“Emerson says that he found roads out West that began broad, then narrowed to a squirrel path, and finally took refuge up a tree. But he must have been journeying backwards. These roads probably began in a tree, passed into a squirrel path, widened into a hog path, swelled into a cow path and graduated into a man path. Road-building does not go backward.”

I found this in the 1912 University of Virginia Alumni Bulletin. I wasn’t around in 1912 and I didn’t go to the University of Virginia.

So why was I reading this at all?

That’s a good question, with an unimportant answer.

Here’s what’s important.

Most of the roads we’re on in life were started by someone else in the past, begun with a single small step after coming out of “a tree” with an idea. These “squirrel” paths evolve into bigger and bigger paths, until by the time we discover them, they’re already interstates.

You can use that metaphor for almost anything. Social media? That started in a tree, with one idea, which evolved into bigger and bigger executions of that idea, and now you’re checking your phone every fifteen minutes for proof you exist.

Time in the tree was the birth of inspiration. That massive network of apps and profiles and likes and comments and whatever else the idea became is the interstate.

One lesson is clear: if you want to build a road, come down from the tree with your idea and start walking the smallest of paths, cutting your own path through the underbrush. As more people follow you, the path will get bigger and bigger until you’re Forrest Gump running on the interstate with a legion of believers beside you.

But what if people don’t follow you? What if the squirrel path stays a squirrel path?

That’s the other lesson, which isn’t quite as obvious. And this is where whoever wrote that Alumni Bulletin from 1912 was wrong.

Because road-building can go backwards. Sometimes it must.

Maybe it’s time for you to head the other direction. Maybe you need to simplify, simplify, simplify, as Emerson himself put it, and journey backwards. Turn around and travel the interstate, as it becomes a two-lane road and then a single dirt road and then a cow path and then a hog path and then a squirrel path, until you’re up in the tree where the squirrel started.

And when it’s time, come back down and start again.