Before color tv and before personal computing and long before the internet, my portal to the outside world was a glossy magazine called TV Guide. Our copy came in the mail every week and I studied it carefully. I couldn’t read yet but I remember being captivated by the cover photos of television celebrities: every week a different entertainer was featured. I began to think about collecting these magazine covers. It seemed clear to me, in my preschool logic, that possessing these glossy portraits was a magnificent form of wealth. I wanted to be rich in the currency of TV Guide covers.
My ambition to be rich in magazine covers developed over the course of several weeks and that became a problem for me. By the time my interest went from a glimmer to a specific plan to cut the pages out with a scissors and collect them in a shoe box many weeks had passed. I thought about all the covers I could not collect because they were already discarded. Discouraged by these thoughts, I didn’t start collecting. In my four year old logic, it was too late to begin because my collection would be missing those crucial covers that had already slipped through my fingers.
Why has this story has stayed with me so vividly while so many other small events have long passed from memory?
Flash forward to my sitting with clients who are struggling with their sense that they have missed professional and personal opportunities. A 35 year old man worries that he came out of college with the wrong degree and will, as a result, never have the career success that he might otherwise have had. I think: “You are so young. You are only 35 years old and have so much time to attain the career you seek.” However, I know that at this moment he is not feeling like a young man with an abundance of time. At this precise moment, he is the oldest that he has ever been and that’s what he is feeling.
My 35 year old client just can’t let go of the idea that he has mortally wounded his career by pursuing the “wrong” degree. This idea has become a self-fulfilling prophesy with the power to hold him back from taking the steps that would move him forward. How can he take sustained action in pursuit of a career goal if, underneath it all, he believes it is already too late? If he doesn’t change this belief now, at 35, he may be thinking at 45: “I wish I had understood how young I really was ten years ago. I should have done something then while I still could; now, at 45, it is really too late.”
Once it takes hold, this idea of having wasted precious time and missed unique opportunities can be difficult to dismiss. Regret can fester and impede change. It can happen to parents who believe they cannot undo the mistakes made with their children. It can happen in a marriage when couples develop hurtful ways of relating and feel too defeated to believe they can turn it around. It can happen to a four year old.
One bedrock premise of the counseling profession is that people can change any behavior at any time. I’ve had the privilege of being present in that moment when a client pushes aside the cloud of doubt and regret and sees that it is not too late. There is time to do things differently. There is time for a new beginning. These are joyful moments that reveal the precious human gift of choice.