What compels us to make certain decisions in life and follow a particular path, while we often think that oh so nagging thought of “what if”? What if we had made a different decision, chosen the path that deep down our heart longed for? What if we had to make a choice with the knowledge that we were going to die tomorrow (cliché, I know)?
Whether we like it or not, our heart is often clouded by our pesky brains – the classic battle between our emotions and our rational thinking. Our rational side, as a result of an essential evolutionary process, protects us from simply following our impulses and induces us to actually make calculated, sensible decisions to (hopefully) extend our lifespan. The reality, however, is that in this day and age, our interactions are more complex and our brains are more evolutionarily advanced. It is easy to blame being rational on a desire to look out for our best interests, yet more often than not, it is really just fear disguised in a pretty dress. But what do we fear, exactly? The irony is that the rational thinking that was originally supposed to prolong our futures is actually fear of that same future. Most right-minded humans do not walk around thinking that they will die tomorrow, unless unfortunately they have been dealt an unfair hand. For the majority, we are meticulously analyzing, planning, and saving for our futures in order to achieve the best possible outcome. I am not saying this is frivolous or hasty, but where does the planning stop and the living start?
I am the first person to raise her hand and admit that I am a planner to the extreme. I examine and weigh all my options, try to predict where each path will lead me, and I make decisions accordingly. In college I did not study International Relations as I had intended because I feared my only option after graduation if I wanted a “real” career would be to attend law school. I was not sold on that idea so I studied Business Administration instead. I knew it would give me options, and although it challenged me and I do not regret the decision, occasionally I still wonder that pesky “what if?” After college, I did not have a clear career path in mind, so I joined the competitive race for consulting positions since I figured it would be broad enough to expose me to a range of industries and functions, while serving as a good training ground for any forthcoming path I may desire. Sounds rationale, right? Looking back on that experience, I have never been more stressed and burnt out as I was during that time. Again, while I choose not to live in regret of that decision because I believe everything has a reason, I am sure I forsook my health and wellbeing for a year and a half of my life that I can never reclaim. You would expect the story to continue such that my consulting foundation fostered a network of prosperous relationships and served as a launching pad for my next chosen career move, right? Wrong.
In fact, the worst possible outcome happened (okay, there are worse things): I was “downsized.” The rug was pulled out from under my feet so fast I didn’t know I was on the ground with a concussion until I found myself in the Georgia Department of Labor filing for unemployment. Talk about humbling. I lived, breathed, and sacrificed to “prove” myself in a career that I felt was secure and would guarantee options, yet it ended in the blink of an eye.
While this experience was truly one I learned from (again, everything has a purpose), at the time it was traumatic to say the least. All my planning and meticulous steps to ensure the best possible future were gone in 60 seconds, and I was starting from scratch. What I really learned was that there is no guarantee of tomorrow, and ultimately we just need to be happy, regardless of how we define that elusive emotion. If being happy means preparing for the future then by all means, do it. But in my case, I think it’s really just fear of losing control and letting life in a little more. Why am I so consumed and overwhelmed by what “might” happen later and whether or not it is my perfect path? In boycott of fearing what the future might bring, maybe I should let go a little more and let it reveal what exciting secrets it holds if I try to control it a little less?
Not only have I felt the pain of this lesson in my professional life, but it has impacted my personal life as well. I seem to be attracted to people that live more from their hearts and less from their brain (not to downplay their intelligence remotely), and yet it is a constant reminder of what I am not. On one hand it is the source of many frustrations and disagreements, but on the other hand I think maybe if it’s drilled into me a little more, some of that emotional decision-making might just rub off. I suppose opposites do attract and culture plays a part in that wiring, but I digress…
The reality is that I am not going to wake up tomorrow and forget that my nature is to be guided first and foremost by my rational judgment. In many cases it serves me well and I do not pretend to want to be someone that I am not. I do, however, strive to repress those emotions a little less. After all, why ask “what if?” when you can ask yourself instead “why not?” Why not enjoy the present and worry less about whether what makes us happy now will continue to make us happy in the future? As so many others and I have learned firsthand, the future is out of our control and there is no day like today. So let’s embrace forever as a compilation of happy moments that may come with some heartbreak and low points, but along with that fewer “what if’s” and more high points as we throw a little caution to the wind. Carpe diem, que aprovechemos el dia!