Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Consequence Paradox - Don't Go There

Have you ever looked back on your life and regretted a bad decision? "If only I had ...." I know I have.

My first marriage ended in divorce after eight years. Looking back, I realize that I rushed into it too quickly. I married her only a week after graduation from West Point. I was only 22 years old, and I didn't know much about myself, relationships or women at that age. I probably should have spent more time getting to know her. If I had, I may have discovered the differences between us, which became all too obvious later. I had a lot to learn, but I was impatient to make my life happen.

Five years after the divorce, I made another decision that had momentous consequences. I was a finalist for a White House Fellowship. About a dozen candidates are chosen each year to be special assistants at the White House or to cabinet members - for a year. The selection is usually a stepping-stone for greater success. As a finalist, I thought my interviews were going well and I had an excellent chance of being selected. But my final interview held a surprise. The man was famous, an influential member of the selection committee. He asked me a direct question about an issue that mattered a lot to him. I had done my homework, and I knew where he stood. But I opposed his point of view. Should I tell him what he wanted to hear? If I did, I thought I had a great chance to be selected. Or should I be honest and express my disagreement. I decided to be honest; and sure enough, I was not selected.

It was a traumatic introduction to the world of politics.

In the past, I have sometimes revisited these decisions - and others - and thought, "What if...?"

I've since learned to appreciate how pointless and counterproductive it is to do this. One obvious reason, of course, is that you don't get a redo. It's impossible to go back and relive these situations.

But the more important reason has to do with what I call the "Consequence Paradox." It goes like this. You may have made a weighty decision, and later you may understand that it wasn't a good call. And unfortunate consequences may have happened as a result. Very likely your life would have been different, perhaps better in many ways, if you had done something else.

But what you fail to acknowledge is that some good things flowed from your "bad choice" as well.

For example, my first marriage didn't turn out well, but we had two sons. These two guys, now about 40 years old, are very important to me. I count them among my best friends. I can't bear the thought of losing them, or life without them. But that's the way things would be if I hadn't married their mother all those years ago, if I had chosen differently.

As for the White House Fellowship, yes, my life would have been quite a bit different. I can't even imagine all the good things that would have happened and what would have become of me if I had had that opportunity.

But surely some bad things would have happened, too. Also, the things that matter most to me now - my wife, my friends, my business, my partners, my work, my home - none of these things would have happened. I'd be a much different person doing much different things somewhere else. I never would have met my wife, the most important person in my life. Unthinkable.

That's the Consequence Paradox. No matter what you choose to do, there will be consequences, and these consequences will lead to others, and so on in a cascade of consequences into the future. And very likely many of these consequences will end up being a huge, wonderful part of your life.

And that's why it's foolhardy to play the "If only..." game. Regret is a natural reaction, but you need to walk away from it as soon as possible. Move on and make the most of your life. Rekindling regret is one of the stupidest things a human being can do, because it can lead to depression and wrong thinking - unnecessarily.

Affirm it all. Yes, learn from the past, but don't second-guess yourself. Let it go. Affirm those old choices as part of what happened way back then. Affirm the good things that have happened since. And continue to make the most of what you have each day.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from istockphoto.com)


Sean said...

I agree that moping about poor decisions in the past is generally useless. However, there is some value in reviewing these critical turning-point decisions. Sure, you can't go back and get a re-do. But someone ELSE, typically someone much younger, could potentially benefit from these harsh lessons of wisdom... that is, of course, if you can find young people willing to listen.

For example, when I was in college, I pursued math degrees and applied mathematics, because I foolishly and ignorantly thought that applied mathematics was about applying mathematics to real-world problems. Ha! Let's all have a good laugh on that one. If I could travel in time and advise my younger self, I would tell the poor schmuck to pursue statistics, and financial engineering. But I can't do that. Still, I can tell young mathematicians today to do this.

...if I can find someone willing to listen.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Boy, do I agree with this post, Denny.

I sometimes regret having stayed so unhappily in my 8-year first marriage, but if I hadn't, I likely wouldn't live where I live now and have met the wonderful man (and neighbor) that I am currently having a relationship with.

Blessings to you,


Kathleen Scott said...

What a great post--true, meaningful and well-said. I need this reminder regularly. Thank you.

Audrey Rose said...

I will say I could have many regrets but the trials and tribulations have made me and shaped me and offered me tremendous rewards.

Shaun Lindbergh said...

Great post. To drive home the point even further about the pointlessness of regret ... even the tiniest move we make, even to sneeze or not to sneeze, irrevocably changes the course of our lives; something like a binary progression. And then there are the 'black swans' that simply change the rules of the game and the playing field without warning. The best we can do is the best we can do with the best of intentions, the rest is luck.

And that White House Fellowship? You might be a politician now! How's that for good luck!

Denny Coates said...

Shaun, thank you for your additional insights.

A politician! Oh my god, you're right! What I thought was a disappointment 30 years ago was actually a great blessing.

MariaMore said...

I follow you on twitter and am so glad that I saw a tweet with the link to this article on my timeline. I couldn't agree with you more. I think sometimes we are so focused on the regret of things that have happened in the past that we fail to realize the blessings we also received during the process. Thanks so much for sharing, I am also sharing this with my friends!

shareandi said...

If I had to do an honest memoir I'd have more to state as regretted than as good decisions. And, yet to coincide with your thought of consequence paradox, I don't seem to have done so poorly because of these decisions but have become even a lot better.

So, looking back I wonder if some of these regrets were bad decisions after all. Truth is, they were bad--people were hurt, I was hurt, wish I could get a redo, but still, I have achieved greater better things afterwards, have become better. True.

For example, if I hadn't quit school twice, I wouldn't have been a more pragmatic, practical, and entrepreneurial person! I may not really have developed to perfection my expert personality. Today, this makes me!

There are a lot others.

Still, just like Sean said above, having regrets should be presenting a set poor choices before younger ones as pitfalls to avoid.

I usually say if I have to advise younger ones and they listen here's what I'ma advise them to avoid. Fine.

But, I follow your advise--even as difficult as it may be; for sometimes regret seems to plague me as if it is a must that I have it or go back and change things like this is possible--i should endeavor to live past it.

Always appreciate your thoughts, Denny. Thanks.


Kathleen Hagburg said...

You know that expression "no win situation"? You didn't know yourself well enough to get married (none of us do) If you gave a dishonest answer on that interview~you'ld be blogging about "selling out" so you see... All is well

Kathleen Hagburg