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Life-Ruining Mistakes?

The other day, the novelist Robin Sloan mentioned in his newsletter that he really liked the Financial Times. It seems everyone’s talking up the Financial Times lately, so I went and followed them on Instagram.

The first post in their feed was for an essay by Janan Ganesh, about how although the American self-help industry makes it seems like most mistakes can be salvaged, many are in fact unsalvageable and life-destroying. An excerpt:

The sur­prise of middle age, and the ter­ror of it, is how much of a per­son’s fate can boil down to one mis­judge­ment.

Such as? What in par­tic­u­lar should the young know? If you marry badly — or marry at all, when it isn’t for you — don’t assume the dam­age is recov­er­able. If you make the wrong career choice, and real­ise it as early as age 30, don’t count on a way back. … A big [mistake], or just an early one, can fore­close all hope of the life you wanted.

At first I found it oddly cheering (if I can’t fix my mistakes, I might as well relax and accept my circumstances), but then I found it sad. (Does my husband feel like he made a life-destroying mistake by marrying me? LMAO.) Now I’m more like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ because things can only ever go the way they go. Anyway, I’m not yet a FT subscriber, but it was a nudge.

Discussion  11 comments

Martin Kelley

I think the shrug response is ultimately the right one. In my 20s I lived in a hipster neighborhood and had perfected the 18-month-long torrid relationship. As I rounded 30 I probably could have continued that lifestyle indefinitely but I chose to marry, follow my fiancée to a small town, and start a family. Do I miss being able to walk two blocks to good Ethiopian food? Yeah, sometimes. But that doesn't mean my choice was a mistake. We make decisions that confine us but the art of good living is thriving where we've chosen to plant ourselves. Not to choose would be its own kind of big mistake.

Stephanie A-H

I think the problem i have with this is the labeling of certain choices as mistakes. So many of the big life decisions are exactly how you describe them - a series of trade offs. Sure sometimes we make really stupid calls but the majority of them are very much in the vague zone of "what if?" that you can usually carry on with if you have a pinch of flexibility and optimism.

Jay Langford

I’ve been meaning to become a member for a little while, but this article triggered me so much I signed up just so I could comment on it. I just think this line of thinking is absurd. We live at the best time to be alive in human history. Maybe it’s because I’m American, but I think there are always opportunities in life. Each decision that we make will close doors and open others. Some decisions are very important and have incredible downside potential if we get them wrong. But, the idea that the average person in highly-developed countries routinely makes “unrecoverable” decisions is a massive overstatement.

Stephanie A-H

My entire thinking reading the article was "Bruh. You ok there?" - couldn't help but think he was going through something and projecting like mad.


The keyword in your whole comment is “American”. That’s why you think life is great. You and your people have benefited from your rapacious imperialist ways for decades. So of course you think life is great. You live on a planet where the majority of people have been subjugated by economic necessity to serve your needs.

Jay Langford Edited

They do make a lot of good points. It is certainly easy to screw up your life with bad decisions. But I just find that after you turn 30 you cannot turn your life around after making mistakes is pretty far-fetched. I read through the community guidelines after posting (my bad), and I don't feel very great about my first comment in the community being a negative one. Mea culpa. I just think that people often have the opportunity to improve their lives.

Phil Gyford

We live at the best time to be alive in human history.

Maybe collectively, on average, but that still leaves many, many, many people with, let's say, less-than-good lives, and not much they can individually do about it.

I think there are always opportunities in life

I hardly know where to start with this.

Each decision that we make will close doors and open others.

No, some decisions do that, and some decisions close doors... and leave you in a corridor with no doors good enough to make up for the setback caused by the first door.

But, the idea that the average person in highly-developed countries routinely makes “unrecoverable” decisions is a massive overstatement.

The article doesn't say anything about "the average person" succumbing to this fate "routinely". It says that "a per­son’s fate can boil down to one mis­judge­ment". Are you saying it's not possible for this to happen once, to anyone?

I can think of friends whose lives aren't awful by any means, but who acknowledge how their lives could have been much better if it wasn't for one thing they did or didn't do decades ago. An impulsive decision of youth putting them on a track with fewer options and only realising that when it's much, much harder to change course. Or when it's financially impossible to do so.

I'm happy for you that your life has – I'm assuming – gone OK, and none of your friends or family have made decisions that were reasonable at the time but turned out to be poor ones in the long term. But it seems strange to me that you can't imagine the lives of less fortunate people, and the paths that others' lives could take.

Jay Langford Edited

[Comment deleted]

Jeremiads Edited

The FT is only rated highly because it pays people adequate amounts to produce adequate journalism, thus achieving a higher standard than you can generally expect in the UK. I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t deserve its reputation for quality, but I would say that it mainly enjoys that reputation because the general standard of UK media is so low.
As for the topic at hand, who says you get to have a choice as to what you do with your life? The idea that you get to decide the direction of your life in a market capitalist economy is a cosy capitalist myth promoted largely by Americans (and your allies, eg the Brits) who, funnily enough, do more than any other group of people to restrict what everyone else can do with our lives.
If you now feel like the choice you were sold was an illusion all along, well, that’s only fair, seeing as how you’ve benefited from the illusion of choice and from trampling all over the freedoms of others. I don’t want to live on a planet where the vast majority of people live restricted lives to benefit a minority of wealthy people (including the relatively wealthy segment, ie me). So if you have to now suffer what you’ve long been comfortable imposing on others – isn’t that just? Accept it.

Lisa S. Edited

I guess I can see a lot of sides here. On the one hand, there is an awful lot of choice that is closed off to us, and yes, even in North America, by the circumstances of our birth, and that's worth acknowledging. We work within a certain set of constraints that we were lucky or unlucky enough to be born into. And even in North America those exist -- they're mostly but not exclusively class and race based. (But then, I suppose they are elsewhere, as well.) I had a friend in university who came from an extremely wealthy Indonesian family and who lived in a totally different universe than I did as a lower-middle class North American. But even she would be the first to tell you that her choices were also constrained by discrimination in her home country. (As someone ethnically Chinese, she was much less likely to go into, say, the arts or politics, than into business.) We are all born into a particular consideration set, and it's hard to tweak it. In the '90s and '00s in the U.S., if you were a "gifted" but not wealthy kid, you could still get into top universities, but even so your choices coming out the other end were very different than the kids born into different circumstances.

At the same time, even within the preexisting set consideration set I was born into, I've had the opportunities to make some very bad choices (which fortunately I dodged), and I've made some seemingly logical choices that turned out badly and are irreversible. I have made two decisions that decisively set my career back over the years, because I wanted to be in the same city as my spouse although there were no real career opportunities there for me. These decisions closed some doors emphatically, at least in my career, and no other doors magically opened. Are they "mistakes"? Not necessarily. Can they be learned from? Not necessarily. Are they irreversible choices that have diminished one major part of my life? Yes. But these are the choices that make up a life, for anyone anywhere, no matter what the circumstances you are born into.

Jason KottkeMOD

Hey so, I've closed the comments on this — I think maybe the discussion got a little off track here.

While I feel it is important for everyone to keep in mind that their particular, often-unearned circumstances affect their decisions and the course of their lives, it's not that helpful to turn every conversation into a discussion about that. Moveover, it shouldn't be anyone's job here to police others about their privilege. If you have any concerns or complaints about specific posts or comments, my inbox is always open.

And as always, try to keep the community guidelines in mind while reading and choosing to respond.

This thread is closed for new comments & replies. Thanks to everyone for participating!