Sometimes it’s difficult to see our lives objectively.
We’re so close, so caught up in the living of our daily grind that we can’t always see what got us here; what we missed by taking this path, or what we gained by not taking another.
Things may look better or worse to us in our present situation, simply because of our perspective.
Twenty-two years ago, I became an air traffic controller. Back then, I was working in a different location and in a different capacity than today, but the job was essentially the same.
I talked on the radio and separated airplanes from each other, from other people’s airspace, and from the ground.
I have a good friend who worked with me back then.
He was better at it than me. I was pretty good, but he was really good.
He had an almost photographic memory and was one of the rare few who knew the regulations front to back – and could still actually work traffic. Usually the book smart folks were the worst at actual application – but not him.
He was very bright, very talented, and enjoyed his job immensely.
He got a rush out of working busy traffic pushes, and would incessantly talk shop outside of work.
We were similar in that respect – we both enjoyed what we were doing and looked forward to going to work. We got a similar rush from our jobs, and we looked forward to the challenges every day.
Now, fast forward.
After a few years as a controller, my friend reluctantly chose a different career path – in computers. He was equally skilled at that, by the way.
I continued as a controller, and in the intervening years, eventually worked my way from the military to the civilian world, and followed the (sort of) natural progression from line controller to supervisor. Now I’m still in the field, but my job is no longer controlling planes – it’s supervising others who do – which is considerably less satisfying.
My friend and I spoke on the phone recently, reliving old times. During the conversation, it came out that he really misses being a controller, but knows that it’s too late to go back. Air traffic control is typically a young person’s game, and when you’ve been out of it for years – decades in his case – getting back in is almost never easy or practical.
But he still wishes he could do the job again.
I’m still in the job, but find myself looking for something else.
He wishes he could have made it his career.
I’m looking for ways to change my career.
His perspective shows him the loss of not doing something he loved.
My perspective shows me the stagnation of doing one thing too long – to the point that the joy I once had for it has now become drudgery.
They say that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
That may be true in this case – for both of us.
I hope my buddy finds fulfillment in whatever he tries, now and in the future. He has the brains and ability to do just about anything – but age restrictions pretty much exclude him from doing the one thing he wants. I hope he doesn’t let that stop him from finding something else that he loves.
For myself, I’m determined to be thankful for a long and productive career – even if the latter years have been somewhat less fulfilling than the earlier ones. I want to look back on the next twenty-odd years with the satisfaction of having done things that I chose, rather than doing only what practicality demanded of me.
What I really don’t want is to look back on my life twenty years from now, and experience the loss of not doing something I loved with that time.
The passage of time allows us to play ‘What if?’ in reverse – it gives us the perspective to look not at what could have been, but at what was, and why.
Pursuing something important now helps avoid regrets in the future.
It also ensures that our future perspective of elapsed time will not be one of lost time – but of gained opportunities.