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The Life That Could Have Been

I have noticed a frustration in people’s lives that often starts sometime in their 30’s and continues on for the rest of their lives. The frustration is over why there is such a gap between the life they have dreamed of and the life they end up actually living.

This reflects what Pulitzer Prize winning novelist John Cheever said many years ago, “The main emotion of the adult American, who has all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture, is disappointment.” Too many adults, particularly as they get toward the end of their lives, experience the awful pain of regret, as they reflect on a life that could have been.

There are several reasons this happens in people’s lives, (which I outline in my book, A Life of Excellence.) but there is one reason that is more of a modern phenomenon. It is what I call “the search for shortcuts.”

I recently read where prominent psychologist Martin Seligman said that modern people look for shortcuts to find true happiness and it just doesn’t work.

Stated differently, many people will tell you their future hopes and dreams, but when it gets right down to it, they do not want to go down the long difficult path to get it. So they look for shortcuts, believing this can be accomplished through easy formulas and techniques. Examples can be seen in the self-help section of any large bookstore. One will encounter such books as 5 Simple Steps to Double Your Sales, or 7 Easy Ways to Make Big Money in the Stock Market. In today’s world, if you have a problem, it is very likely someone has a ready formula or technique that claims to help you easily overcome it.

I often see this in counseling people who have pain in their lives. They desire immediate relief. I remember meeting with a man who had been married for a number of years who came to see me because his marriage had unraveled. As he told me his story, it was evident that the marriage was in shambles as a result of the path he and his wife had been on for so many years. The man was a typical Type A personality. He wanted to get things done quickly, and was hoping a forty-five-minute counseling session would solve his marital problems. He hoped I might have some type of formula that would untangle the mess they had made of their marriage. I reminded him that it had taken years to get to this low point in his life and there was no quick fix. I then posed the question Are you willing to get on a different path, one that may be long and difficult but that will eventually lead to healing, forgiveness, and restoration of your marriage? He said he was willing.

Dr. Rick Jensen is a nationally recognized sports psychologist whose clients include more than fifty touring pros on the PGA, LPGA, and Champions Tours. Fourteen of his clients have won at least one major championship. He has said that even professional golfers are so often looking for some kind of quick swing fix or putting cure. Jensen comments:

Golfers don’t want to hear that the reason they’re not getting any better is because they don’t practice, or that their expectations for what it takes to learn and to play good golf are flawed. What they want is to see their swings on video and then saved to a DVD, so they can show their pals what it is they’re working on; or, they want a quick fix that will cure that slice with minimal effort. Instead, what generally happens is the tip they get doesn’t transfer to the course under pressure, and they wind up blaming their teacher and walking across the street to see another pro. Or they go and buy a book or read a magazine article in hopes of finding a better tip that is the magic pill they’re seeking.

Maybe this is why a leading literary critic believes the Harry Potter series sold millions of copies. It is full of wish-fulfillment fantasies. The lead character could simply wave a magic wand and instantly make things happen. The critic said, “This is one of the primary fantasies of the human heart.” Magic is so much more appealing than painful disciplined effort.

In reality, there is an art to living, and in order to make progress on life’s meaningful objectives, steady plodding along the right path is required. Steady, patient, and often unexciting steps are the most effective way to make substantial progress in life. This doesn’t have much appeal to people caught up in our instant-gratification society.

English minister William Carey is a great example of a successful plodder. Despite little formal education, by his teenage years he could read six different languages. Because of his linguistic skills, he was chosen for an important missionary position in India, and later became professor of Oriental languages at Fort William College in Calcutta. He also founded his own publishing company, which printed Bibles in forty different languages and dialects, and were distributed to more than 300 million people.

When Carey was asked how he was able to accomplish so much, he replied that he was a good plodder. In his own words he said:

Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. That is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.

If you do not want to reach the end of your life and experience deep regret, you must remember that there is an art to living, and it is not a quick, easy formula. The final outcome of our lives is determined by the paths we go down, and every path has an ultimate, predictable destination.


Much of today’s blog is taken from my book, A Life of Excellence. My other books include Wisdom: Life’s Great Treasure , The True Measure of a Man, Reliable Truth, A Life of Excellence, Sex at First Sight, Safe Passage and Remembering the Forgotten God. All can be found on our online bookstore and Amazon.com.

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