Oswald Letter

Don’t waste your life thinking about what could have been

Selection conceptby Dan Oswald

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.
—Nelson Mandela

Life is full of choices. Some big, some small. Every day we are faced with choices, and once we decide between Option A and Option B, we head down a new path. What occurs after we make the choice is a direct result of having made THAT decision.

I was watching a football game over Thanksgiving weekend when an announcer questioned a decision made by one of the coaches. That’s nothing new. Announcers question coaches’ decisions all the time. But this announcer went on to say what would have occurred had the coach made the alternative choice.

That’s where he lost me. I’m convinced that once the coach made his choice, his actions and those of the opposing coach and team were altered by his decision. That is, had he made the alternative choice available to him—in this case, to kick a field goal—an entirely different set of circumstances would have ensued. The number of possible alternative outcomes is infinite, but one thing I’m certain about is that had the coach decided to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, the two teams would have found themselves in a totally different situation than they were in after the coach decided to pass on a field goal.

There’s no way the announcer could say with any degree of certainty what would have occurred if the alternative choice had been made. His commentary was pure speculation, but you wouldn’t have known it based on what he said.

In the 2000 film The Family Man, Nicolas Cage plays a man who gets to see what would have happened had he made a different choice 13 years earlier. In the movie, Cage plays Jack Campbell, a wealthy, successful, and single investment banker. In his “glimpse” into what could have been, Jack wakes up on Christmas morning in a suburban house with a wife and two kids. His wife is the woman he left 13 years earlier to pursue his career instead of settling down and getting married. It makes for a fine movie, but in real life, we don’t get to see how things would have turned out had we made another choice.

In life, we must make the best of the choices we make. We don’t get to see how things would have turned out had we made different decisions. Once our decision is made, we set ourselves down a path, and it’s up to us to make sure the outcome is the best one possible. All the second-guessing and “what ifs” won’t ever allow us to know what would have happened or what could have been. You choose, and then you make the best of it.

People like to say they have no regrets. I’d like to believe that I’ve lived my life without regret. That doesn’t mean I haven’t made mistakes and poor choices. I’ve made plenty of both. But each choice and every mistake I have made has triggered a series of events that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. Those events forced more decisions that led down the path that is my life. I’m happy with my life, and that means I accept the choices I have made, even the poor ones.

So it seems to me that it’s a waste of time to think about what could have been. It’s a waste of time to look back at choices made and speculate about what might have happened because we’ll really never know. We make the decision, and then it’s up to us to make the best of that choice. The energy spent second-guessing ourselves is better put to use making sure the decision we made works out as well as possible because often, it’s not the choice itself that determines the ultimate outcome but what we do once we’ve made the decision.

It’s better to look forward as our lives unfold than to look back. When we look forward, we can anticipate what will happen next—we can see what problems might arise and make additional choices that will help avoid them. Living life by always looking back at your decisions is like trying to drive down the road by looking in the rearview mirror—you’re bound to end up in the ditch. Instead, look forward through the windshield so you can see your path clearly, and things will likely turn out much better for you.