Drive the Car You Have: Dealing with Ambivalence in a Life Filled with Choices

Our lives today are filled with more choices than ever. Personal and professional development opportunities, continuing education, work, marriage and children – all are options to consider, and each comes with a variety of alternatives and combinations. Yet, after we make our choice, often with great anxiety and concern, we spend a great deal of time wondering about the path not taken, second-guessing ourselves, worrying about missed chances and dealing with guilt and regret over the options we didn’t choose.

While I facilitated a discussion group entitled “Doing Less, Having More” with a group of professionals, the recurring theme was one of ambivalence about the choices made: the working parent regretted not traveling more for work, thinking that it would have put her in line for a promotion faster; a professional who had been promoted to CFO wondered if there would ever be a good time to start a family; the single manager felt that the likelihood of creating a personal life was remote since the company saw him as always available; and a stay-at-home parent wondered if the MBA she had worked so hard for was now just useless paper. It sounded to me like an epidemic of “buyer’s remorse.”

It called to mind the story of a car purchase I had made. My son had grown to an age where his legs were long, his friends were tall, his band practiced at a variety of homes requiring the frequent transportation of instruments and equipment and my sweet, sexy little car no longer made sense. I did the research, checked out the choices that fit the needs of my checkbook and our garage.

The car I purchased wasn’t all that small or sexy. It didn’t have a leather interior and it wasn’t a stick shift. It was, however, practical, affordable, had a good sized trunk and an ample back seat for long-legged teens. As I drove around, I found myself looking at all the other cars I hadn’t purchased with longing. While I could console myself that I wasn’t driving a decidedly parental vehicle like a van or an SUV, the ambivalence of my choice weighed on my mind.

I realized that I needed to just drive the car I bought. Spending my time in regret, wondering if it had been the right decision was a waste of energy and emotion. The choice had been made. I had done a pretty good job of weighing the pros and cons. I needed to live with the choice I made and move forward.

And so did these folks. How could I help them focus on getting the most out of what they decided to do, rather than spend their time wondering if they should be doing it?

There are things we all can do to focus on enjoying the choices made and enhance the selection process for the future:

Sports Car vs. Van – When the dream competes with the practical, create a list of objectives you are trying to accomplish with this choice. Rank your objectives and figure out how many of the highest ranking ones will be met with each choice.

Resist Back Seat Drivers – Everyone has an opinion but you need to silence the voices of others so you can know your own. Don’t take a referendum. Select one or two people who know you well and can provide objective and truthful advice. Ask them what they think the best choice would be and why, and then weigh that against your own thoughts.

Have a Map/GPS – It’s important to know where you are going, and more important to make sure that detours don’t take you too far off course. While the most direct route may not always be possible, you don’t want to travel too far away from where you hope eventually to end up.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road – Once you’ve made the choice, make the commitment to close the book on that particular decision. Enjoy the choice you made, and remember the reasons that made it the right choice now.

Know When to Trade In – Not all choices last forever. You can buy a different car; leave a job that is no longer challenging or return to school. When the criteria for your choice have changed, it may be time to change the solution.
It’s hard not to have some regrets when you have to make a choice:

  • You are eager to start your own company, but are thisclose to being vested with your firm;

  • You want to apply for the Director’s position, but the extra travel would create havoc with your family right now;

  • Additional education will take time and money away from the annual family vacation;

  • The position you are being offered seems like a dream come true, but the commute will be lengthy and stressful.

Whatever choice you make, if you think carefully about what is important to you, there will be good reasons for it. Focus on all the reasons it is the right choice for you today. The goal is to take the option that fits best and creates the least amount of regret for as long as you will be living with it.

NOTE: Once my son was off to college, I drove a sweet, sexy, high performance car again. It was fun to dirve, allowed only one other full sized adult to join me, and was terrible in bad weather. Once we moved into the city, I traded it in for a used, reliable, heavier car with seat warmers, and room for more than two adults.  No regrets – there will be other cars in my future.

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