You Can’t Back Up (and You Can’t Stay Here)

A choice can be offset, but not undone.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

We have a bias for the negative. We’re drawn to it. Just look at Jon Acuff’s Critic’s Math—one negative thing will offset a thousand positive things.

So we tend to focus on our problems. We look back at the choices we made to get us where we are and we think to ourselves, “You know, if only I wouldn’t have gone out to lunch today, I wouldn’t have gotten food poisoning at that sketchy restaurant.”

Fair enough. Nobody wants food poisoning. It’s completely natural to want to go back and make a different choice.

But this isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You can’t flip back to page 26 and turn to page 34 instead. You already chose page 57. You’re committed.

So what should you do (and what shouldn’t you do) when you realize you’ve made the wrong choice?

  • DON’T assume the other choice would fix everything. We only know the problems that happened in this timeline. Even if we could go back and make another choice, it wouldn’t solve all our problems. Our problems would be different, that’s all. Because you called in sick the next day, you weren’t in that terrible collision on your way to work. The timeline with the food poisoning might not be so bad after all.

  • DON’T assign all your problems to bad choices in the past. You now know that salmon mousse isn’t supposed to be that color and you can make a better decision next time. Blaming someone else for all your problems—even your past self—positions you as a powerless victim, helpless to do anything about it.

  • DON’T throw in the towel over an imperfect record. Yeah, we’d all like to be the smooth operator who always says the right thing, knows all the right moves, and never mixes up affect and effect. We make mistakes. We get things wrong. Don’t give up just because you messed up. Learn from the failure and keep moving forward.

  • DO regroup and reassess your situation. All is not lost. But you are in a new position. The path from where you are to where you want to be has changed. You can probably still get there with a little replanning.

  • DO make another choice that takes you forward. The best thing you can do is make another choice that takes you closer to that other branch of the timeline. You won’t get exactly the same outcome, but for a lot of things, you can get pretty close. Sometimes that isn’t even possible and we just have to live with the consequences of our actions. Even when we’re dealing with the consequences of someone else’s actions, we can still choose our response.

The worst thing you can do is surrender your right to choose. As long as you can choose, you can determine your path. You can make progress, even if it’s not as direct as you’d like.

You cannot change the past. You have broad discretion in how you shape the future.

Question: What’s the first thing you do when you need to change course? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.