I recently had the opportunity to assist a recent college graduate with her career planning. Let’s call her Mac. This outstanding young woman is deciding between two career paths: law or counseling. Both professions will require graduate school study and preparation. In order to assist her, she was a guest in my class in CMU’s master’s level counseling program.
Given her stellar academic record, outgoing personality, and apparent strong work ethic, Mac will almost certainly be successful. Whether she chooses to be a counselor, an attorney, or pursues some other career direction is just a matter of her personal preference.
But today’s newsletter isn’t about an individual’s future occupational direction per se, but it is about choice. Over the course of our lives, we all have had to make multiple decisions and exercised various options. Looking back, we probably have no trouble in deciding which choices worked out well. They were sound decisions that rewarded us with satisfying results.
But there were other choices that didn’t go so well. Suppose that we chose one job over another, but imagine that we struggled to get along with our new boss, or the apparent career advancement we expected never materialized. We tell ourselves, “I should have taken the other job.”
We could substitute “job” as the topic with “car” or even “romantic partner.” We picked one vehicle over another, but our choice turned out to be a lemon. Maybe we struggle to get along with our partner and wish that we had stayed with our former girlfriend or even spouse. Regret becomes our dominant emotion as we lament our past decisions.
The psychologist, Albert Ellis, advises us that our unhappiness typically flows from irrational or distorted thinking. I believe that, in the examples I cited earlier, there is hidden within those choices and decisions a subtly irrational belief. For example, the person who unhappily chose job #1 over job #2, implicitly assumes that job #2 would have led to a better, happier outcome. Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The other job, or the other vehicle, or other partner, might have been worse.
Rule: We only know the results of the choices we made. The results of the choices we didn’t make are unknown and invisible to us.
So how do we deal with unsatisfactory outcomes and apparently poor choices? Simply ask yourself, “Did I make that decision as rationally and deliberatively as possible?” If so, we must derive some satisfaction from that coupled with the recognition that there is no way to peer into the future.
On the other hand, looking back, we may admit to ourselves that a decision was made hastily, or based upon emotion or whim. If that is the case, the solution is simple: Don’t do that!
Stop torturing yourself by playing the “what if” game. Dreamers look backward with fanciful imaginings or forward for unknowable positive outcomes. Doing so robs us of the beauty and value of our present
My young visitor, Mac, would likely make more money as an attorney. She may experience more emotional gratification as a counselor. Or perhaps she will find a balance of both via a third occupation. But her future success will not be based upon her career decision. Success will be based upon the wealth of her personal qualities. Like all of us, she will never know the result of the direction she didn’t follow. And that’s OK, as long as she does not succumb to the folly of regret.
Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.