The Regretted History
by Ernie Schenck
I’d spend a lot more time in the pouring rain
Without an umbrella covering my head,
And I’d’ve stood up to that bully when he pushed
And called me names, but I was too afraid,
And I’d’ve gone on and saw Elvis that night
He came to town but mama said I couldn’t,
And I’d’a went skinny dipping with Jenny Carson
That time she dared me to but I didn’t.
Oh I, I’d done a lot of things different.
I just finished Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63. It’s the story of Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, who discovers a rabbit hole in the space-time continuum that offers him a chance to step through into 1958 and stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The book got me thinking. We all have our watershed moments. A junction in the timeline of our lives, where we have to make a decision. To go left or right. To go forward or fall back. Or to do nothing at all. Sometimes those decisions are brilliant. We roll the dice, we make our move and everything from that day forward is nothing but good.
But there are other times when we aren’t so fortunate and there’s nothing we can do to take it back. But what if we could? What if, like Jake Epping, we could go back to some fateful moment in our career and do it over, go the other way, make a different choice?
Some of us have been lucky. By some unexplainable quirk, our entire lives in this business have somehow managed to stay on the fortunate path. We’ve walked away from big offices, big paychecks and big titles for a hotel room, a couple of weenie accounts and a shot at the moon. We’ve left behind the small city for the big. And somehow it’s all worked out.
But some of us look back and all there is, for as far as the eye can see, are ifs. If only I had taken that job. If only I hadn’t pushed back so hard. If only I hadn’t gone to Los Angeles. If only my partner hadn’t asked me to join her new agency, the one that went under after two years. And, of course, the if of all ifs: If only I could go back, I’d do things differently. I’d make things right. If only I could.
Three times, I’ve been given chances to turn the course of my personal river. Three times, doors to the top were opened for me. Three opportunities to move the needle in ways I had always hoped for but, because of my stubborn unwillingness to pull up stakes and set out for parts unknown, had not. These were life-changing opportunities. The kind that change your life and your career for all time, the kind where you can change fortunes, shape cultures and leave your imprint in monumental ways. Three times I had the chance. And three times, I said no.
I don’t regret the choices I made, but I’ve often wondered where any one of those doors would have taken me and what I would do now, if I could find Stephen King’s rabbit hole and go back to my own watershed moments. Pointless to think about, I know; there is no rabbit hole after all.
But even though we can’t undo the choices we make as we grope and shamble our way through Adland, we can stop regretting them and start learning from them.
In her recent ted talk, journalist Kathryn Schulz had this to say: “The psychologist, Neal Roese, notes that people rank regret higher than all other negative emotions in terms of its ability to help us make better decisions in the future, avoid undesirable behavior, improve social relations, deepen self-awareness and refine our understanding of the world.”
Why do we do that? Why do we cling to these regretted histories? Maybe you took a job you shouldn’t have. Maybe you started a company you had no business starting. Maybe, faced with a heaving, ever-changing creative landscape, you never bothered to reinvent yourself and now here you are, left at the station, knowing the train is never going to pass this way again.
Advertising can be an unforgiving business, but what your career has been need not bear any resemblance to what it yet could be. There is no rabbit hole. We can’t change the past—but we can learn from it. CA