Whenever I’m tempted to complain, I always remember what I heard frequently growing up: “Consider the alternative.” The line was intended to point out that things could be a whole lot worse. Don’t like what’s for dinner? Consider the alternative: some people have nothing to eat at all. Your back hurts from too much work? Consider the alternative: some people are paralyzed. Didn’t get that raise you were looking for at work? Consider the alternative: some people have been unemployed for years.
In this sense, the phrase is instructive: it reminds us to count our blessings and recall that while some things in life may be difficult, they are frequently not nearly as difficult as they could be.
However, in the true spirit of the phrase, I’d like to consider the alternative when it comes to its very meaning: what if “consider the alternative” meant not “things could be a lot worse,” but “things could be a lot better?”
In this sense, the phrase would still come into play whenever things don’t go our way, but the outlook it inspires would be much more positive. This is something with which I’ve had to struggle over the past year or so, and I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lesson very slowly learned.
For instance, the phrase could definitely apply to my summer job search, which began in November and only ended last week. Throughout the majority of the process, I had had a very close-minded view of what the outcome would be. I had my heart set on working as a summer associate at a large law firm in Chicago or perhaps Milwaukee, finally reaping the benefits of many years of difficult study and summers spent building up my résumé. However, it was not to be.
I can tell you, I did everything according to the book. I networked. I shook hands. I remembered people’s names. I ate enough little hors d’oeuvres to fully stock a Caribbean cruise ship and have enough left over for the rats whose race I was running. I e-mailed, called, sent letters, took train trips, and all to no avail. After five long months of insisting on what was, in my view, the only alternative, I was one of the few remaining students in my class without a summer job.
I should have considered the alternative—in this case, any alternative.
Given current trends in the legal market, it should have been clear to me that unless I wanted to move to Chattanooga or Boulder Junction, I would probably have a difficult time finding a job at a big firm in a big-city market already saturated by two (or more) years of overconfident over-hiring in an under-performing career sphere. But I had plans for my summer, and this was the only type of work that fit in with those plans—until I was forced to admit that it wouldn’t work at all.
It took me until late April to realize that I must consider some alternative to what had rapidly turned into a pipe dream. So, reluctantly, I turned to the public interest sphere. Here, I soon noted with surprise, the fish were really biting. When you come to a public interest organization in need of legal help and tell them that you’re willing to work for them for free (thanks to a generous grant from your law school), responses are very quick and very favorable. Within weeks, I was lined up to work at a legal aid clinic in Milwaukee, and judging by the e-mails I’ve been getting from them so far, it looks like it will be a very enjoyable summer.
Does this mean that public interest work was my second choice for the summer? Well, yes. But I think it would not have remained that way for long if I had allowed myself to consider the alternative much sooner than I did. If I had been less rigid and more open to alternatives, I probably would have lined up this job (or similar employment) much sooner, and certainly in time to receive the funding that I will now have to go without until July. In fact, it would be more than fair to say that I’m kicking myself over my refusal to explore other options at a much earlier point.
But then, that’s the way all of us operate quite a bit, isn’t it? We latch on to a plan of action, we convince ourselves that it is the only viable option, and then we charge full steam ahead without conducting a full assessment of the alternatives—many of which may be as good or better than what we have hastily determined is the best.
This same truth applies even where we are not making the choice, but it is made for us instead. Often we do little more than form an aspiration or a dream, setting our heart on something that we have identified as the ideal. But then, before we even have a chance to take action, the dream is dashed before our eyes. Plans are changed without our consent—or are made for us without our input. A loved one is lost, the price is too high, the market shifts, our health fails.
The glass slipper, as it were, doesn’t fit.
And then—then is the time to consider the alternative. Then is the time to realize that perhaps what we had stored up for ourselves is simply not as good as what is in store for us. It may well be that all of our plans would have come to naught, and that what is planned for us will bring us so much more. We need to be open to this possibility. We need to avoid being wedded to outcomes that we had designated as best for ourselves.
The universe is so full of wonderful things that it would be perilous to cling to one, to the exclusion of all the rest. Consider what may be in store for you when you look not only beyond, but around what you have identified as the ideal. Because that ideal may be more of a stumbling block than the wide-open avenue that you thought it to be…
… and the alternative might be miles wider still.