[ I like dusting off some of these older posts from time to time, especially on more philosophical subjects that we haven't covered in a while. My life has taken some additional turns since I first published this piece. For example, we have already moved away from the house mentioned below as the "current" house.
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?
David Byrne, “Once in a Lifetime”
Practical Time Travel is the art of getting from the present to a future of
our own choosing. We do this by navigating possibility space and by realizing
favorable outcomes. So the big question is, how do we get to a particular outcome?
To answer that, let’s start by examining how we get to any outcome.
As I’m so fond of saying, the
present is the future relative to the past. So here I am living in 21-year-old-me’s
future. Am I living the outcome that Young Phil was looking for? It’s hard to
say, for a couple of reasons:
- It’s difficult from this vantage point to get back inside the head of my
younger self. Unless we’re really thinking about it, we tend to remember our
past selves as being substantially similar to the people we are today. This
is almost always wrong. We need to remember specific things we did and said
in order to really come to grips with how different we used to be. Writing
samples are tremendously helpful in this process.Unfortunately, even if we do remember what we wanted at an earlier
point in our lives, it’s hard not to evaluate those desires in light of subsequent
attitudes and experience. So I tend to say things like “I used to have
this stupid idea about becoming a tree farmer.” Granted, I did once entertain
that rather unlikely ambition and, in light of my subsequent career choices
and what I’ve learned along the way about the kinds of things I’m suited to
do — not to mention the business side of it, about which I then knew
and still know absolutely nothing — it was a pretty stupid idea.By calling it stupid, I mitigate the embarrassment of being associated with
such a harebrained idea, but I do so at the expense of truly remembering how
appealing I used to find the idea. If we can’t empathize with our younger
selves, we can’t get much of a handle on who they were or what they wanted.
- Young Phil had, at best, hazy notions as to what it was that he wanted out
of life. And he tended to scrap what vague plans he did make every
few weeks. So, for all I can recall, the life I’m now living is a precise
match to one of my plans. But even if it is, it’s also a huge miss on several
But it doesn’t really matter whether I was following a plan or not. I was there; I’m now here. The process of how that happened is instructive whether it was carefully planned or totally random. One way to get a handle on that process is to examine a chain of cause and effect from the present to the past. I was thinking about this while looking out my bedroom window this morning. Our house overlooks a small park, and as I was enjoying the view of the rosy October sun on yellow leaves and green grass, I got to thinking about how it was that I happened to be sitting right there at that moment. Why was I there and not someplace else?
We bought this house in 2001 because my wife had taken a job with a telecommunications company located in the far south end of the metro Denver area. Commuting from where we were living in Boulder County was arduous for her, so we moved. If she hadn’t taken the job, we wouldn’t have moved there.
My wife found her job through the help of a friend who worked for the same company. If it weren’t for the help of her friend, she probably wouldn’t have taken that particular job.
She became acquainted with this friend when she visited Denver in the year 2000. If she hadn’t come to see me, she never would have met her friend.
She was visiting me because I had moved back to the Denver area in 1999. I had to leave Malaysia for economic reasons. If I hadn’t moved back, she wouldn’t have been here visiting me.
Prior to coming back, I had stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could, past the extension of my contract. If I had allowed the company to rotate me back in at the end of my contract, I would have taken a job in either Europe or California in 1997.
I stayed in Malaysia for as long as I could because I wanted to be near my (then) girlfriend. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have tried to stay longer.
In 1995, my original contract in Malaysia was for a few weeks. Then I was offered a one-year contract; then a second one-year contract. If I hadn’t taken both contracts, I would never have met my girlfriend.
I was originally brought down to Malaysia because of the experience I picked up in Russia. If I hadn’t done so much work in Russia, I would never have been called down to Malaysia.
My suggestion that we use process management tools from the total quality management system in rolling out new businesses was well received by management in Russia. If I hadn’t suggested this (or if they hadn’t liked the idea) I would not have made several trips to Russia in 1993 and 1994 helping to outline the business roll-out process.
My co-worker Cap got sick and had to take a leave of absence. He asked me to take over a project for him in his absence. The project was documenting processes for our joint venture companies in Russia. If Cap hadn’t gotten sick (or if he had asked someone else to cover this project for him) I would never have taken that first trip to Moscow.
In 1992, after I had been with the company for about a year, my boss became concerned that I was being underutilized in my position as a technical editor. When the position of Lead facilitator opened up for the Product Engineering and Development quality management program, she suggested that I take it. I did. If I hadn’t become lead facilitator, I would never have recommended using tools from the quality management system for the Russian start-ups
I was hired on a technical editor at U S WEST Advanced Technologies in 1991. If I hadn’t taken the job with US WEST, I would not have been able to take over Cap’s project for him.
My friend Mike started working at U S WEST a few months before I did. If Mike had not taken a job at US WEST, I would never have learned about the job opening there and would not have applied for it.
Mike and I met in grad school in 1986. If either of us had decided not work on that particular degree at that particular time, we would have never met.
I dropped out of law school a couple of years before starting my master’s. If I had stayed in law school, I would never have started my master’s.
After I graduated from college in Kentucky in 1983, I decided to move to Denver to go to law school. Had I not decided to go to law school, I might not have moved to Denver.
So there you have it: a straight causal line across 20 years from my ill-considered (and soon regretted) decision to go law school to my sitting in my current house. The items listed are not the only possibilities that had to be realized in order for me to be there, there are others. But if you take any one of them away, the sequence is destroyed and I almost certainly would have ended up someplace else.
So that’s how a particular outcome is accomplished—through conscious choices, happy accidents, and just plain dumb luck.
Originally published October 13, 2003.