“A sobering thought: What if, at this very moment, I am living up to my full potential?”
– Jane Wagner
1) Sage Rosenfels looks like a cross between Opie and Alfred E. Neuman, if this child character/cartoon hybrid were to morph into a 30-something former football player. He has close-cropped strawberry blond hair, a freckled nose, and a lanky frame. It’s not hard to imagine him catching a nap under a straw hat, a blade of wheatgrass bobbing lazily on his lips as he snores softly amidst an Iowan summer. It’s likewise easy to picture him reading to leukemia patients in a pediatrics unit, or volunteering to be the designated driver every New Year’s Eve. He seems down to earth and easy to root for – who couldn’t cheer along someone who evokes clichés as easily as you or I exhale? He exudes “Middle America” the way Marilyn Monroe exuded “sex appeal” or Megan Fox exudes “cosmetic surgery.”
Rosenfels joined the Minnesota Vikings in March of 2009. Before that, he had been a member of three other teams and played sparingly. Nobody would ever think he was the next Johnny Unitas, but he was never a liability either. (Okay, maybe once.) As Star Tribune columnist Michael Rand put it, “Rosenfels was never a great NFL quarterback, but he was a perfectly functional backup QB who, when called upon, could start for a team in a pinch.” At the time, the Vikings were coached by Brad Childress and had the much-maligned Tarvaris Jackson penciled in as starter. Stop and think about the excitement he must have had for the opportunity to unseat a shaky and unpopular incumbent and step into an offense featuring Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and a rock-solid offensive line. As he was flying to Minnesota, he must have felt the way a man feels on the doorstep of his beloved with an engagement ring in hand, a moment so rife with optimism and opportunity. A moment where nothing could possibly go wrong.
But something went wrong. The Vikings never let that competition play out. Instead, they coaxed Brett Favre out of retirement and Sage’s window of opportunity slammed shut. Rand continued, “A QB who came to the Vikings with plenty of time left thinking he had a legitimate chance to be a starting quarterback never threw another NFL pass. We can’t help but think about how one move that seemed like a career-maker ended up essentially being a career-ender.”
2) Our dreams don’t have to sit on such lofty cusps for us to think, “What if? What if this one thing had been different?” “What if…?” is a difficult question. It is the question that leaves Olympic Silver medalists despondent and Bronze medalists joyous. According to the research of Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, most silver medalists are discouraged by focusing on the mistakes that kept them from winning a gold medal. Most bronze medalists, on the other hand, are content to have won anything at all. Psychology Today writer John Tauer describes it this way: “The reference point for silver medalists was likely ‘If only I had just run a little faster, I could have won the gold medal!’ One can imagine that after years of training, missing on a chance to be considered the greatest in the world, an opportunity that might not present itself again, could be incredibly disheartening.” Or as William James said in 1892, “So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.”
Psychologists have a different term for the “What if?” game. They call it “Counterfactual Thinking.” You identify a turning point, the fork in the road, and imagine how things might have gone if you’d done things differently. Imagining how things could have gone better is called “Upward Counterfactual Thinking.” Imagining how things could have gone worse is called “Downward Counterfactual Thinking.” (While we’re on it, there is another separate axis of thought one can apply: If the first axis is whether the outcome would go better or worse, the second axis is to either add or subtract elements from the scenario. Think, “In a world where Steve Jobs never existed, what would cell phones look like right now?”) But which is better? If we’re going to ask ourselves, “What if?” then is it better to imagine how things could have been better or how things could have been worse?
Psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl notes that each of the two have their own emotional and behavioral consequences. “On the one hand, upward counterfactuals may make us feel bad as we think about how things might have gone better. On the other hand, we might learn more effective strategies for success through this reflection – if only I had done X, maybe next time. We benefit from these thoughts. Similarly, downward counterfactual thoughts may benefit us simply by improving our mood. Despite our lack of success, we can take solace in the thought that it’s not as bad as it could be.” Noting research on this, Pychyl concludes that maintaining a preference for downward counterfactual thoughts suppresses our ability to grow. “(We) need to add ‘It could have been worse’ to our list of ‘flags’ that should signal to us that we’re making an excuse and potentially deceiving ourselves in a costly manner.” Often the healthiest thing we can do is take a long look at our roads, determine how we could have done things better, and then move on.
3) Laura Kray is a professor at the Hass Business School at Berkeley. She has wavy chestnut-colored hair down to her shoulders and looks like Flo from those Progressive commercials, the difference being Laura Kray might be able to sell you insurance. Her primary field of research is counterfactual thinking, which seems strangely appropriate for a doctor of psychology teaching at an elite business school. Kray authored a study that found that the more we engage in counterfactual thinking, the more likely we are to believe our lives are fated. “The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be,” says Kray, “which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance.” In other words, the more we focus on the what ifs and what could have beens, the more likely we are to believe that things have been arranged in a certain order. We start seeing our circumstances as destiny. She continues, “Considering how our lives might have been different helps to connect the dots among our life experiences. The contrast between reality and what might have been shines a light on the opportunities, relationships, and achievements that wouldnʼt have occurred without these key elements in our life story.”
Perhaps this is the problem. Sometimes things do seem fated. As with Sage Rosenfels, my dating life, or anyone who has lost out to someone else for a promotion, there isn’t always a neat moment of “This is what you could have done better.” It may even be that there is nothing at all you could have done to change your outcome. And so it becomes, “This is who you are.” Some arms can’t throw as far as others, and some smiles don’t have quite enough charm. Perhaps Sage took his body and abilities as far as he possibly could have taken them. But Sage Rosenfels at his prime and peak was still no match for Brett Favre at 39. No matter how much we want to root for the good-natured and soft-spoken Sage Rosenfels, how we want things to be is never a match for how things are. When Sage Rosenfels announced his retirement from the NFL in 2012, Adam Kaplan, NFL Insider reporter, shared his lament on Twitter. “Sage Rosenfels announced his retirement this evening via his Facebook page. Good guy.”