It’s natural to wonder about how much better your life might’ve been had you been born into different circumstances. A recent conversation with Tim Berry made me think about this.
Tim is one of those remarkable people who have managed to do well in his entrepreneurial career and be an amazing father, husband, and friend. While I appreciate his personal success, what I’m most inspired by is what his kids are up to. Given who he his, he probably wouldn’t say that they’re doing it because of him, but you can’t deny the presence of a good role model and catalyst. One of his daughters is now the CEO of Palo Alto Software. One of his sons is the CTO for HuffPo/AOL. Another daughter is the marketing director at Klout. And so on.
Great job, Tim. ’Nuff said.
When I hear stories like that, I always wonder how my life would be different if I had been raised in different social circumstances. The brute fact is that growing up as a poor, multiracial kid in the South meant that I missed out on a lot. I didn’t have a computer until I bought my first one in college, so being a programming prodigy wasn’t in my cards. Our financial circumstances precluded my attending many creative arts programs or getting a lot of musical instruction as a kid, so that track was out for me, too. My family culture, combined with some of the social dynamics of the South, wasn’t conducive for me to focus on business as a teenager.
I started off “behind” in a lot of ways.
But, as I’ve said in History, Luck, and Intention, that things would have been different doesn’t mean they would have been better.
Maybe I wouldn’t have developed the drive I have. Maybe I wouldn’t have learned to use what I had to the fullest, even if I had to use it in novel ways. Maybe I wouldn’t have learned to see people for who they are and what they can do, rather than where they come from. Maybe I never would’ve made the choices that led to important formative experiences that forged my character and experiences. And maybe there wouldn’t have been a lot of people who were willing to give me a chance precisely because I wasn’t born with a silver spoon.
Moreover, it’s likely that being born in different social circumstances would mean that I’d have other personal challenges to go through. I might be worried about filling my parents’ shoes. Or living up to heightened potential or the opportunities they laid down for me. Maybe I’d be dying inside because the people in my social network were all too competitive and lost to check in with themselves and those around them.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. What might have happened isn’t a foundation for what is happening and has no bearing on the choices I’ll be making or the steps I’ll be taking today. Better to take the emotional and creative energy it takes to fuel those “might have been” stories and use them to fuel the “what is” for today and the “what might be” for tomorrow.
A different past would have changed us, but who says it would have been for the better?
And does the silver-lined story we create as a better-than comparison of our actuality warrant the energy it takes to create it – especially since we rarely create a story in which our actuality is the better picture?
Rather than focusing on what you might have done and been, focus on what you can and will do. The former disempowers you; the latter harnesses the power you have. You can’t rewrite your past, but you can write your way into a better present and future.
What “might have been” narrative are you giving power to?
Lisa Robbin Young says
Growing up as a multi-racial kid in the north might only have been slightly better, Charlie. We were a “welfare family” with all the honors and privvies afforded them. When my classmates were giving checks to the teacher for field trips, I was often selling penny candy (to those same kids) to come up with the scratch to be able to go.
But I graduated near the top of my HS class, and was grateful to Mom (who graduated college the same year I graduated HS) and Dad (who never made it to 11th grade) for emphasizing education. Simply “If you want a better life, you’ve got to be smarter than the folks around here”.
That’s my Dad. Mr. Practical.
And you’re 100% on target. If I’d grown up differently, I certainly wouldn’t have the hustle I have today. I wouldn’t see things from the perspective I do. And with all the “concentrated living” I’ve done, it’s hard to tell where exactly I would be today if I didn’t do any of that stuff.
Our focus needs to be on now – because that’s the only thing we can act on.
Great post Charlie. Our stories about where we’ve been are so powerful and we can use them for good or evil in our lives. You are absolutely right, in the end it doesn’t matter what happened or didn’t happen to us, it only matters how we choose to think, and what we choose to do moving forward.
