Don’t Get Sucked into the “What-If” Game

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“I wish I had…”

“If only…”

“What if…?”

I’m a bit fatalistic when it comes to conjecturing about what might have been. I don’t just think about the good things that could have happened if I had changed that ONE thing; I think of the bad. That’s why I strive to live with no regrets and avoid getting sucked into the “what-if” game.

For instance, suppose you deeply regret not going to a job interview years ago because you overslept. Even now, you beat yourself up over it. But did you really blow the employment opportunity of a lifetime? Sure, you might think so now. But what if something terrible had happened on the way to the interview? What if you stepped off the curb and got run over by a car? Missing that interview would have turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Here’s another example. You were accepted by Virginia Tech but couldn’t swing the tuition and decided to attend a local community college instead. You even intended to transfer to VT after getting your associate’s degree, but you landed a pretty decent job. Now, years later, you find yourself stuck in cubicle-land with no opportunity for advancement without that bachelor’s degree. You repeatedly lament, “If only I had gone to Virginia Tech!” OK, let’s suppose you did go to VT and were a freshman in 2007. Well guess what? That was the year Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on campus. What if you had been one of his victims?

Am I being a little too dark here? Probably. Let me lighten things up with an actual what if from my life. I often wish Mr. Groovy and I met when we were in our 20s, and not our 40s. We could have saved like bandits for 10 years and pulled off early retirement in our 30s, rather than at the ripe ages of 55 and 57. But could we?

I lived below the poverty level in my 20s and Mr. Groovy was first starting his career in local government. Suppose we met by chance in a bar or club in 1984. Would we have hit it off? I’m sure I was way too independent for the 23-year old Mr. Groovy. And he was from the B&T crowd (bridge and tunnel) which would have been a turn-off to the 25-year old Manhattanite, Mrs. Groovy. But let’s suppose we miraculously made it to a second date and went on to marry in 1986. There’s no guarantee our marriage would have lasted. As for early retirement? Yeah right. I might be a grandma right now, struggling to pay my bills, and he might be a grandpa, struggling to get off the sofa!

My point is that if you can magically go back in time and tinker with one aspect of your life—what makes you certain that subsequent events would have played out in your favor? But this is exactly what we do. We think EVERYTHING WOULD BE PERFECT IF I HAD JUST _____(fill in the blank yourself)!

So if we’re going to fall into the trap of “what if,” let’s really go for it. Let’s look at a few common regrets and project what could happen if we were granted our wishes.

What if I had a steady job? Then I’d be happy.

Tell that to the family of Jackiqui Lindhardt from Sandy, Utah. She loved her job as a baker at a local supermarket. That is, until she went to work one day and was killed by an industrial mixer in a freak accident.

What if I had a lot of money? Then I’d be happy.

You think that’s always true? Howard Hughes was one of the wealthiest people in the world. He also was an eccentric who spent much of his life in pain and eventually became dependent on codeine. When he died he was supposedly so unrecognizable he could only be identified by his finger prints.

What if I could go on a dream vacation? Then I’d be happy.

Mr. and Mrs Lofgren thought so too. They were vacationing for Thanksgiving with their two children, ages 10 and 8, at a rented luxury home in Aspen. They had won the stay in a charity auction held at the children’s school. All four of the Lofgrens died after Thanksgiving dinner from carbon monoxide poisoning. Their extended families are staunch advocates for carbon monoxide legislation and initiatives.

What if I had some adventure in my life? Then I’d be happy.

Lauren Seitz recently graduated from high school and was on an outing with friends at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC. She died a few days later from a brain-attacking organism that was traced back to the water at the center.

What if I could find a hobby? Then I’d be happy.

Alex Bestler loved to hike. Recently he was hiking with a friend in Usery Mountain Park in Mesa, Arizona. Without warning, a swarm of angry bees attacked him. He was stung more than 1,000 times. Fire fighters were only able to get to him when the bees left. He eventually died after being taken to a hospital.

What if I had talent? Then I’d be happy.

Robin Williams, John Lennon, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston had boat loads of talent. Enough said.

What if I had children? Then I’d be happy.

