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How to get back on track

What to do when you seem to have taken a wrong turn in life.

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6/18/07:   Thomas the Tank toy.   
PHOTO CREDIT: Lars Klove for The New York Times
6/18/07: Thomas the Tank toy. PHOTO CREDIT: Lars Klove for The New York Times

A little while back I received this message from one of the readers of my blog:

“After getting a degree in a subject that is fairly general and one that is proving difficult to find employment and perhaps a degree that is not a good fit, how can one NOT be worried?”

My wife and I love a good road trip. At the drop of a hat we’ll drive 500 miles for no particular reason. We’ve driven east-west across North America four times, north-south at least that many, and braved the roads in Europe numerous times, too.

Our constant companion on any trip is our Garmin GPS. We call her ‘Carmen Sandiego’ after the world-traveling character in the old video game and TV show. One of Carmen’s great gifts is her patience whenever we take a wrong turn. We giggle whenever we hear her tell us that she is “recalculating…”

While it’s a pretty hackneyed cliché, life is also a journey, and one on which we regularly take wrong turns. So what should you do when you think that that last left-hander isn’t taking you where you want to go?

First of all, anyone who has been able to earn a degree – regardless of the subject – has proven themselves to be smart. A smart person wants to do smart things and worrying isn’t smart. It drains your energy, makes you sick, and since it accomplishes absolutely nothing, it merely postpones finding and acting on any real solutions.  

The trouble with worry is that it consumes your entire brain with nothing left for really effective analysis and problem solving. Since there’s no brain power left to give a useful second opinion, though, worry seems to be the only option. But here are some steps that you can take.

Reschedule Your Worrying

Give yourself a day in which you ‘reschedule’ worrying. Tell yourself that you’ll get back to fretting tomorrow, but, just for today, you’re going to try something different. Your mind will try to tell you that worrying is the most urgent thing you have to do. But since it’s produced no good ideas in the last 24 hours, the next 24 can be safely devoted to something else.

On a recent trip to Italy, we found ourselves halfway down the wrong way of a crowded, one-way street in Florence. We had no choice but to back up. So that’s a good place to start.

Put Your Thinking Into Reverse

Back up to the decision to take that degree in the first place. What led to that decision? Did it seem like the easy way at the time? Was it in response to someone else suggesting that you should? Were you pursuing what, at the time, was a genuine passion? Or was there some other reason that you decided to devote three or four years to learning those subjects? Be really honest with yourself. You’ve no doubt known why you chose that course of action all along. But we’re all really good at kidding ourselves and drowning out the real story with the one that sounds best.

I’ve had three very distinct careers so far in my life. I spent five years getting an architecture degree because, at the time, I was really interested in old buildings. But after working in that profession for about 15 years, I discovered that I wasn’t really that good at it or passionate about it.

Despite the fact that people were impressed when I told them I was an architect and the money was pretty good, I couldn’t continue on a road that wasn’t mine. It was tempting to keep going down the path I was on and took considerable effort to change. But I couldn’t look in the mirror and pretend I was being true to myself.

Brutal Honesty

As you acknowledge the real reasons you pursued the degree (or married that guy, or got into that career, or…) you have to be equally honest about whether or not those reasons are still valid for you. One of the realities of travel is that, whenever you get to a new location you have a different perspective on the countryside. Having made it to the top of a hill, you can now see things you couldn’t see before. This new perspective makes it perfectly acceptable, and frequently advisable, to change your plans.

Now that you have this new knowledge and new perspective, what makes sense for you to do next? The fact that you started down this road is not always a good reason to continue. Recalculating…

Where do you want to go now? What do you want from your life now? Having lived and experienced the past five years, what is your passion now?

It is NEVER Too Late

I’ve heard people object to the idea of going back to school, saying, “Do you know how old I would be when I finally finished that degree?” The answer is, “Exactly the same age as you’d be if you don’t go back to school, but a lot more fulfilled.”

My father, who was forced to leave school at age 16 when his father died, was a telephone repairman for 20 years. He hated every minute of it. At the age of 50 he decided he couldn’t continue. With a wife and five children, he finished his high school diploma through correspondence courses, quit his job and went to college to get his teaching degree. He then spent the last 15 years of his career with a giant smile on his face as he shared his passion for mechanics with vocational high school students. The transition was challenging for sure, but finding and being able to pursue his life’s purpose made it all worthwhile.

Only Two Mistakes

There are only two mistakes you can make when it comes to choosing an education (or relationship, or lifestyle, or career, or …) path. The first is to choose because you think it’s what someone else (or society, or earning opportunities, or…) wants you to do. The second is to continue down a road that you’ve discovered is the wrong one for you. To ignore the ‘recalculating…’ prompt.

So, having taken a day off from worrying, and discovered what it is that you really want now, the next steps are obvious. Not always easy, but obvious. You can tell they’re the right steps by that fluttering in your heart as you contemplate going back to school to get the degree that you REALLY want. To go find the woman you’re SUPPOSED to be with. To live the life that’s TRULY yours.

You can also tell they’re the right steps because the worrying has stopped.

P.S.     I’m reminded of two road trips, one in Ireland and one in Italy, both involving wrong turns. The Irish turn led us along a rutted cow path, between two ancient stone walls and through a farmer’s field. The Italian turn landed us tangled in fresh laundry in someone’s back yard. In all our travels, these remain a couple of our most memorable moments.

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