What If -- You Made Another Choice?

When I was seven years old, a friend and I accidently burned down my next-door neighbors’ garage. It was not act of malice, but rather two curious boys trying to learn how to start a fire in advance of our Cub Scout camping trip. Days of anxiety, tears, guilt, and even court proceedings followed – a painful stretch that left an indelible imprint. What if it hadn’t have happened?

My high school years were dream years. I was a star athlete in our small but newly built high school. I loved that building, the staff of youthful, energetic teachers and, most of all, the admiration of the girls. I was on top of the world… until, two weeks before the start of senior year, my father announced we were moving to the largest city in the state where I would graduate. I went from being top dog, to no one knowing who I was. It was a year that tested my character, resilience and my faith. What if we had not moved?

I got married when I was 18. My father, a Baptist minister, told me in no uncertain terms that I had made a man’s decision and would have to live with the consequences. Within a year, my wife and I were are on food stamps, doing all we could to survive and stay in college. What if I had delayed that life decision?

My first job in fundraising was at a college led by a gifted fundraising president. He took me on, promising to teach everything he knew about being a college president. I stayed under his mentorship for two years, then decided it was time to spread my wings.  What if I had stayed another two years to learn even more from this wise man?

At BrightDot, I find myself working with development professionals who are asking the same kinds of questions all the time. What if I were somewhere else? What if I had a different kind of boss? What if I had responded differently to the vibes the donor was giving me?

We all get caught up in the “what if’s”: moments of self-doubt, questioning decisions we’ve made, wondering if we’d chosen something else — someone else — whether our lives would have gone in another (read: better) direction.

Serious study is now being done about the power of preventive decision making. It turns out to be less about rehashing the various outcomes that could have resulted had you made different choices. It is more about learning from each and every decision and planning in advance how to make a “so-what” decision when similar life juncture should arise.

I received a great tool from the top gun pilots that I interviewed at the Naval Base in Pensacola, Florida: the four-step debriefing session that they take after every flight. While still in their flight suits, just minutes after touching down, the group gathers around a table and take turns answering these questions:                          

  • What did I intend to do?
  • What did I do?
  • What did I learn?
  • What would I do differently next time?

These are not “what if” questions, but “so what” questions.  At BrightDot, we teach our clients how to ask these four questions after every special event, important meeting and significant donor call. This tool is about taking every experience, questioning it, learning from it and preparing for a better future outcome. Notice the use of the pronouns that the pilots use in the session.  The debrief question is never about a teammate – what did Edgar do wrong? – but it is about themselves: What did I do? What would I do differently?

We all make mistakes we wish we could undo. But only when you unpack the moment and own your piece of it can you truly be prepared for your next outing – and a successful horizon.

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