When I was an investment banker, working from one version of “the world is collapsing, do something about it”, to another “midnight tonight is your deadline”, one of my favorite pastimes was imagining how my life would be if instead of finance, I had chosen pottery-making, working remotely on a deserted island, enjoying my life of doing “something that I am passionate about”, staring at the blue sky and the ocean’s waves. Ahhhh…
But hold on!, how would I support myself? what if I cannot use my hands anymore, what would I do?
But, what if it did work? If only I took that leap at that time, maybe I would have been an overnight sensation, instead of being stuck here burning the midnight oil.
I have failed in my life, I cannot do anything else besides investment banker, I am stuck…
Welcome to the human condition of living on “what ifs”- a strategy that is meant to make our builders’ lives of forecasting and planning easier until it doesn’t – when regrets outweigh appreciation, when the fear of the future makes decisions that go against our best interests.
Your “what ifs” have their legit time and place
Indeed! Living on a beach is quite a cool idea, but this is what holidays are for – and that’s why you should take and enjoy your time off to the maximum possible, to rest and experience something new and unhabitual. But after a time, the beach can also become a habit, and your brain will start showing you all the reasons why it doesn’t make sense in the larger picture that is your career and your life – you prepare today what you want for tomorrow – “what if” is one of your helper tool.
We are primed to plan and strategize for the worst-case scenario…
Case in point: we owe our existence to “what if”. Part of us being on this planet today is because our past ancestors managed to stay alive by learning from their mistakes and creating strategies to stay alive. Some of the “mistakes” were ignoring that unusual noise in the bushes and not running early enough before the predator jumped them. So they learned. And then when tired of running from everything unusual, they planned for a better way by creating shelters and tools.
And for our best scenario too
Modern days, less running from felines, and more daily stuff to deal with – first comes anything self-preservation: we make plans to stay safe; we “what if” with savings and emergency funds – then we elevate to self-realization: how do I want my life to be? How do I see my future? What do I want to build for myself and my family? We switch to investing instead of only saving. We have goals, make plans, pros/and cons and run scenarios: all good when it comes to decision-making from a place of logic and on purpose – but what happens when we decide not to take that action and rather go for one more, one last time, “what if”?
So how does it get me stuck?
When the “what ifs” become the dominant narrative – the overthinking everything and then the analysis/paralysis. Too many “what ifs” iterations, and we stagnate in risk aversion, we miss out on opportunities in front of us. Not to mention the toll on our mental health of spending too much time mentally preparing for the worst (that may or may not happen), seeing the negative only rather than also the positive, indulging our cognitive biases and ultimately living in a place where everything is working against us.
Planning, not planning, I don’t know what to do anymore…where do I go from there?
First, start with making peace with the past. “Is there anything I can do about it?” Yes/No, do what needs to be done, it gets more exciting from there on.
Because the next part is knowing that whatever happened, it wasn’t a waste of your time. Take the lessons learned and commit to doing differently – that’s a choice you can make, start looking ahead with one more experience under your belt.
Next up, write down goals that are both expansive and realistic. So you are redirecting your brain to do what it does best: focusing on what’s important for you and making a plan to get you there. – side note: when making decisions, observe when you are attempting to alleviate a discomfort, and when you are working towards something. This will also inform your intentions behind certain of your goals.
Train yourself to take calculated risks – even the tiniest ones can help train your nervous system and make you feel more self-confident in your abilities to land on your feet.
And the last piece, now that you know you did your best and cannot really do much more of controlling, learn to live in the present moment and enjoy what you have. Even when it’s uncomfortable and you feel challenged. This is your right time to tap into your resourcefulness, use your tools to manage your stress and your emotions and refocus – ultimately, trusting yourself that you are the only one responsible for your happiness.