Pivotal Moments by Ryan Wooley

Life’s pivotal moments are often exaggerated when we tell our stories.

“She turned around, and I just knew that she was the one.”

“I decided then and there that I was done with that fuckin’ place.”

“I saw that performance and I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

I’m not saying that life doesn’t have its key moments, its inflection points. I remember many specific moments from my life that made a difference to me one way or another. I just think that sometimes we bestow greater meaning on specific moments over time, especially as we are trying to subsequently explain their meaning.

Remember the tree from A Separate Peace? (At one time, that was required HS reading, right?) In Gene’s memory, that thing was enormous, but when he went back to see it, it was much smaller and less distinct than what he had constructed in his mind in the 15 years he’d been away from it. His interpretive memory did that. His need to make meaning of the situation that transpired there allowed him to stretch and repaint in order to fit into the conclusion he had come to about this event in his life.

Those key pivotal moments stand in contrast to the rest of our memories because we have colored over them so many times as we’ve recalled, interpreted, and retold.

Most of our experiences are more like needle pokes. It isn’t the one rejection that gets us, but the fourth or fifth that begins to tell us that we want to play a different game. Or, it is the twenty-seventh time we’ve been watching a movie and thought, “I could have written a better screenplay.” In many cases, it is only later, after we’ve made a decision or after we’ve successfully navigated a transition, that we endow it with so much certainty or magnitude.

Most of us don’t have the Norma Rae moment. I suspect there is at least a little unwitting embellishment in many of the “big moment” stories we are told. Further, which moments we remember seem too skewed toward those associated with success. Ever hear someone say, “I decided to go all in and it didn’t work out. My children and I are now homeless and hungry?” Why don’t we hear those stories?

Some would suggest survival bias is at play—which is when people concentrate on things that have made it past some selection process while ignoring those that did not. For example, we might focus on tales of movie stars or CEOs who dropped out of school and hit it big while ignoring all of the stories of people who committed just as fully but failed to find success.

Is it possible that survival bias influences the way we remember moments of our own lives? As we are remembering those key moments, are we forgetting those times when we were clueless and fumbling?  

Either way, if we are inspired to act more boldly and spontaneously based on one event, we might look at our mortgage, or our car payment, or our college student and think, “Yes, I was meant to be a screenwriter, but I can’t jeopardize all of this. I can’t take that kind of risk.” For many of us, life can be much worse. There might be more to lose than to gain.

The flip side of this coin is that it is easy to get lulled to sleep by the rhythms of a seemingly unmovable life. “This isn’t what I want or wanted, but it is okay. I don’t see myself having the big pivotal moment, so I’ll just sit tight, stay the course, and wait it out.” But, if playing guitar and singing are in your bones, won’t it be a little tough to start a band at 65?

Most successful pivotal stories are slow builds. They tend to start with identifying a specific goal and then building habits that slowly open that new door—even if that door is at conventional retirement. Successful transition stories happen over months or years.

Yes, Tim’s story has the headmaster-meeting moment. I’m not minimizing it or how risky that might have been for him. But I watched him slowly establish his writing business through daily habit, years before he made this move.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m much better about recognizing this and preaching it than living it. I haven’t been as good about building daily habits as I’d like. However, I’m trying to get better. And I’m trying to identify my real goals that sit on the other side of that career/post-career line, even if it continues to unfold conventionally.

Why? Mainly because I want to optimize my remaining time on this planet. I want to do my best to re-align my allocation of time to the best life and the best version of me that I can imagine. As I’m starting to see past the responsibilities of raising three children, paying off my house, and the many other things that put my true self in the back seat, I’m starting to see a new “me” emerge. I’ve been a good father, husband, son, neighbor, employee, coach. It is time to start building for me again—little by little, day by day. I am not waiting for the big moment. What about you?

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