What If We Just Don’t Ask “What If”?

Recently I visited an alma mater of mine.

Sidenote: I just had to look up “alma mater” to make sure it means “a school I once attended” rather than “a school from which I graduated”.

The fall after I completed high school I entered Tennessee Technological University as a freshman majoring in German and stayed there for six months.

Tennessee Technological University

I loved my time at TTU, short-lived as it was. My visit a couple of weeks ago brought back all kinds of memories. I drove by Jobe Hall, which is where I lived on the third floor. I walked through the student union. I walked across the quad to the south end where I remembered that it was in one of those buildings where I learned that I absolutely despise geology. I remembered the day all the clubs set up tables across the lawn, and how I had no interest whatsoever in pledging a sorority. There were other memory sparks on the day of my visit; I’m glad I made the trip.

The main reason I chose TTU for my college career (or, as it turned out, the first part of my college career) was the German language program. Each year in high school I made the trek with other German students at my school to TTU’s Spring Festival (Fruehlingsfest) so that we could compete in nerd categories like Extemporaneous Speaking, Dictation, Declamation, Music, Art, Baking (yep), and more. While the pretzels I baked for competition one year were hard as rocks, I excelled at the actual language feats of strength, and entered more competitions each year. The Spring Festival was a truly great advertisement for TTU’s German program.

By the end of my junior year I had gone through all of the German classes my high school offered so I took Spanish I and Russian I. I maintained an A average in Spanish even while often showing up to class late due to my visiting Jim while he was in the lunch room that same period, and I did pretty well in Russian even though today I mainly only remember “Da”, “Nyet”, and that my name spelled in Russian looks like “Meruca”. My Russian teacher was a young woman who had been a translator at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and that got me thinking about my future. I thought that being a German translator was one of many career possibilities I could be extremely excited about, and looked forward to becoming a collegiate German major at TTU.

IMG 0480

I had an amazing time at TTU, taking second level German and working in the foreign language department as an assistant. When Jim and I got married halfway through my freshman year, I packed it up after spring quarter and moved to Virginia. After regrouping, I enrolled in community college and then transferred to Old Dominion University where I completed my degree in…Elementary Education. The Education degree made more sense to me after getting married. I have early childhood memories of sitting on my grandmother’s lap as she told me that I was going to be a teacher someday, and she was definitely on my mind as I made the decision to switch majors. Teaching, I thought, would be a much more stable career than anything I could do with a degree in German.

Sometimes I have regrets about that choice and wish I had continued in my new state of residence as a German major. Looking back, I know now that I could have figured it out. I just don’t think that I had the imagination or the desire to put the effort into finding a way to make that major work at that time, but every time I think about it I regret my inaction a little bit.

What if I had figured it out and stuck with the German major? What if I never switched to Elementary Education? What if I had switched to majoring in Journalism instead (which was my original Plan B)?

What if?

Truthfully, I don’t spend a lot of time on “What if?” None of that nonsense matters, because every decision I’ve ever made in my life has gotten me to where I am at this exact moment, and I’m pretty happy here. I’m learning more and more that it’s better to look forward instead of back; it’s a lot more fun. Instead of asking “What if?” about anything, because without the benefit of time travel we could never know the alternate ending anyway, I reframe and ask “What can I do about it?” It’s a little more empowering that way. What can I do about slightly regretting not majoring in German? Find other ways to enjoy Germany and its language. I can travel there (Done, and will go again). I can go back to school and enroll in German classes again, for practice and fun (maybe I will). I can enjoy German music (I do). I can use the web to learn more about Germany and what’s going on over there (yep). The possibilities are only limited by my imagination.

I think one of the secrets of happiness is being able to reframe the way we think and it’s something that has always been a part of my thought process, as an optimist. Regrets are useless but a reframe, while it can’t fix everything (ugh I wish!) can give a total boost in many situations.

What can you reframe for yourself today? Do it. You might feel better.


  • Ann

    Whenever I play the “what if” game, I toss it around in my head and then look at my kids and get the most beautiful thorough and compelling answer to all the what ifs that ever could be. But I still ask it from time to time of course!

    • Jenn

      Ann, I am in that same boat. “What if I…?” Well the answer to most of those is I wouldn’t have my children and they (and my husband) are my life.

  • Jenn

    My biggest “What if’s” have to do with friendships lost or have been back burnered because I couldn’t be the one to “do”, opportunities I had and passed on because my gut felt uneasy and then watched a good friend take it but I never told her, and *THE* golden ring that literally feel in my lap and I didn’t grab it.

    But honestly? My life is as it should be- the good, the painful, the losses, and the gains.

  • Kari Wagner Hoban

    Man, I could play the WHAT IF game all the live long day but I love your term “reframing”.
    I also love the premise for this blog post and it might inspire me to write one like it. 🙂