When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned: Rethink Your Options

“Is this the life you planned?” a friend recently asked.

“What do you mean,” I responded.

“Did you think your life would turn out this way,” she continued. “Does it look anything like the life you dreamed about when you were a kid?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but my friend didn’t wait to hear my answer. Instead, she painfully listed out the disappointments in her own life: an unfulfilling career, debt, constant money struggles, and a string of bad relationships.

My friend was struggling to reconcile her childhood expectations against reality. She wasn’t working in a dream job, married to a perfect partner, or sitting on a bank full of money, and without these things, she considered herself a failure. She felt like something went wrong, perhaps many things, and she could never get her best life back on track.

“Is this the life you planned?” my friend asked again.

“The life I planned,” I said after a long pause, “not exactly.”

Life Doesn’t Always Go As Planned

The story of my life is not one I could have ever conjured up in my own mind. I didn’t anticipate becoming a software engineer or quitting my job in my early thirties. I also didn’t envision blood clots, neuropathy, chronic pain, years of infertility, a failed business, or marital struggles. Life doesn’t always go as planned, at least mine sure didn’t.

The truth is, most of us encounter hard times and bumps in the road, but few of us can predict them. Life (by its very nature) is quite unpredictable. 

As a teenager, I pictured my ideal life without a single image of the journey ahead. I would start at one point, work hard, and successfully end at another.

Of course, that mindset is unrealistic. We cannot predict the ending of a book by reading the first page. The main character in every great novel is forever changed by the events that happen in the middle of the story. So why did I think my life would be any different?

Life Plan or Fairy Tale?

As an eighteen-year-old, I thought about finding the love of my life, but never envisioned the boy who would break my heart. I pictured the perfect job and never once thought about the monotony of going to work or the chance that I might get laid off one day.

From an early age, I thought about having a baby, but never imagined years of infertility or the week-by-week heartache that followed every failed pregnancy.

This still happens, even now, as a forty-year-old. When I picture my future, I rarely envision the negative events that might happen along my way. I don’t typically spend time contemplating my parent’s deaths or my eventual physical or mental decline.

Fast forward to a vision of your ninety-year-old self. What do you see? In my mind, I’m still fit, strong, and capable without an ounce of gray hair, which is funny because I already have plenty of them.

I still fill my future with the same fairy tales I envisioned as a child. It seems happily ever after never goes away.

When Life Doesn’t Go Your Way

Life plan.

This positive thinking is necessary. It keeps us moving towards our goals, but what happens when our map of the future doesn’t actually lead to the destination we planned? What happens when we put in hard work and still fail to live up to our life plan?

You may decide who you will marry, what you will do for a living, how many children you wish to have, and where you will raise them, but what happens when reality doesn’t produce those results?

What if you don’t find a loving partner, easily conceive, or find a job that you love for the next three to four decades?

Or worse yet, what if you complete your objectives and still feel unhappy? How many of us felt passionate about our field of study in college, but ended up hating our jobs after graduating?

How many doctors and lawyers wish to quit their practices, and how many happy couples eventually become disgruntled and disengaged?

Childhood Dreams: My Teenage Life Plan

As a child, I wanted to become a writer. I spent every spare minute of my time scribbling ideas on to random scraps of paper. In class, I jotted down outlines rather than concentrating on schoolwork and snuck under the covers each night to write poems and elaborate short stories.

My high school English teachers encouraged my passion for writing. One morning Mr. H, (the most inspiring teacher I ever had) handed me a copy of our local newspaper and asked me to turn to a particular page.

I remember balancing the large black and white paper on my tiny desk as Mr. H stood over my shoulder, looking down with a wide, excited grin. I turned a few pages, and then he pointed down to two small words right in front of me.

“Look right there,” he said.

I squinted, shrieked, and jumped up so fast that the newspaper slid off my desk and spilled out onto the ground below me. I picked it up, sat back down, and stared at those two words. There it was in black ink, my name, printed just below a poem I’d written.

I clipped out that tiny little poem and placed it in the front pocket of my writing folder. I tucked it deep inside and carried it with me for the next two years.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

Life plan pointed towards your destiny.

When I graduated from high school, my objectives were clear. I would become an English teacher by day and write award-winning novels at night.

I studied English literature as an undergrad, but I didn’t become an English teacher or write the great American novel. In college, I fell in love with a computer science major who introduced me to the wonders of technology.

Three years later, I left the world of novels and poems behind. In place of writing, I pursued a newfound love: software engineering. As an eighteen year old, I couldn’t have imagined writing code for a living, but four years later, that’s exactly what I was doing.

When Your Plan Doesn’t Go as Planned

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you encountered a younger version of yourself in your current life?

“What about the stories you yearned to write?” my younger self might ask. “What about the desire to see your name on the cover of a book?”

Would that younger version feel disappointed by the decisions I made? Would she wonder why I didn’t pursue my love of writing?

Failing to Achieve Your Life Plan

We spend a good portion of our youth thinking about the future. What will life be like when we are older?

How does it feel when we don’t write that great American novel, find a life-long partner, or choose a career that sends us racing out of bed every Monday? What happens if we don’t become the person we imagined we would become?

Time Alters Our Plans for Life

When Mr. H handed me that newspaper back in high school, I stared at my name in print. “Surely, this would be the first of many literary masterpieces,” I thought.

