Picture perfect?

If you’re anything like me, then perhaps, from time to time, you’ve engaged in the completely foolish enterprise of attempting to picture what your life will be like a year or two from now.

I can tell you right now that there are several much better uses of your time. Like trying to convince a Democrat to support concealed carry.

It has become clear to me recently how very little control we have over the things we trick ourselves into thinking we handle in our lives. The natural human tendency is to look at where we are now and assume that we planned it that way, then extrapolate this assumed control for the future. This leads to the erroneous conclusion that we have ourselves to thank not only for where we’ve been and where we are now, but also where we’re going.

I’m not saying that we have no input in the outcome of our lives. Obviously we daily face choices with serious consequences for our well-being. Do I continue in school or stop at one degree? Do I accept the offer in another city? These are fairly big-ticket decisions. Do I drive within the speed limit? Do I play a computer game or go for a run? These are smaller-scale decisions that nevertheless result in fairly predictable outcomes over time.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that life is actually in any way predictable. Sitting on the couch and sinking into online gambling might wreak havoc on your waistline, but it might also work wonders for your wallet. Meanwhile, exercising could improve your cardiovascular health, but it could also just give you a heart attack. Similarly, getting a second degree might be a valuable investment in your future career, or it might be a colossal waste of time and money.

There’s really no way to say.

And why? Because, most of the time, we have no idea whether things will turn out as we pictured them. We make choices based upon what we hope will be the outcome, but when the outcome looks quite a bit different from what we expected, we are always curiously surprised—as though we didn’t already know that life is almost completely unpredictable.

Like many people, I’m sure, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of thinking that if I just checked off certain items on a list (read: post-graduate education, Ivy League degrees, spending extra hours in the library, making “meaningful” connections at networking events), life would be peachy keen in a matter of months. I honestly thought that if I could just make it to the summer after my first year of law school, everything would be fine—more than fine, really—from then on.

Let’s be honest, folks: I was dumb. I imagined an ideal life starting at the young, young age of 22: school summers spent doing legal work at a big firm for lots of money, post-graduation spent choosing from among attractive offers and glamorous destinations, a lockstep pay scale in which increases in compensation were directly correlated with time at the firm, and (best of all) the ability to stop worrying about money for the first time in my life.

It was a short step from there to all the rest: the house (if not houses), the restaurants, the vacations, the corner suite. I have always, always dreamed big—and in my dream, everything was always picture perfect.

Well, guess what? Life doesn’t work like that. For one thing, if you could embark on a picture perfect life just by signing up for a few years of law school, people would be beating the doors down. And, more generally, who ever said you could get the life you’ve always wanted just by planning well? If it were that easy, there’d be no one left to sweep the streets.

You can call it by any name you’d like: a reality check, a slap in the face, a wake-up call… in short, you pictured things perfect, and perfect just doesn’t exist.

I, for example, can only tell you one thing about this coming summer: I will not be doing what I pictured just a few short months ago. God only knows what I will be doing, but raking in the dough at a big firm in a big city is almost certainly off the list.

Did I give inadequate weight to the effects of the Great Recession? Perhaps. Did I rely too much on what I thought to be a stellar résumé, only to find that no one even looked at my résumé after looking at my age? Definitely. Could I have been more realistic in my vision of the future? Probably. Was I convinced otherwise by countless big-talking career advisors and legal practitioners along the way? Without a doubt.

Here in the so-called land of opportunity, we frequently tell one another that we can do anything we set our minds to. But what happens when the world temporarily sets its mind against us?

Maybe the answer lies in letting go. It’s certainly possible that the outcome we pictured for ourselves is not nearly as good as something else in store for us. Moreover, still operating under the principle that life is unpredictable, there’s no guaranteeing that we would actually have liked whatever we had in mind.

But it’s hard to let go like that. It’s hard to throw yourself into the wind and let it take you where it will.

At least for now, though, I think that’s what I’m going to try. It may not be the case that whatever ends up happening will be loads better than what I had pictured; in an unpredictable world, this would be too much to expect. On the other hand, the one other time in my life when I’ve completely thrown up my hands in desperation, I’ve had exactly that result: an unbelievably exhilarating, satisfying, beautiful outcome that far surpassed anything I could have imagined.

So, in hopes of tempering my bitter with some sweet, perhaps I’ll end on this note: at least once before, I’ve been given an outcome that threw out my “perfect” picture and replaced it with the picture of perfection itself.

And given that life is unpredictable, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen again here…


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