in defense of detours



~4 min read


625 words

Detours are slow. They add time and distance to our route. Particularly when we have a plan and know where we’re going, this delay can be frustrating. If we shift our perspective, however, we may view the delay as a gift not an intrusion, and an asset rather than a nuisance.

Detours, whether they are on the road or in life, take us to unexpected places - some of which are great, while others are not. But regardless of where they take us, by putting us in unfamiliar places they demand our attention. In return they offer to change the trajectory of our lives.

For the sake of argument, I’m defining a detour as any path other than the most direct one. That means a detour can result from a block in your path, taking a left turn when you meant to go right, or any roundabout way to arrive at your destination.

Most of our daily life is routine. This routine engenders a sense of comfort and allows moments of reverie, such as during a commute or while washing dishes. When we’re thrust into an unfamiliar setting, however, our attention is drawn to the present moment. Forced to be present, we have the opportunity to evaluate the situation dispassionately, question the assumptions that allowed the shock, and consciously decide on our course of action.

A natural product of detours, this presence is akin to aspirational component of Zen Buddhism. Referred to as Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind”, it is an attitude of “openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions” - in other words, behaving like a beginner. The beauty of this is that as beginner’s our ability to absorb new information is at its greatest. We’re sponges and can grow quickly.

When you’re driving down an unfamiliar road, you process information your mind typically filters out. Suddenly you see road signs, store fronts, and people. The world is a richer place. Detours provide that gift.

Being in an unfamiliar place, we’re also less likely to feel confident. This can be scary, but it can also encourage us to ask more questions. When we’re confident, we don’t need new information to arrive at an answer. (There may be something to add here about the general perception that men need to display confidence and a reluctance to ask for directions, however, I’ll leave that for another time.) If, instead of resisting the discomfort, we lean into it, we can learn new things.

While the rule of detours is that they add time and distance, there is a huge range. Some detours are minor. Others take years to fully resolve.

To put this in personal terms, I could argue that I’ve been on a nearly decade long detour. Before my 30th birthday, I’ve had 5 jobs in 4 industries. I have made many stops along the way, very few of which were expected or planned. In the beginning, I actively resisted the turns and suffered from anxiety as I resisted the diversion from my desired path - which I believed was the “right path.”

I’m sensitive to using my experience to prove a point as it may suggest a) that I’ve arrived and b) that I’ve somehow found the answer. I don’t believe either to be the case. What I do believe, however, is that welcoming, not resisting, the detours of life has made me a happier person.

So, next time something unexpected happens, try to see it as an opportunity - to ask questions, learn about something new, discover a new fact about yourself or others.

To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!