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Jeffrey Keefer

Don't Look Back! If We Could Magically Change the Past We Would Have a Different Present, and Not Always a Better One


Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

I recently shared some mantras that have helped me when I feel somehow stuck and longing to change the past. I think back to studies I started and later abandoned relationships that were important to me at times that I seem to have let go of, and failures made professionally that hampered aspects of my career. You know, those times when we doing things that later we regret, the ones that we wish we could go back and change?

Imagine what my thinking process would have been had I completed some of those degrees I started way back when? Consider those missed experiences I could have had with friends I let go of and stopped keeping in touch with? How about those career moves I should have made when I was otherwise focused on other things?

See what I did, with that woulda, coulda, shoulda?

It is so tempting to live an impossible life. Yet, they are filled with endless temptations to imagine a different past. One so ideal my present will undoubtedly have been improved?

Or, would it?

If I changed something about my studies, jobs, or relationships long ago, the ones I at times wish I could go back in time to do over, my life would have indeed been different. In fact, my life would be so different I likely would not have done the studies I actually did! I would undoubtedly be in a different career than I am now. My friends, well, I would likely have not had the times I had because I would have spent my time otherwise focused in the past with others.

You see, when I regret choices I made in the past and wish I could go back and redo them, it is often because the imagined missed benefits are focused upon instead of the real benefits I had learning to do other things. We can't change the past. In wishing we could, we spend more time thinking about one aspect instead of the whole of our lives resulting from a cornucopia of experiences.

I speak about the butterfly effect when one small change in a nonlinear system can have enormous and unexpected consequences in future states. When I focus, or rather fixate, on single events in my past, they are usually to the exclusion of anything those things I actually chose to do. I fixate on woulda, coulda, shoulda, while neglecting to focus on those imagined different choices' unknown effects.

Imagine if I would have been more forceful in demanding a raise at a job I left years ago, one where I was given increased responsibilities and a direct report, yet one who had the same title as me. My supervisors said a raise and title change were in the works. However, after several months I started to feel it was too indefinite, and I felt taken advantage of. The promotion was discussed in vagueries, just like when we tell children, "Maybe we will stop for ice cream on the way home, but only if you are good!" We are focusing on controlling behavior with the half-promise of something wanted. We may even believe it ourselves, though we have lost out more on the "maybe" promise than we have won from it if you are like me.

That was where I was with this job. I liked the job, the people, and most things about it. When a promotion for the extra work and responsibility did not arrive, I started resenting my treatment. Every day when I went to the office, I thought about it. It was an undertone in my mind within every status meeting, every task that touched on my extra work, and every moment I saw my supervisors seemingly happy. I felt taken advantage of. It was time to leave, something I did as soon as I found another job.

The irony is that my supervisors seemed surprised when I left as if they wondered why I would want to go, given my happiness with my work. Perhaps I could have been more forceful with them, telling them in some other way how I felt or otherwise implying I would have to consider more options if things (i.e., my promotion) did not materialize. If all that might have happened, I may have stayed. Perhaps I would have kept that job, though I indeed would not have worked at the organization where I went next. I met people there who helped me with countless other opportunities, roles, publications, conferences, professional development, and overall even today provide satisfaction in my overall life.

Had I changed the past at the time, I would surely not be where I am now. I would likely be in different places with my studies, friends, and work, meaning that I would actually not be me today. I regret not having that conversation years ago and wish I could go back and change it in many ways. However, if that were magically possible, I would not have the same life I have now.

And, I like my life now. It is not perfect, but it is my life. All of those related experiences that would have shifted due to the butterfly effect would have resulted in me not being me. If I stayed in that job, nearly everything in my life would have been different, all based on that one choice. That one empowering step may not have changed anything at all in my workplace status. However, the resulting conversations and emotions would undoubtedly have taken me on a slightly different path, one that would still result in a different present.

The truth is, I will never know what different choices in the past would have meant for me and what about things today would have been different. There are no guaranteed outcomes, just as there are no ways to go back and change our past choices. However, wishing things could have been different will likely mean I would have been different today. I may imagine it would have been a better today, though we all know there is no way to know. There is a 50% chance it could have been worse now, so be satisfied with what we chose before, if only because we cannot change it. We can only change where we go next.

So, where will you choose to go next?

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