[Life Back West] December 2012 – “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.”

Colorful Door

Life’s choices and chances come to you in so many ways that if you’re not looking you most likely miss more than you catch.

More often than not you focus on what you’re losing or lost, not what you could have gained.

The passing of a year, and meetings with some former colleagues this week reminded me of one simple fact; we regret more what we think we’ve lost than what we’ve likely gained.

Both people I met with, in what’s become a veritable talent diaspora from the former San Francisco-headquartered Barclays Global Investors (now owned by BlackRock), have landed on their feet with good roles and in far better situations than if they had had somehow stayed.

Both, though, still carried a small sense of regret, almost a case of looking at the option that had been closed out rather than what had opened up. No “boy did I escape a rapidly shrinking platform” sensibility.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s research on something dubbed  “prospect theory” proved what few suspected: we suffer losses poorly. Our behavior tends to overstate our mishaps rather than realize our gains. We overvalue what we have; we undervalue what we might gain.

Last year at this time I was stepping down from some volunteer diversity work with an organization when I recognized that the opportunity to make a contribution – my common criteria for helping out – was unlikely given a mix of hostility and homophobia by one of the group’s staffers. I certainly missed doing the volunteer work this past year and many of the really good people I worked with; I didn’t miss the animosity. What I ended up gaining instead was a year of  excellent (and increased) work in my consulting practice, something I might have missed if my focus had been on helping out by volunteering.

Alexander Graham Bell said that “Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing we see too late the one that is open.”

Bell’s own story exemplifies that thought: his Scottish parents emigrated to Canada (and perceived healthier air) with Bell in tow, determined that their last child would not follow the fate of their first two who had died of tuberculosis. Leaving London was likely a sense of loss for their college-attending son. But absent a move to Canada and later the United States, the set of doors that opened would never have happened. Bell’s inventions of things like the microphone, the fastest hydrofoil of its time, an air conditioning precursor and the telephone never have occurred in that alternative future if Bell stayed in London.

Bell didn’t need just Watson to help him, he needed a string of chances and choices in countries and cultures like Canada and the United States to set him on his way to an incredible career.

And like Bell, for most of us the path to a better future is the door that’s opening, not the door that’s closing behind us.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

Colorful Door. Photo credit: brentdanley

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