Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We had that poem at rewards evening this year, and I mused on the two roads that were available to you this summer – the easy path of letting time slip through your fingers, of thinking that the summer is your time to squander – and the harder one of realising that it is your time, but your time to use. It is that second path that I recommended – not using summer as though it were school time, studying endlessly, but deciding every morning to do something interesting, something constructive. Read a book. Work on the essay competition I’ve set you. Get creative, artistically, musically, wherever your skills lie. Do useful work. Sort out what you learned this year so you’re ready for next year. Get organised. Each step on that road is a day, and whilst a single step doesn’t take you far from the fork, they add up, way leads onto way, and soon the two versions of you are in completely different places.
I guess, though, that some of you are wondering whether one of those places is better than the other – that I’m going to say that it’s a long and winding road and that some of the places it goes through are wild and windy, that you have to keep going to get to where you want to be – but what if by taking the easy road you could get somewhere just as good without getting blown about and rained on.
It’s a good question, and to get there I want to think about the road you’ve been on over the last year at Harris Clapham Sixth Form. What have been your highlights? I think Rewards evening was one of mine – seeing students who had worked hard, learned lots enjoying their celebration. It’s not the prizewinners, though, who are my favourite students – although they are great and I’m definitely proud to see your achievement – my favourite students are those who came to cheer for their friends, who came to celebrate somebody else’s success, because it is when we do this, when we rejoice together that we build strength for when we need to come together in difficult times, for when we might need to carry each other along that road.
I’ve also really enjoyed a meeting Ms Heuston, Ms Adams and I had with the new student president and vice presidents – your year group has produced some amazing leaders and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you can all do together as Year 13s to shape our school into something even better.
My favourite memory, though, predictably enough for a teacher, was a lesson – I’ve massively enjoyed my Cultural Perspectives groups this year, and my favourite class was one where we discussed the idea that maybe working hard, learning things, helping people is for schmucks – that the really clever people step outside this and have all the cheese they can eat delivered in hand-crafted Lamborghinis to their mountain hideout. I’ve thought about this conversation a lot, sometimes because I’d like a mountain hideout fully stocked with cheese, but mostly because of a kind of post that appears on an internet forum I frequent. You see, I’m a bit of a Lord of the Rings geek, and so I get emails from a community where people ask and answer such questions as “Which would win in a fight, Smaug or a Balrog” or “Why didn’t they just give the ring to an Eagle” or “Why is Elrond…” Sometimes these are interspersed with questions about Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, which I skip happily past, and often there’s something like “What side-hustle can I do in eight hours a week that will earn at least £50,000?” The best answer to one of these questions that I’ve seen was “Lol, Babe, don’t you think that if such a hustle existed that everyone would be doing it?”
The bottom line of personal economics is that if some activity earns you money then somebody is giving you that money – and either they’re doing that involuntarily, because you’re stealing it from them, which is illegal and immoral, or they’re choosing to give you that – presumably because of some service you provide. This means that the really clever trick is not trying to step outside the system and develop some hustle, it’s thinking about what services you can provide – what can you do that is worth someone else’s money. There are broadly two ways this can work – you can do something they could do but don’t want to, in which case you will get paid less than whatever value they put on their own time; or you can do something they can’t do and need, in which case your value depends on how much they want your service and how many other people there are out there who could do it instead. The most valuable services are the ones that are difficult to do and that require an unusual combination of skills – and so your challenge, and the reason that I think that standing here, at the fork in that road through the woods, you should choose the harder, more constructive path, is that you need to get good at something, and need to develop your experiences beyond what’s normal and common.
It’s also worth pausing for a moment to think about who you take advice from – what their interest is. I love the line from Harry Potter where Arthur Weasley says “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain” – and there’s a similar quote attributed to Steve Jobs “If you’re not paying for the product then you are the product.” If you’re taking advice from some evil genius surrounded by cheese and fast cars and you’re not paying for it then you’re being sold and that advice is given to be in the interests of the evil genius and those that are paying – it’s not for your benefit, not designed to make you rich.
But I don’t really think that your goal should be to get as rich as you can, to hoard it up until you can afford a mountain hideout and a Lamborghini delivery service– I have much greater hopes for you than that. The road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where. And I hope that on this road you will be concerned about the welfare of others, that you won’t be journeying alone heading for your mountain lair, but in community, bearing each other’s burdens, that you’ll be strong enough to carry each other when it’s needed – and those of you who are fans of late 1960s ballads will recognise that I’ve slipped from The Beatles to The Hollies and their track “He Ain’t Heavy” – this is the end of Confidence term and the confidence we hope you’ll develop, the confidence we hope you’ll have is the confidence to sing boldly “But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”.
And you’ll be telling this story with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence – two roads diverged that summer and I …
And which road will you say that you took? Are you going to take my advice and, particularly, read? Get some books, make an effort, make yourself different? Or are you going to slide into the quick and easy route of internet videos like thousands of others? I won’t be there to help you decide, but to leave you with the words of Robert Frost – that’s the decision that will make all the difference.