I mentioned in this post that I don’t regret earning my art degree. And I don’t. But as a soon-to-be 32-year-old halfway through an almost six-year-long part-time engineering program, it’s fair to say that I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I’d just done this the first time around, when I was 20, with all my we’re-in-this-together 20-year-old classmates.* Would I be an engineer right now? Would I like it? Would I be cooking in my dream kitchen? Would I be living somewhere more exciting? Would I be happier?
This line of thinking always sends me down a rabbit hole of what-ifs branching off into other what-ifs and then spiraling into further what-ifs. Sure, if I could transport myself back in time, exactly as I am now, with my current arsenal of life experiences, to my freshman year of college, I’m confident that I would set out into the engineering program as a normal, full-time student and never look back.
But I wasn’t who I am now when I was a freshman in college. I was an idealistic, naive, wanna-be hippie without much self-confidence. I wanted to be a writer or an artist…something creative. I liked that image. I liked the idea of being “a creative.” I aspired to that persona because I really hadn’t grown into my own persona yet.
I changed majors a couple of times my freshman year, and even after I landed on graphic design, I wasn’t totally sure of it. I wavered a few times. I actually looked into engineering once. My dad had told me so many times that he thought I’d make a good engineer, so I checked it out. It looked difficult. Really difficult. I had no idea what that world would look like and I was afraid of it. Art was familiar to me. Art people were comfortable to me. I wanted to be an art person.
But what if I had, as my naive, idealistic, wanna-be hippie self, changed course and majored in engineering? What if? I might have been scared off by the difficulty of the classes and panicked, moving on to a yet another major. I might have finished my degree and embarked on my career and hated it. I could be an almost-32-year-old engineer back in school for graphic design. I could have finished my degree and embarked on my career and loved it and been highly successful.
Part of reevaluating my career has been the exercise of separating the things I dislike about my work that are specific to being a graphic designer from the things I dislike about my work that are common to all careers that involve going into an office and interacting with other people all day long in environments that fall somewhere on the spectrum of “just a little bit dysfunctional” to “wildly dysfunctional.”
I sometimes wonder, if I’d majored in engineering the first time around – would I have become frustrated with the all-too-common people politics so many of us run into in our jobs and attributed them, instead, to the engineering field as a whole? I wonder if I’ve been careful enough in separating the people politics in my current career from the frustrations I have with the field of graphic design in particular. I think I have. But I really won’t know until I step into my first engineering job. I like to tell people that even if I end up as unhappy as an engineer as I have been as a graphic designer, at least I’ll be getting paid well to do it.**
Seriously though. I’m lucky to be making this change at a time when the few jobs that are out there seem to be in the engineering and technology fields. I’m likely taking the smallest risk that one could take returning to school. There’s a very good chance that I’ll find a job when I graduate, and that the job will pay well. I know several people in highly-paid positions who would like to do something else with their careers but fear losing the security and comfort that their paychecks bring. I don’t blame them. If I was an engineer dreaming of becoming an artist, I’d be in the same position. Would I risk making the change? Probably not. Then again, I don’t know if I’d recommend that risk to anyone.
I play the “what-if” game all the time. Don’t we all? What if I’d bought a house during the bubble? What if I’d gone to that other college and had completely different experiences? What if I’d married that one guy? What if I’d never gone to that party where I met one of my best friends? Different outcomes for any of these questions and thousands of others would mean my life today might look completely different than it does right now.
The Many Worlds theory in quantum mechanics actually suggests that every possible outcome of our decisions splits the world into copies of itself, each copy moving into the future based on a different outcome. Who knows, maybe there are parallel worlds out there where I did buy a house before the crash, or where I did go to that other school, or where I did marry that guy, or where I never met that friend. Maybe there’s a world where I majored in engineering the first time around.
There probably isn’t. But even if there is, I’m sure there are times of happiness and joy in all those lives, and times of sadness and frustration. No option creates a perfect life. So I don’t regret the choices I made. They have all made me who I am today. But I do sometimes think, what if? “What if” isn’t really about regret. It’s about knowing we had choices in the past, and we did our best to make good ones, but more importantly, it’s about knowing we will have choices in the future. Everyday we have choices. There’s always going to be another chance to get it right.
*Award for most dashes in one sentence?
**I’m kidding…kind of…okay not really.