The most compelling lines from John Greeleaf Whittier’s touching poem “Maud Muller,” about a missed romance between a pretty country maid and a wealthy town judge, are:
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’"
We typically think of agonizing over the past – what might have been – as psychologically unhealthy and unproductive. “Let it go and move on,” we say.
However, the experience of musing about the past, reflecting on what did and didn’t happen, and on what we did but might have done, can also be an enlightening experience.
Suppose a magic genie came to you and said, “The gods of what-if-iness have decided to bestow upon you a special gift. You get ten ‘do-overs’ – ten revisions of your personal history, which you can apply to any experience. What ten choices would you make differently, knowing and believing what you do now?”
The question invites some rich philosophical speculation. Why did I choose the way I did in a particular situation? What did I hope or expect to get? What did I get that I didn’t want? How did my thinking and my emotional reflexes affect the outcome I got? Looking back, what would I rather have done? And, importantly, how sure am I that a different course of action would have given me a better future than the one I have now? We must acknowledge the old cliché, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.”
I like to engage in this sort of mental ping-pong now and then, and I believe that it helps me understand myself a bit better each time.
Hidden behind our choices – our decisions and our actions – are what we might think of as our rules for engagement. We can think of them as motivational policies, many of them unconscious, intuitive, or visceral, which we have adopted in response to experience. Musing about our past actions and options might give us insight into these patterns that guide our interactions with our world. And those insights might give us some new options.
For example, at least five of my own probable do-overs would involve situations in which I allowed others to cheat me or exploit me financially. People I trusted and tried to help took me to the cleaners to the tune of several million dollars, collectively. Maybe the insight is that my “Mr. Nice Guy” algorithm has always claimed a higher priority than my “Mr. Scrooge” algorithm. I can’t change what happened, but can I approach similar situations in the future with a better sense of fairness to myself?
One can become cynical as a result of such experiences, or one can become philosophical. Each of those adaptations, ironically, can be a trap in its own way. One of my associates likes to say, “If anybody is going to stab you in the back, it’ll be your friend – you’ll be watching your enemies.” Another one prefers to think in terms of Karma and what he calls the “cosmic balance sheet.”
Do-overs can come to mind in all shapes and sizes. What if I hadn't married – or, what if I hadn’t remained single? What if I hadn't had children, or, what if I had? What if I hadn't broken off relations with my family? What if I had gone to college – or, not gone to college? How might military service have changed my life? Or, how might things have turned out if I stayed in the military? Suppose I started saving and investing money at an earlier age? What if I hadn't gone into business with my friends? What if I hadn't remained in that toxic relationship for so long?
Again, I emphasize that the purpose of “do-over” thinking is not to become angry, vengeful, or cynical about life or other people. It’s a curiously neutral process, simply conjuring up alternatives and then inspecting our thoughts and reactions to see what we can learn about ourselves.
So, if you’re game, get a pen and a sheet of paper and see what’s on your internal do-over list. If you have more than ten, write all of them down, and then group them and prioritize them. Start thinking, not only about “what if,” but also about “what wasn’t,” and “what might have been.”
And, by the way: if the magic genie comes to visit you, call me immediately.
"Maud Muller" is reprinted from One Hundred Choice Selections. Ed. Phineas Garrett. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co., 1897.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.