Alan and Diane Johnson had a picture-perfect life. They were together for twenty years and lived in a beautiful home outside of Sun Valley, Idaho. But they had been arguing with their 16 year-old daughter, Sarah, because they didn’t approve of her 19-year old boyfriend. One evening she shot them to death and then watched, with no emotion, as her parents were removed from their home in body bags.

OK, I’m exaggerating dramatically to make a point. But I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Ruminating on “what ifs” is a fool’s game. We can even look to children’s fairy tales for lessons about wishes that go awry. So let’s be careful what we wish for and count our blessings, shall we?  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not get caught with a sausage stuck on my nose, like the woodcutter’s wife in the Grimm’s fairy tale The Three Wishes.

Do you find yourself playing the “what-if” game?

Do your “what ifs” affect how you currently live your life?

Have you figured out a way to keep the “what ifs” from becoming the story of your life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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31 Comments

  1. This post is just a ray of sunshine!

    I used to get suck on this too but I also think that life offers plenty of opportunities to start where you are.

    Life offers numerous possible outcomes.

    Of course you don’t always want to wait until it is too late (like too late to save for retirement).

    Even though there are hundreds of people that end up on the news there are millions more that have ordinary days and make it home safe to their families.

  2. What If I never read this? 😉

    The point is spot on…Years ago, I did a lot of What if games…
    And it does not matter, because I did not. What matters is where I am now and what next step will I make!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      ATL, you’re hilarious! Yes, most of us grew out of our what-if games and focus on the present and the future. Thanks for making me laugh.

  3. Playing the what-if game is much nicer when you’re happy or at least at peace with your current situation. Life hasn’t always been smooth for me, but those challenges have made me who I am, and I’m stronger for it. Some of the lessons were painful both for me and for others, and I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused, but hopefully learning some of them early will keep me from repeating them.

    There’s no harm in daydreaming possible alternate scenarios every now and then, but preferably when brainstorming our future plans!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Interesting way of looking at it, Julie. When you’re happy and play the what-if game it can be exciting. If you’re unhappy it makes you more miserable. Occasional daydreaming is only natural, I agree. My frustration is for those who use some decision from the past they made, or did not make, as a crutch. I’d like to see them make peace with it, and move on.

  4. I’m an American currently living in Thailand teaching English. I have plans to travel to a few different countries and also work in Australia.

    People older than me always say “Wow that that’s awesome, I regret not traveling more when I was younger”

    A LOT of people have a “what if” attitude when it comes to travel. It’s nonsense to have this mindset because traveling is a mindset, you can do it at any stage of your life.

    Sure, as a 40 something with two kids and a mortgage, you probably can’t go on a three month backpacking trip, but don’t lose your adventurous wanderlust spirit. Figure out ways to make it work within your circumstances.

    Travel isn’t the be all ~wonderful~ thing that absolutely has to be done. Don’t beat yourself up.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Travel can be exhausting, Colin. When I was younger I could function better on little/no sleep. Now, as we discuss plans to travel to Thailand, and Australia especially, we know we have to build in extra days to recover from flights.

      The “adventurous wanderlust spirit” is something many people don’t have. They might say they regret they didn’t travel when they were younger but if the opportunity and cash/means had been handed to them back then, they still wouldn’t have traveled.

      I’d love to hear more about your experiences in Thailand. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog more. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Confession: I sometimes daydream about winning the lottery – who doesn’t? There a so many different things I would love to do with the money, but such fortuity is scary. This world requires balance. I worry that such immense good fortune would have to be repaid somehow.

    I try not to think about “what if’s.” Instead, my mantra is that “everything happens for a reason.” We may never understand the why, but it all serves a greater purpose.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Oh, I daydream about the lottery too, Harmony. And yes those big bucks are scary. I’d like to think we wouldn’t squander a windfall. I know of someone who’s in her early 30s and inherited over $1M recently. I doubt she’ll have any of it left by the time she’s 40. Her mother’s husband is an accountant so I’m sure she’s been counseled properly but she’s going to do what she’s going to do. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Jeepers Mrs Groovy. That’s a dark start to the day.

    I’ll be sure, from now on to avoid ever working in a bakery, becoming fantastically wealthy, free dream holidays, white water adventures, hiking, becoming talented (that one’s not so hard), and upsetting the kids!!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I know, right? Sorry to be a bummer! Whatever you do, do NOT upset the kids! Thanks for commenting, Martin.

