Looking back, we should have looked forward.

Ever end up somewhere you didn’t really want to be? It happens to all of us on occasion, in our personal and professional lives. In some cases, these events are just inconvenient detours. But sometimes, they can be disastrous.

Prior to my medical career, I spent several years in the Navy, where navigation is a pretty big deal. Close to shore, things can get pretty dicey. Avoiding shallow water, other vessels, and other “navigational hazards” is a team event–while one person steers the ship, others are watching for obstacles, plotting your position, and monitoring communications. And in some situations, it’s necessary to bring in a harbor pilot–someone who is intimately familiar with the port and the specific hazards that you might face.

Once you get out to sea, things are a lot different. Often, there’s nothing visible but 360 degrees of horizon. At night, it can be pitch black. But while the immediate danger of running aground is minimal, the lack of landmarks makes it far easier to drift off course. And changing course by just a fraction of a degree can cause you to miss your destination by hundreds of miles.

It’s almost always easier to figure out what went wrong after a ship runs aground than in the minutes or hours leading up to the event. After all, if the captain had seen it coming, he would likely have done things differently. Similarly, it’s often easy for others to second-guess your mistakes or missteps. But who’s to say they wouldn’t have made the same decisions in your position, and with the information you had available?

Sometimes, even when you do everything right, things go wrong. Unexpected weather can blow you off-course. Sometimes there are uncharted obstacles that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Malfunctioning instruments make it difficult to assess your current position. The bad situations you find yourself in aren’t always your fault, but there are always lessons to learn prior to your next voyage.

But while learning from failure is effective, it can be pretty painful. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of arriving safely at your destination. (I’ve put together a free tool to help you.)

  • Know your position. Even if you already know where you want to go, you have to figure out where you’re starting. How would you rate yourself right now with regard to your important relationships, your professional performance, or how well you’re caring for yourself?
  • Pick your destination. What do you want to accomplish before you die? How do you want others to remember you? Looking at the main roles you play in life, where do you want to be in 30 years? Write these things down so that you can go back, look at them, revise them over time, and review your progress.
  • Chart your course. Once you know your destination, you can plan how to get there. Rarely do we know the entire course our lives will take. But the good news is, you don’t need to. Just set small, measurable goals that move you a little closer to your destination. When you accomplish one goal, create another.
  • Make frequent corrections. Check your progress frequently. Look back at your goals and aspirations, and ask yourself if you are headed the right direction. If not, this will allow you to stay on course by making small and frequent corrections rather than massive shifts.
  • Take care of yourself. When life gets busy, caring for yourself is often the first thing to go. But taking care of yourself isn’t selfish; it’s quite the opposite. Nobody benefits when the captain is exhausted, impaired, or unable to focus on driving the ship.
  • Have a lookout. The captain can’t see everything. It’s important to have people you can trust who will help you avoid problems and stay on course. These can be friends, colleagues, or coaches–really, anybody whose judgment you trust and who cares enough to tell you the truth, even when it’s something you don’t want to hear.

Of course, life is risky, and nothing you can do will eliminate problems altogether. But hopefully, by being intentional about planning your life, you can maximize your potential and minimize your regret.

I hope you find this blog helpful. Be sure to follow Assessment & Plan on Facebook and Twitter for new posts and insights. And be sure to download VITAL SIGNS, my free life-planning resource designed specifically for healthcare professionals.


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