Life Lessons in the Real World

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Reading Road Signs on the Highway of Life

roadsign.jpgA good friend of mine once gave me a bit of advice I’d like to pass along to you.

We were sitting in his kitchen at two in the morning, knocking back beers and talking about women. I’d spent the previous half-hour telling him terrible secrets about my love life: I couldn’t trust the woman I loved, and my relationship was a disaster.

I still remember the soft ticking sound of the pendulum clock mounted on the wall in the corner of the kitchen. A ribbon of smoke rose from a Marlboro perched on the edge of a glass ashtray on the table before us, and my friend lifted his cigarette now, taking a drag. He leaned in close and said, “John, when you have a problem, you have to make a choice.”

“What choice?” I asked.

He smiled. “If I told you that, it wouldn’t be your choice, now would it?”

It was drunken philosophy, but it made sense.

Every fork on the highway of life is preceded by a road sign, and the difference between success and failure, sadness and happiness, or fulfilment and meaninglessness often boils down to our ability to read signs and change direction.

In other words, when we have a problem, we have to make a choice.

That night in the kitchen, I’d been complaining to my friend about my fiance, but my real problem had been indecision. For several months, I’d been wasting time looking at bridal magazines instead of reacting to my relationship’s obvious warning signs:

  • The fighting
  • The lying
  • The pushing and shoving
  • The constant, nagging unhappiness

My fiance and I had several options: move forward, turn back, press pause. But by ignoring the signs and refusing to make a concious decision, we were allowing a very important decision to make itself. And that’s almost always a mistake.

We eventually broke up (never married) due to the destructive inertia of our relationship, but staying together longer than necessary prolonged our suffering; it would have been so much better if we’d heeded the signs. 

If you hear a rumble on the tracks, there’s probably a train coming.

Many years later, I fell in love with someone new. My previous relationship weighed heavily on my mind, but this new relationship was different: kind, courteous, loving, nurturing. The old signs had screamed, “Turn back!” while the new signs screamed, “Go forward!”

As I contemplated marriage for the second time in my life, I remembered my friend’s advice, the intense look on his face when he’d leaned forward in that smoky kitchen and said, “John, when you have a problem, you have to make a choice.”

But the signs aren’t always clear, are they? Sometimes one sign points forward while another points back. One points left while another points right. I guess I’ve been lucky because the biggest problems in my own life have tended to point all signs in the same direction. Or maybe it wasn’t luck.

Maybe big problems create their own gravity. 

I married Leslie in Fall of 2003 and never looked back. We’ve been together 10 years, married over 3. The best years of my life. The best decision I ever made.

The point I’m making is quite simple, and it has nothing to do with relationships or marriage except in the most indirect way.

My point is that most of the time, life warns us to change course before the hammer falls, provides time to make things better before they become worse, offers a chance to seize opportunity before it’s lost.

Our feelings and observations are both ushers of happiness and harbingers of doom. And the difference between a pleasant destination and one not so pleasant involves awareness, free will, determination, and a willingness to move in a direction that makes sense, both logically and emotionally.

In other words, if you pay attention to the signs of the road and keep both hands on the wheel, you might yet end up someplace you’d like to be.


22 Responses to “Reading Road Signs on the Highway of Life”

  • Jenny says:

    Very wise friend and very good advice.

  • Scott Young says:

    Great piece John. You have a great storytelling ability which isn’t easy in this niche or in blogging. I might have to attack you with a Friday Link!

    One small suggestion. You might want to make the RSS feeds full instead of snippets. I used to have shortened feeds, but I found I was losing readers that way by forcing them to make an extra click. Just a thought.

    Have a great day,

  • JohnPlace says:




    Thanks for your kind words. Have you had any trouble with people stealing content from your full feeds and republishing it without permission?

  • Lyndee says:

    How timely (for me). “If you hear a rumble on the tracks there is probably a train coming.” I love that analogy! I will remember that. I loved this story. Wonderfully written with the best ending of all – happily ever after.

    Thank you John!

  • The King says:

    John, I hear ya there buddy. I might not have reached the stage of marrying someone, but I’ve been there and done that. You have to read the signs. But whats painful is that you read them yet you’re in some kind of denial. You just don’t follow the signs leading to a huge crash.

