Saturday, May 26, 2007

How to Kick the ‘If Only’ Habit

Arthur Gordon was a southern lad who went to Yale and made good. In fact, he was so outstanding in his achievement that he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship on his graduation and went for two fabled years to study at Oxford. He even got to spend an afternoon once with Rudyard Kipling, right before the great poet died.

He came back and fulfilled a long-term dream by organizing or founding an avant-garde literary journal which he hoped would be a vehicle of his own and several other young writers' careers. However, after two years it turned out that he was a better student than he was an entrepreneur and editor. In fact, through many foolish decisions, after two years the magazine folded, he found himself out of work and heavily in debt. It was his first encounter with failure.

A very significant right of passage for a bright young achiever. It turned out that he knew how to succeed; he did not know how to cope with failure. So he became very depressed, even suicidal. His family down in Savannah, Georgia, became quite disturbed about him. They were successful in getting him to an important counselor, a friend of the family, an old gentleman who practiced on Manhattan Island.

Young Gordon went and poured out to the counselor his tale of lament and woe, all the self-recrimination that he was feeling for his failure. When he finished, the old counselor said, "I think your story is very similar to several others that I've worked with. Would you be willing to spend some time and listen to some recorded stories that I've got permission from these patients to share with others? I think there is similarity between their plight and yours."

So he put on a cassette and there was a man's voice. It was a father who had made several mistakes with a son in an earlier period. He had a great deal of regret for the pain that that was now causing.

The second voice was that of a woman. She made a very poor choice of a marriage partner. She had not handled the difficulties that ensued. She too was regretting all the things that were happening.

The next voice was that of a man, a high-placed business executive, who had made some unfortunate decisions earlier, and now was having to pay for them in terms of financial loss. He too was lamenting what he had done.

When the third voice ended, the counselor said to young Gordon, "Did you pick up a theme that was common through all three of those interviews? In their own way each was looking to the past and saying 'if only, if only I bad done differently, if only I hadn't made certain mistakes.' I don't mean to brag by sharing with you that I was successful in helping all three of those people. They are today much more productive in their living. The secret to turning them around was taking them to substitute two different words for the words 'if only.' I was able to get each one of those persons to learn to say 'next time' instead of 'if only.' Think about, it, 'if only' points to that sector of experience that is largely irrevocable. There is little we can do about the past and the things we have done, and to concentrate energies on the mistakes of the past is certain to lose energy altogether. However, 'next time' points to the future, that sector of experience that is still open, still subject to be changed. Here one can do differently. I was successful in getting each of these persons to take their failures as the occasion of learning rather than the occasion of despair, and if you will work with me, I will attempt to help you do the same thing with the memories that are troubling you so."

It made sense to the bright young editor and so he agreed to do a period of therapy at the end of which he was able to say, with what he had learned from that wise old counselor that one shift from 'if only' to 'next time' was in fact the most important learning that had come to him, more important even than all he learned at Yale or all he learned at Oxford.

I think that was a very significant event in the life of the young man, and it is a truth that can be transferred to the help of every one of us. I think that what he discovered, that is learning to deal with his failures in terms of hope rather than lament.

Source: John Claypool, "If Only to Next Time", First air date April 10, 1983
30 Good Minutes Program #2628

Image: John Claypool.