.” “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia said, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Everyone thinks it’s about triumphant individualism but it’s really a commentary on self-deception.

Fun fact: Jason and Jacob are the same person (Jacob’s his middle name). He also has the same job. One day I was talking to him and he was Jason and the next he was becoming Jacob, so-to-speak. Since then I’ve been trying to understand what caused the change and how we might be able to learn from it.

He himself has had trouble understanding but he said it started when he realized every job he’d ever had ended the same way. He eventually got tired of management or coworkers or both and realized they were all against him, or that no one appreciated him, or that he wasn’t being challenged or any other excuse he could come up with.

After complaining about his boss at his fifth job in 5 years the HR manager pulled him aside and was dumbfounded. Everyone loved the manager there and everyone was getting far above industry-standard salary and benefits. He told Jason no one had ever quit that position (only promoted) and he was literally the only person in that department to complain in over 8 years. Jason was dying to quit but after that he opted to hang on and try harder for a change.

He said trying harder didn’t help and he felt himself sinking deeper into depression and burnout so he decided to get help.

In therapy, he started to connect the pattern to what he felt was a fear of abandonment and a fear of inadequacy. He always assumed he’d be fired and found himself reacting based on that assumption in every interaction at work. So, with practice, he started to change his assumptions and his attitude. As his behavior changed, so did the work, his manager and his team.

The realization that so much in our lives can completely change by simply having the awareness that much, if not all, of our happiness is intrinsically internal is a powerful thought. We are all Jasons and Jacobs fighting for control and it’s the awareness of that struggle that gives us power over the outcome. If all roads lead to the same place, let’s not let Frost depress us with his defeatist attitude, let’s instead embrace the path for what it is: a beautiful poem that we write every day as thanks for the work we do and the lives we lead.

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