Do you ever wish you could just start over?
I was having a conversation in an airport a couple of weeks ago as I traveled for business for the first time in a long, long while. She noticed I was working on a marketing presentation, and we struck up a conversation about our respective jobs. She wasn’t happy in hers.
She said to me “I wish I could just start my job over. I’ve been the head of marketing at this tech company for 3 years now, and now that I know what I know, I would do so many things differently.”
Then, she sighed heavily and said – but we can’t. It’s like that quote “the only way out is through.” She seemed sad.
At the time I didn’t think much about it, but a few days later I started thinking about that quote, and I realized that the tone struck me as odd. It was the word “only” that was bugging me. I looked it up, and found it’s been attributed to everyone from JK Rowling, to Carl Jung, Shakespeare, and Robert Frost. It’s usually taken to mean that the only way out is to embrace the pain and move through whatever ordeal we are going through at the time.
Frost was the most commonly cited, so I looked into it, and it seems that there was some context missing from the original quote. The phrase comes from his wonderful poem “A Servant to Servants”, which is the beautifully sad tale of a woman talking about her daily ordeals to a visitor who is camping out in the forest near her house.
As the woman talks about her life, she mentions her husband, Len, who she says “always looks at the bright side of life”. She says:
“Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through –“
I realized that the very subtle interpretation of what her husband said and what the woman heard was what I was looking for. Len implies to his wife that she has a choice about where she finds herself – but that the best option is to continue to move through it. But the woman in the poem sees no such choice. Through her lens she can “see no way out but through.”
When it comes to our careers, right now there’s a lot of talk about leaving the thing we’re doing and starting over. And I find that many often feel like my colleague in the airport did. From her view there is no “starting over” or moving on without completely upending everything. There is only living through what you might have done differently.
She thinks the only choice is to move through it because she doesn’t feel like she can move on.
There are a few times in our life where with people, places, positions that we know we must leave, start over, move on because it’s clear that forward motion has completely stopped. But, there are so many more times where it’s messier than that. There are things we wish we did, or didn’t do, and would make our current situation better if we could start over. But we still feel strongly that we should persevere and move through despite whatever it is that’s making us feel badly.
The truth is that we can let go of the past and start over any time we want. For my colleague at the airport that could mean simply letting go of all those things she would do over and looking at her next day at work like it was brand new. For others of us, it might mean looking at all that content we wrote last month, that no longer serves the purpose we thought it would, and just tapping the delete button. Or it might be finally pressing forward and making the decision to leave that job we can no longer tolerate.
What we can learn is that persevering through something is not the only choice left. It’s the best choice because we can choose it. The hard part is convincing ourselves that we have a choice.
Whether it’s our job, a relationship, or staying in the same place, it’s not that the only way out is through. But through will always be the best way out because we can also choose that moving through is also moving on.
It’s Your Story. Tell It Well.