Tim Berry (@Timberry) says
Thanks Charlie, I’m blushing of course, and proud. I forget who told me “forgiveness is not trying to have a better past,” it’s a great thought, a lot like yours here, and valuable. To be fair to the truth, my adult grownup children grew up in a household run by a brilliant, caring, and doing mother who put education first, always, and never forgot what it was like growing up in what felt to her as the only broken home in Mexico City back in the 1950s. My main credit there is having the sense to listen to her, a lot.
Leah McClellan says
Good stuff, Charlie!
No reason to spend time lamenting the situation we were born into; that can’t be changed. What we can do, though, is do what we can with what we have, and I don’t think there’s any limit on anyone except the limits we impose on ourselves.
For me, I like to focus on the benefits of how I grew up: poor white girl in dead coal town of Pennsylvania. OK near–I grew up in a rural area. No TV–yay it’s trendy to not watch TV these days! Organic live-off-the-land style farm (parents kick in the 70s) –yay, finally people are getting it! (yes trans fats and artificial stuff were the “enemy” even back then 🙂 Outdoor sports/hard work–yay I’m still fitter than most! I spent hours and days reading books, even encyclopedias–yay–ok I didn’t go to high school but breezed through college/grad school later–yay! Few opportunities, lots of drugs and alcoholism….run away, run away! No, run toward. Toward opportunities. Yay! It’s what you do with it 🙂
Thanks for the reminder and good for you to have such a great attitude!
I’ve heard people tell me that they which they were someone else. You gave an excellent point as to why I tell them it wouldn’t matter much. To paraphrase, you said that there would always be some other challenge in some other way. We are who we are for a purpose. Now, the way we respond to who we are…Well that could be a blog post all together.
Megan Elizabeth Morris says
We’re so, so grateful for who you actually are, CG. None of our lives would be the same, either!
Great message Charlie…….We all have our own histories and stories. Many are born with every opportunity, are spoon fed, and often scew it up. Others are born into lesser circumstances and end up prospering and making a difference. I myself was born into a comfortable middle class upbringing with private school and a college education. I went through periods of productivity, yet allowed self-limiting behavior prevent me from having true happiness and life balance. Until now….Anyone can change anything about themeselves if they wan to! Like your message, history is in the past regardless. If you cultivate what I call an “I Will” attitude, you will live with the vision and purpose necessary for life balance.
Thanks for the inspiration..
It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘what could’ve been’… and sadly it isn’t limited to the circumstances we’re born into. I’ve found myself at times wondering ‘what might’ve been’, if only I had done something differently, or made different choice. But I find that, as long as I’m honest and true to who I am, things seem to work out… at least, if I give it long enough 😉
Last year, when I was Dumped in the Most Horrible Way Possible, I spent a good couple of weeks wallowing in misery and pain, bemoaning the choices I’d made. I beat up on myself for having been blind to the signs of impending doom, and for having screwed things up so royally. Now here I am, nearly a year later, in a place that is so much better than I could have imagined one year ago… and I can guarantee that I would not be here if I hadn’t gone through that experience!
Even the stupid choices and negative experiences we go through can come to good… as with most things, it’s mostly a matter of what we make of them 😉
Colin J Browne says
That things would have been different doesn’t mean they would have been better. Amen. I think that to think otherwise is just a form of torture actually. What you’ve got may not be what you would have chosen, but it’s what you’ve got to work with and there are plenty of stories about overcoming adversity to make the case that amazing things can be achieved. Sometimes the things we compare ourselves to are just wrong … but no good can ever come out of comparing yourself to a person you never were and might never had been even if you’d had the chance. Man, that got deep for a second there … sorry!
marquita herald says
Very important message. While I highly value the lessons to be learned from history, I’m a firm believer in looking forward when it comes to my life. One time, many years ago I attended a group session for adult children of alcoholics – I was stunned listening to stories about unhappy childhood memories from adults …. people hanging on for dear life to things that had happened to them 15 or 20 years earlier. I walked out of there with one thing in mind – my parents did the best they could under the circumstances – I’m not responsible for what happened then, but I am responsible for what happens to me now and in the future. No excuses.
The Truth says
Well for me i really wish that i would’ve been born in the past since finding real love the way our family members had it back then came Very Easy for them which unfortunately today is a Different Story altogether.