We’re encouraged to follow our dreams, but not all dreams are created equal. Sometimes living the life we want to live means making choices that go against the expectations of our families, communities, or cultures—and facing stigma, isolation, and uncertainty as a result. But taking the road less traveled still has many advantages. Here are seven:
1. Less fear of failure.
While nothing in life is risk-free, some paths have clearer roadmaps than others. Carving a new path tends to involve a lot of trial and error, which can also mean greater potential for failure. But experiencing failure more often can help us change our relationship to it, and come to view it as a learning opportunity rather than a verdict on our ability. This growth mindset can, in turn, make success more likely.
2. Thicker skin.
Facing judgment and disapproval for our choices can be painful. But over time it becomes clear that others’ judgment often has more to do with their own fears and insecurities than with our shortcomings. They might feel betrayed, confused, or even envious. Seeing things from this angle can help us take hurtful comments less personally and increase our empathy.
3. More tolerance of differences.
There are certainly times when the road less traveled is an insular one that promotes a sense of superiority and intolerance. But more often than not, those who have gone against the grain recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to happiness and there are many different ways to lead a fulfilling and moral life.
4. Unexpected community.
Taking a different path than the majority of one’s peers can be lonely at times, but it can also open up new possibilities for connection. For example, even though writer Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail on her own, as documented in her memoir, Wild, she found community with other hikers—and with the landscape itself. As she wrote, "The wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
5. Freedom to be who you are.
There’s nothing inherently inauthentic about a conventional lifestyle, but it’s not for everyone. When we find ourselves living lives that don’t align with who we are, we suffer psychologically—research suggests that authentic self-expression is a vital component of well-being, even when it sets us apart from others. We’re even better off losing some friends if it means we can be truer to ourselves.
6. The opportunity to create your own meaning.
There's no shortage of opinions about what it takes to make life meaningful. Some argue that life doesn’t have meaning until one gets married or has kids, while others place a higher value on professional success. But meaning is a deeply personal, subjective experience. Research suggests that the types of experiences that give us a sense of meaning—like kindness or overcoming adversity—are not constrained by culturally defined milestones.
7. Inspiration for others.
When we embrace alternative life paths, we help make those paths more acceptable—and accessible—for others. For example, one study found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals reported being more comfortable coming out and taking pride in their identity, in part as a result of exposure to positive role models in the media like Ellen DeGeneres. Even if we’re not on TV, we can positively influence those around us just by embracing who we are.
There’s no shame in following a well-traveled path, but if you’re looking for something more, there are plenty of other roads to explore, and plenty of good reasons to embark on them.
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