  7. I don’t get too hung up on “what ifs” I try to get on with it.

    If I fall down , I dust myself off… get up…. and get on with it.
    If something has cost me dollars unnecessarily then I treat the cost as a fee for a lesson. I learn from the financial error in judgement and move on never to make the same mistake again.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      That’s a great attitude, Ray Ray! I wish more of us could treat our errors as learning experiences. Thank you for your comment.

  8. I think the What If trap is only natural. I try to not second guess my decisions because it doesn’t do me any good by living in the past. My decision has been made so I need to push forward as best I can. Sometimes that is easier said than done though!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      It definitely is easier said than done, Thias. But if we recognize it’s a trap, that’s half the battle. I’ve come to realize that if we allow them to, our thoughts will go to great lengths to keep us from feeling fulfilled. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. It is easy to fall into the what-if trap. But as you said, it serves no purpose.

    My other take-away from your article is to try and be grateful for what you have. Don’t spend so much time wishing you had this and wishing you had that.

    The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Sometimes it’s a minefield just waiting for some unsuspecting what-if person to come running.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Be grateful for what you have – exactly! And don’t use the what-if game as an excuse. I know a few people who’ve lived in the past for so long – lamenting they didn’t make the most of their “glory days” (never mind their glory days weren’t really that glorious, but years later it seems so). They blame what they perceive as a poor past choice for their current unhappiness. They act as if it’s all over. It’s sad. Thanks for commenting, Financial Slacker.

  10. those are some great examples of what ifs and some good coffee material this morning, lol.
    I e thought about this a lot, especially in the sense of “if only I’d gotten into the oil and gas industry sooner, imagine how much further I’d be along.” The truth is, I was a tree hugging banjo playing Grateful Dead loving hippy staunchly set against “working for the man”. That is until I was in grad school and realized I really liked the challenges and problems we were working on in some of my classes, and some of the exercises were directly related to O&G. I still love the Dead, play banjo and donate money instead of time to my conservation causes, but there’s no way I would’ve succeeded or even gotten an offer because it took until I was 30 to have a good work background and appreciate finding another fun industry to work in.
    The same with meeting Mrs. SSC, I met her during that intern and had anything been different that wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t be celebrating our kids 3rd and 5th birthdays this week. 😄

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Good coffee material, indeed. I can’t even take the news in the morning! Thanks for sharing a bit about your past and being a banjo-playing hippy! I’m so glad you appreciate your life, Mrs. SSC and your children – and happy birthday to them! Same week? There must be lots of fun going on in your house right now.

  11. By any chance do you watch The Flash? This concept was in the season 2 finale and will be the main focus of season 3. You should check it out if you don’t already watch – really well done and I’m not much of a comic book/super hero fan.

    I think about this often but from a different angle: What if I went to a different college? I’d have a completely different group of friends. Or what if I’d never worked for X company? I’d never have met these people. Makes me think about all the amazing people out there that I’ve never crossed paths with.

    It’s not a concern since all my experiences have led me to this place, which I’m really grateful for. No use in dwelling on something we can’t change. I don’t really believe in destiny but acknowledge how much other people influence our lives, which is out of our control.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Interesting, Kate! Thanks for letting me know about the Flash. I never even heard of it but now that you mentioned it, I looked it up on Netflix and found Season 1 is on it. I’m definitely going to check it out and hopefully Season 2 will be added.

      You made the key point, which is to be grateful for what we have, where we’ve been and the people in our lives. Thanks for commenting – I really appreciate it!

  12. Things are neither good nor bad. They just are. We can only control our reaction to things.

    Some folks were shocked that I came out “so late” in life. They worry that I missed so many opportunities in college and my early 20s. But what if I came out while I was still learning emotional health? What if my first girlfriend was as emotionally unhealthy as I was at the time? What if she was abusive, but I felt that it was all that was available for me?

    Making peace with our choices is so important. I would not be the same person I am today if I had made different choices in the past. The mistakes grew me. The good choices made me proud. I have gone through many iterations of myself. I’m still iterating. I’m still growing. I still have no control over world events.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Thanks for sharing, ZJ. I have no doubt that it’s terribly hard to live in such a way that you are denying who you really are. But you were so smart to wait for the right time – that is, the time that was right for you.

