Existential weight

Water photo created by wirestock – http://www.freepik.com

About the author:
Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor at WU Vienna, Austria. You can read more at his web-page and contact him at his email address

Once in a while, most of us sit down and take stock of our lives, both professional and private. Sometimes it is an anniversary, the end or the beginning of the calendar year, sometimes just a feeling that now is the right time to reflect on what is currently going on, where this has come from and what it might lead to. Sounds familiar? If no, then you might want to reconsider. Taking some time off the beaten path of our daily lives that are often hectic, output driven, and seemingly dictated by demands coming from – or at least framed as – forces beyond our control such as circumstances, employers, family members, or friends can be productive on several accounts. Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book ‘7 Habits of Successful People’ (London et al.: Simon & Schuster, 30th anniversary edition, 2020), links such times to renew and refresh the physical, spiritual, mental, and socio-emotional facets of our lives, something the he calls ‘sharpen the saw’ in order to live a more fulfilling life.

If you do savor such reflection times during your yearly routine, you might run into what I sometimes call the ‘shouldn’t-wouldn’t-swirl’: scratching your head whether some of the major career decisions you made in life were the right ones and then go in circles when you try to find an answer. I don’t know about you, but at least I am definitely prone to this swirl. Typically, it leads to questions such as: Shouldn’t I have accepted the offer made by employer X rather than staying where I am? Wouldn’t it have been better if I had said no to the project X that took so much of my time and energy and has generated so little fruit? Wouldn’t it have been more beneficial for all involved if I had put more emphasis on building long-lasting relationships while pursuing my ambitious career goals?

There is definitely an upside to such thoughts. They make us aware that our action has consequences and, if not aligned with treasured core values, might lead to career and life regrets that will come back to haunt us. Inevitably, I have and will not be able to live up to all values I claim to have, either due to double-binds in situations that I did not enter out of my own choosing or simply because short-term gains seemed to be more attractive than long-term alignment with what is precious to me (and, at least in my case, this never really ‘paid off’ in the end). As we cannot restart our life clock, this is a strong encouragement to be (a) aware of our core values and (b) make every conceivable effort that action in our private and professional life is in harmony with what we really stand for. The more we are able to do so, the greater the odds that we live at peace with ourselves, that we use the energy coming from a set-up in our life not hampered by wrong compromises and deviations from what we know to be right. In her book on major regrets of people at the end of their lives (The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Hay House, 2012), Bronnie Ware points towards five areas: courage to live a life true to myself, not so much emphasis on work, courage to express one’s feelings, staying in touch with one’s friends, allowing oneself to be happier. Do these areas ring a bell? Are other areas crucial for you?

Of course, there is also a downside of going in circles when these questions come up. You might get tangled up in regrets, blaming yourself and others for not having known better, and desperately wishing for having taken different tack at some stages. Yes, there might be some areas where you have to come to terms with what went wrong. Different ideologies, religions, and world views offer ways out. More often than not, however, a simple call to order might be in place. Alternate history, while constituting a fascinating „genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome“ (Collins English Dictionary), is not a realistic option in your personal life. Personal experience, coaching insight, and decision theory tell us quite clearly: there is no way of knowing for sure that an alternate course of action would have been better. Yes, you might be tempted to opt for another course of action in retrospect. But (a) we cannot and (b) we have no way of knowing that the outcome would have been better. Getting it as good as we can the first time, and integrate the weal and woe of what we have and have not done into the ongoing story of our life – this is what gives our decisions existential weight and makes life unique and precious.

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