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For men are prone to go it blind

Along the calf paths of the mind.

– “The Calf Path”, Sam Walter Foss

Sam Walter Foss is sometimes referred to as a “minor poet with a major message.” His poems evoke a sense of pastoral peace and idyllic charm – but within them waits a larger lesson. In “The Calf Path,” Foss deftly paints a picture of mindless adherence to an established track. Its strong words and imagery become a series of questions for the reader, chiefly: are you on your own version of a calf path?

Calf Paths of the Mind

Are you putting one foot in front of the other without thinking what you’re doing? Or, as author and editor Ellen Welty puts it: [D]o you sometimes suspect that your life is leading you instead of you leading it?” (1)

From the moment we wake up, most of us fall into a routine or habit. We get up, brush our teeth, shower… That’s a path that makes sense – and your coworkers appreciate it! But do you take the same route to work each day? Do you always park in the same spot, or go to lunch at the same time and place? Do you do your work in the same way? Do you associate with the same people? Do you do the same old activities on the weekends?

Those aren’t necessarily the telling questions. This is: Do you do these things because you want to – or because you always have?

“That’s Just the Way It’s Done…”

We often walk the calf paths of the mind we’ve created through repetition and habit, but there are other paths that were laid down generations before by our families or communities. For instance, “This is how I mow the lawn because that’s how my grandfather did it,” or, “I pursued this career because it’s what is expected of me.”

Here’s a well-known example: a young woman was preparing a roast and carefully cut off the ends. While delicious, her dinner guests wondered why she cut off the “best part.” She said she did it that way because her mother always had, and her mother had taught her to prepare a roast. When she asked her mother why, the reply was that her mother, Grandma always had as well. So they went together and asked Granny, who said, “I cut off the ends because I had a small roasting pan.”

That’s a calf path, admittedly an innocuous one – unless you happen to love roast ends. The point is people follow these paths – whether they created them themselves through habit or simply fall into line with family expectations or “traditions” – without realizing it and without thinking about it.

Veering Off the Calf Path

We once had a Vistage speaker who challenged our group to look at our lives and think about what risks we wanted to take. One woman said she always wanted to live in Europe while her children were young. He asked, “Why don’t you?”

“I have my career,” she replied. She had her calf path. But she realized it was preventing her from fulfilling her dream. Two months later, she quit her job and moved to Europe. The risk presented by leaving her job, she decided, was not as great as the risk of missing out on this dream.

It takes courage to get off the calf path. It needn’t always be as drastic as pulling up roots and moving to a new continent; but it does require us to think about why we do what we do – and if it’s helping us live the kind of life we want. And if not, it’s time to forge a new path.

What are your calf paths?