      True story I don’t think I’ve written about – Last year, a 15 year old in the subdivision next to us threw herself in front of a fast moving car, and died. It was right outside the gates where she lived. She was transgender or pre-transgender — I may not be using the correct terminology, but she was trying to live as a boy. Her family accepted her, loved her, went to support groups and rallies with her – but her schoolmates did not. She was bullied terribly, which is why she killed herself.

      I don’t blame the parents, but I know had I been her mother I would have done one of two things. First I might have tried the “wait until you’re older” approach. I wouldn’t encourage her to deny she wanted to live as a male, but I would have encouraged her to keep it under wraps in high school, where teenagers will be cruel just because they don’t like your shirt. I would have asked her to wait to college, where anything goes, and she’d be more mature and confident enough to handle any repercussions or criticism. And if that didn’t work, I would have pulled her out of school in a heart-beat. Even if I had to quit a job it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have worked from home, or started a home day-care, or anything I needed to do to home-school her. But I would have removed her entirely from that environment. It was no secret that the bullying was going on. But I don’t know the family’s circumstances which is why I don’t blame them. But it’s such a shame.

  13. All we have is now. I try to remind myself of that often. No use in putting too much time and effort into the past or future. Of course, I try to plan ahead and plan well. But I’m not guaranteed anything. That makes today much more valuable! Happy weekend, Mrs. G!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Nope, there are no guarantees. You’re very wise, Penny. Happy weekend to you too, and thanks for stopping by!

  14. I’m a big believer in not indulging in what-ifs. The road to happiness is not paved with alternate pasts.

    I think about that a lot when I watch my parents with their current spouses. Both of them say now that they wish they’d broken up earlier, but I don’t think they would have been as perfect for their current partners as they are now. I don’t think they’d be as appreciative of their current relationships, or as forgiving of their new partners’ faults.

    My hubs and I indulge our super dark humor by joking how much better we’ll be for our next spouses, much to the eternal horror of my mom 😉

    • Mrs. Groovy

      That’s a great quote, Pia – “The road to happiness is not paved with alternate pasts”. And you’ve made some interesting observations about your parents. You probably see things more clearly than they do but I’m glad they’re both happy with their current partners. And I can just imagine your mom’s reaction to your dark humor! It’s not something she expects to hear…Thanks for commenting.

  15. Jeez, happy Friday to you, too, Mrs. Groovy! 😉

    I love the sentiment behind this post: we can lament and regret all we want, but (1) we can’t change any of it anyway, and (2) we don’t know what our multiverse of potential lives looks like — what we thought we wanted might have turned out worse.

    There was a Quora topic a while ago about whether people would go back in time to kill baby Hitler. Ethical quandry of infanticide aside, the consensus answer seemed to be no — that the horrors of the Nazis may have happened without him, and perhaps with under a far better leader who could have strategized a Third Reich victory.

    What I find more persuasive than all these freak accidents and deaths is just knowing that all potential versions of our lives have their ups and downs. In your VT example, it’s unlikely you would have been killed on campus, but it’s reasonably likely that you would have taken out burdensome student debt. You might not have met the same people — maybe missing your future best friend or partner. You might not have opened any more career doors than you did at the community college.

    Alternatively, you can always let yourself off the hook by embracing the theory that there’s no such thing as free will anyway, so you couldn’t have made any other choice than the one you did. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Ha ha. Maybe I should have waited on this one until Monday, Matt. I almost mentioned the little boy who was drowned by the alligator at Disney World but I thought that was too dark – and there you go mentioning baby Hitler! But the Quora topic is definitely thought-provoking.

      I like how you succinctly put it “all potential versions of ourselves”. In the VT example, had I been a student on campus during the melee who was not hurt, I wonder if I would have remained enrolled. My 17 year old self might have stood firm. But if I had my 57 year old sensibilities, I probably would have gotten the heck out of there.

      Thanks for the link to the Atlantic article. The parts about the social/psychological experiments are pretty fascinating. I’m not sure what conclusions I would draw from them. And what about the belief systems of the ones conducting the experiments? Wouldn’t those have shaped the processes they used, the observations they made, and the outcomes?

      Thanks for stopping by and giving my brain a workout, Matt.