How to Make Better Decisions: Why Living in Reverse is the Key to Moving Forward

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Before you read past this first paragraph, I want you try something if you’re in a safe area. Stand up and walk 10 steps forward. I’ll wait until you’re back. (Important: If you’re somehow reading this while hiking a cliff, sitting near a fiery pit, crossing the street, or anything else dangerous, please do this later. Safety first!)


Back? Okay, rewind your mind and think about what happened.

It probably went something like this: You stood up, your eyes looked ahead to about 10 steps in front of you, then they cast down from 10, 9, 8…all the way down to about 5 steps in front of you. You looked to see if there were any obstacles in your way, or toys or dog poop on the floor. Then you looked up at that same spot 10 steps in front of you and started walking forward, having already identified the obstacles (and poop), ready to swerve.

You reversed the path in order to move forward.

This is what we naturally do when we walk. It takes us the blink of an eye to look forward, scan, and process, which is why we aren’t even aware that we’re thinking about it. We’ve become very good at doing it.

Let’s observe someone who’s not very good at it: your toddler. Toddlers, as they are aptly named, toddle around without much coordination or aim. They also don’t reverse their path. So they trip. A lot. Somewhere along the way, we realized that if we reversed our path, we minimized our boo boos (and poop stepping).

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We’re still like toddlers in many aspects of our lives. The key is learning how to live in reverse so that you can move forward. Not doing so has the potential to hurt us.

Here’s how I’ve hurt myself. I was miserable. The stress of work was literally breaking down my body. For years, I had a high Agony Score.

Work Stress x Hours Worked = Agony Score

  • Score your work stress on a scale of 1-10 (1 is very low; 10 is very high)
  • Multiply by how many hours you work a week
Agony Scale Level
0 – 159 Easy Listening or Yacht Rock: But is it too easy? Are you challenging yourself?
160 – 300 Pop, Rock, or Hip Hop: The fun and sustainable level.
301+ Death Metal: Yes, this is fun every once in awhile, but it will eventually grind you down.

Here’s the interesting thing. I reversed my course and solved for my money problems. But I didn’t look far enough ahead.

How Far Ahead Do You Need to Look?

Start with the end. I mean the very end.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll have a time to contemplate your life with loved ones. On your bed, you’ll no longer feel the needles that connect the tubes to your arms. You’ll no longer hear the beeping monitors, until it breaks the painful silence in the room. Hopefully, you’ll see their tender faces under that pale, fluorescent light. But you will ask yourself the following:

  • What do you regret?
  • How do you want them to remember you?
  • If you had one more day at full strength, what would it look like?

Why wait to ask these questions? Skip to the end and ask it now. Your answers will clarify your values.

So, if you know you’ll regret too much time in the office and too little time with loved ones, why work in a job where you can’t be home for dinner with your family? If you want to be remembered for pulling your family out of poverty, then why not look for a new career, learn new skills, or pick up a new side-hustle?

You’re lucky. You have the chance to change course.

How to Build Your Route by Reversing It

Admittedly, reversing your course is challenging when it’s too far out, beyond your immediate field of vision, so mince it into life’s landmarks.

End ← CAREER ← College ← Current Location

Out of the main things in a typical life (work, relationships, standard of living) the thing you have the most control over and the thing that has a direct effect on your standard of living, and also affects your relationships, is your job. Your career is the express-way on the route to your end goal.

I’m using a modified version of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church model:

Ability + Affinity + Opportunity + Agony Score + Money

So how do you know what career aligns with your values and if you’ll want to do that job in the first place?

  • Abilities: Start with who you are. You can do this by taking a Strengthfinders test. Then find the careers that utilize your strengths.
  • Affinity: We live in an age where you can read about almost any job on the internet. If it sounds like something you might do for free, you have an affinity for it. If it’s finance related, try Mergers & Inquisitions.

(To be honest, there’s not a great way to really know unless you actually do it. I’ve been thinking about creating a virtual 1 week career trial for various industries—if you think this is something you or your child would benefit from and if there’s enough demand, I’ll make it. Contact me and let me know!)

  • Agony Score: When researching these jobs, pay attention to when they start and when they end, and level of job stress. Score it on the Agony Scale, keeping in mind your end goal for relationships.
  • Money: This is probably the easiest to research, with payscale.com or glassdoor.com, keeping in mind your lifestyle end goal.
  • Opportunity: Of the remaining careers that meet your abilities and affinity, be brutally honest if there’s an opportunity to get in. I’d love the chance to play professional golf, but I have no ability or opportunity.

Along the way, ask yourself if this career is consistent with your values. Is it helping you toward your end goals or taking you away from it? This makes your work purposeful, and it will be noticeable in your output and noticed by your managers.

(A word of caution: If you’re looking for work to be the zenith of your life, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Work was never intended to fulfill your deepest needs and desires—it’s only a tool. And you’re using this tool for something it was never designed to fix—a Phillips screwdriver when you need an Allen wrench.)

What if you get lost?

What if you don’t get into med school? What if the job wasn’t what you thought it was?

Assess your current location and go through step 2 again. Your current location may change, but your end goal—your values—rarely do.   

If you don’t live life in reverse, you’re walking forward blindly.

Look ahead. Reverse your course. Now you’re ready to move forward.


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