Second-guessing past decisions — STOP THAT!!!

I haven’t been writing very much lately, and in looking for ways to rectify that I decided to do some writing on the ways people can drive themselves insane.

*ahem* or if you can say it in a more authoritative voice (or imagine it in more formal script), I propose to write  “discourses on the road to madness”.

All melodrama aside, I didn’t choose the terms ‘insane’ or ‘madness’ lightly. It really is possible for a reasonably sane and functional person to drive themselves insane by dwelling on certain thought patterns.

One of these madness-inducing thought patterns is second-guessing past decisions.

What is done is done. If you made a mistake in the past, then resolve to learn from that mistake and hopefully not repeat it. But do not start wondering “what if I had done x instead of y”.

Firstly, there is no human way you can know what would have happened if you had taken a different path at some juncture in your life. Maybe your life would have turned out better. Maybe it would have turned out worse.

Secondly, just as the choices available to you and the decisions you make are affected by what other people do, so too are other people’s choices and decisions (and lives) affected by the decisions you make. So not only can you not know how your life would have been different if you had chosen differently, you also can’t know how other people’s lives would have been different.

I’ll use my life as an example. After I graduated from high school, I went to a four year university and pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. Partly it was because my father was an engineer and I wanted to be like him, and partly it was because I enjoyed the math that was part of the electrical engineering curricula.

But as it turned out, I don’t have a typical electrical engineer personality. I really don’t have the patience, ambition, or temperament to decide on a particular way to solve a problem and then get married to that solution so I have enough drive to stay with it and make it work. I’m far more interested in how systems work together, and how to make things so they can withstand the shocks real life throws at them. If I had life to do all over again, knowing then what I know now, I probably would have pursued a technician’s degree or gone to a two-year college to study the electrical trades.

However, in doing so I would have missed out on a lot of good friends, good times,  and really interesting life experiences I had by pursuing the electrical engineering degree and moving to the Portland, Oregon metro area to find work in that degree. Yes, I would probably have done some equally interesting things and met equally interesting people if I had pursued the technician or electrician paths, but there’s no way to know. And I don’t regret in any way many of the things I did (or tried to do) on the path of life that I did choose.

The inspiration for this piece was a dinner conversation I had with a friend recently. My friend has been working on getting a college degree for a few years now. There have been some bobbles along the way that have delayed her degree. During dinner she started blaming herself for not making different choices in the past, and I told her ‘don’t do that’. I think she’s done some amazing things with her life, things I don’t know I would have been able to achieve under the same circumstances. She looked at her life and saw all the things that could have been but weren’t, while I saw all the things that were which didn’t have to be and which (quite frankly) most people don’t succeed at or even try.

So, wherever you are in life and whatever you have (or haven’t) achieved, accept that for what it is and move forward. But do not start on what could have happened if you had done such-and-such instead.

That way lies madness.

I don’t always quote poems in my posts, but I like this poem by Robert Frost so I’m going to include it.

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Online text © 1998-2009 Poetry X. All rights reserved.
From Mountain Interval | Henry Holt & Company, 1920

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” in Poetry X 16 Jun 2003, <; (07 May 2009).

Also cross-posted to my MySpace blog.

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