  • Sifiso says:

    “life warns us to change course before the hammer falls, provides time to make things better before they become worse, offers a chance to seize opportunity before it’s lost.”By these one an a new day without scars of yesterday.Thanks for Advise.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Lyndee: My pleasure. I’m glad you liked it.

    The King: The denial of which you speak is very familiar to me. I suppose the key is learning to wake ourselves up, learning to watch the road, so to speak.

    Sifiso: Glad I could help.

  • Scott Young says:


    I occasionally get content theft, but I don’t worry over it. It is a relatively minor problem compared to the other issues of blogging.

  • JohnPlace says:

    I went ahead and switched from partial to full feeds. Thanks for the tip, Scott.

  • Jason says:

    You’ve written a great article. I enjoyed reading it, and it flowed quite well. On the part where you said that sometimes the signs aren’t quite clear, though, I have to say: Usually the signs are quite clear, it’s your vision that is blurry. In other words, the signs are there, not hard to read, but you obfuscate them (often subconsciously) for one reason or another… it could be due to not wanting them to point the direction they are, sheer inertia, or something else entirely. Whatever the reason, though, the lack of clarity is rarely attributable to the signs… it’s far more likely our own.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks Jason!

    As I mentioned in the article, I’ve been fortunate in that most of the big problems I’ve faced in my own life have created a gravity of their own that shifted all signs in the same direction.

    But when I speak of signs, I’m really speaking of the match between internal motivations and life circumstances. Put more simply, the “blurry vision” of which you speak, the “denial” of which The King speaks, and the “signs pointing in different directions” of which I speak are all manifestations of the same thing — lack of internal clarity.

  • Jason says:

    That internal clarity can be vastly improved with the application of some internal silence. Let it go, let everything on your mind wash over you, and then let the clarity come in the silence that follows.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for the tip, Jason.

  • Jason says:

    By the way… this probably doesn’t actually belong on this thread, but is there some way you can make it more obvious that someone’s name links to a site? I didn’t even realize that I could see the sites of a few of the others leaving comments until I accidentally left my cursor hovering over their name.

  • The King says:

    @Jason’s Latest Post:

    If the names are in bold (like most of us) they have a link, and if they are not (like JohnPlace and Lyndee) then they do not have a website. Most of the themes have a distinction in the color between people who have links, and those who don’t.

    @ Jason’s second last post:
    You are right to say that we need internal silence, but with todays world it’s so hard. I have tried to clear my head but there’s just so much going around you. I think in today’s world with so much materialism, it’s just hard to zone everything out. And one who can, has truly reached something remarkable.

  • John,

    I just stumbled over here on a tip from Scott Young, and this was the first post that I read. Awesome stuff!

    Looking forward to reading more. Also, you might get hit twice, because after Scott nails you with a Friday link, I’m going to get you with one on Saturday.

    Because, you know, that’s my CHOICE! :)

    – Aaron

  • JohnPlace says:


    I could change the stylesheet so hyperlinked names show up in a different color (instead of just bold). I made that change for many of the other links on this site because they were just too hard to spot.


    Thanks man!

  • Jason says:

    For the internal silence thing, it’s hard because you have to let everything that has built up since the last time you did it pass over you and through you first. If you don’t do it on a regular basis, which few people in the modern world do, then that means you may have quite some bit of stuff to let go before you achieve silence. On the other hand, if you do it two or three times a day (you may or may not need that much), then it may only take seconds.

  • Liara Covert says:

    Thanks for sharing the story. Its useful to recognize that when we perceive a problem in a particular situation, its often a symptom of an issue that requires attention within ourselves. The only way to truly move on from a past relationship is to grasp what you learned about yourself and the basis of your fears.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Perhaps that’s true, Liara. But sometimes the most important lesson is the knowledge that one never belonged in the relationship in the first place; perhaps an understanding of why one lingered so long.

    At the end of the day, I suppose everyone’s lessons are their own.

  • Jason says:

    At the end of the day, I suppose everyone’s lessons are their own.

    A point especially driven home by the fact that people learn very different lessons from almost exactly the same (I say almost, because nothing is ever EXACTLY the same) events and circumstances.

  • Lahar Halder says:

    You have a good deal of beneficial material within this blog post. I am subscribing to your rss feed.

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