Years ago, I was at my business school reunion. While talking with old friends about what we had been up to over the years -- new jobs, promotions, entrepreneurial ventures -- I was excited to talk about my recent accomplishment. I had just gotten a 4-way stop sign installed at a busy intersection near the high school in my town. While at first this might not have seemed like a big deal, it was a huge deal to me. Change in a residential town is never easy; it’s an enormous undertaking that requires a lot of patience and stamina. This project was particularly complex, as it required multiple meetings with various stakeholders, several analyses on traffic flow and consideration of many different points-of-view before getting it approved. Once I brought everyone to the table, we were able to make some real progress. And unlike many projects I had worked on as a consultant in my former career, these stop signs have had lasting impact. They promote driver and pedestrian safety around the school. Hundreds of people use them everyday, all day long, without even thinking about it. This endeavor was just as important to me as any of my professional career accomplishments and certainly one of my proudest moments.
I think about that reunion often. I had recently taken a break from my fast-paced career to spend more time raising my daughters. My interest in local government had led me to volunteer for causes that were meaningful to me. Some of my classmates understood my choice and I’m sure others did not, but getting that 4-way stop sign installed was a major win and impacted my road ahead. It showed me that perseverance always pays off and that even though I had taken a different path than the one I had initially envisioned, it was the right choice.
The 4-way stop sign has become a metaphor for the twists and turns my career has taken and the many challenges women face on a daily basis. We all stop at intersections like these often and must decide which direction to go. Should we go straight ahead, down the path that is familiar and comfortable, well-planned and expected, with a clear destination in sight? Should we go left, down a road that might not be clearly visible or paved, that is unpredictable and sure to challenge? Do we go right, on uneven, bumpy terrain hoping the rewards are greater than the consequences? Or do we stay frozen in place unsure of which way to turn, fearful of going the wrong way? Is it possible to take multiple paths at once? Can we go one way and then turn back and start again? The answer to all of these questions is yes! That is the beauty of the 4-way stop sign. It forces us to slow down, consider the route, weigh the possibilities and make an informed decision, despite the fear we may have of going in an uncertain direction. It gives us the flexibility to take risks and change our minds as often as we would like, perhaps trying out routes that are different from the ones we had once expected to take. Stop signs don’t simply control traffic and make the roads safer. They offer us a chance to pause and reflect. And they give us permission to start again.
Whichever direction we choose, we should slow down and stop before we go; think before we act. Many of us were brought up to believe we could only do or be one thing, but now we know we can have a first, second, third or even fourth act. So if you see me around town or at my next business school reunion, please ask me about that 4-way stop sign and then tell me about yours. Until then, pay attention to the signs and make sure to come to a complete stop before deciding which way to go.