The yellow remnants of that old poem now sit in an old box in the attic under a slew of uncompleted ballads and short stories.

If I base my success on writing a book, then clearly, I am a failure.

Rethink My Life

I think our childhood expectations are skewed. At least mine were. I think my friends were too.

We step out into the world with a very specific image in our minds of how our lives will play out, and those assumptions all lead to the perfect results. We never consider a future in which things go wrong.

But the truth is, most of us will encounter twists and turns that alter our path. When life veers off course, we must learn to recover from our disappointments, dust ourselves off, and find new ways to move forward.

This is the time to reevaluate our end goals. Do we really want to continue on our current path, or is it time to forge a new one? Do we long for our childhood aspirations because we failed to create new ones, or do we still covet those same dreams?

When asking these questions, pay attention to your ideals and your mental health.

If we still desire the same goals, how can we realistically achieve them? Is it even possible? If not, how do we move on?

Advice to My Younger Self

If I could talk to my younger self, I would give her some advice, although I doubt she would listen.

I would tell her to set goals, but also to search for contentment in the here and now, because accomplishment doesn’t guarantee happiness. If she has a checklist for life that feels contingent on finding joy, she should toss it right out the window.

Many people fail to achieve their dreams, but there are also plenty of people who may feel downright miserable after achieving them.

Think about doctors who hate practicing medicine or PhDs who are absolutely miserable in their chosen field of study. You can graduate with a slew of degrees or become the biggest big-wig in your organization and still dislike your profession.

If your path isn’t making you happy, consider veering off course or finding new ways to make your current life better.

Do not feel guilty for changing your goals or allowing life to lead you in new directions. Don’t be afraid to make new plans and paths. There isn’t one right way to travel.

When you feel stuck, ask yourself what you would be willing to give up to achieve your goals. Reflect on the list of things you aren’t willing to lose. Be grateful for everything on that list.

Don’t stay stuck in a career you don’t love, but don’t just jump ship either. Look for ways to create a more enjoyable work experience, but also be willing to quit your job if it’s making you miserable.

Reevaluate your need for expensive things and remember that you don’t need a lot of money to live your best life. Keep in mind that dreams are easier to achieve when you learn to live simply.

Don’t get overly wrapped up in failing to achieve your prior goals, instead focus on this current moment. What steps can you make to improve your life, and how can you absolve yourself of your previous failures?

Most of all, remember that your self worth should never be tied to your achievements and possessions. You are good enough without meeting society’s definition of success. 

To Achieve Your Goals, You Must Take Action

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Remember that a plan for life isn’t a plan unless you take action. If you want to reach a goal, you can’t just dream about it. You must make it happen.

If I really want to see my name on the cover of a book, I need to start writing. Otherwise, it’s time to admit that I no longer care about this goal and move on to a different objective. There is nothing wrong with admitting that the thing you once coveted is no longer important.

The Person You Are Destined to Become

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. While I appreciate the sentiment, I think it’s oversimplified.

Unforeseen life circumstances may alter our paths and lead us to become someone other than the person we expected to be. Life goes whatever way it wants regardless of our plans for it.

Maybe you thought you wanted to climb the ladder of success, but quit your high paying job for a less intense career, or maybe you wanted to travel the world and gave that up for a stable job that can support your family. Perhaps you hoped to become a star athlete, but an unexpected injury or illness left you sidelined.

Events can greatly alter our paths, but time can create great ripples too. The eighteen-year-old version of myself had very different goals than the current one. The fifty, sixty, and seventy-year-old versions will all have different ideas of how life should be lived too.

We may ultimately become the person we decide to be, but that doesn’t mean we will always be that person. Learn to appreciate the value of that fluidity and let go of the person you thought you should be.

Try to stop looking back and instead start looking forward. If your childhood dreams still speak to you, then take action to achieve them if you can. If they don’t, or you can’t, move on from them. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.

We Must Be Willing to Let Go of the Life we Planned

Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” So, what can we do when life doesn’t go as planned?

Take a moment to think about the things that have gone well in your life. Some of us will have to dig deep to think of the good stuff, but I guarantee that we all have some. Turn to your friends and family for help if you can’t think of any.

Remember that we all fail in certain aspects of our lives. Some of this is within our control, and some is entirely beyond it.

Everyone else in the world is not more successful than you. What we portray to the world is but a shadow of our true selves, and for every victory, someone has achieved, there have been many failures. Most of us just aren’t willing to share them openly.

Do not compare yourself to someone else. These comparisons are never fair or objective. You will always compare the worst aspects of yourself to the best qualities of others. Keep in mind that the most successful people are also unhappy.

Few of us are successful in all aspects of life. Maybe your job is amazing, but your love life sucks, or you suffer from chronic pain but have the solid support of your friends and family. When you reflect on your own disappointments, recognize that we are all struggling in different ways and for different reasons.

As you contemplate life, keep in mind that success isn’t measured by money. We think our value is defined by our titles, but it’s not a fair measurement. What if we base our true value on kindness, love, and compassion?

Rethink Your Life Plan

Instead of focusing on the unrealistic expectations you set for your life, try to reflect on who you are and how far you’ve come to get here. Remember: You are enough, just as you are, right at this very moment.

Heed my warning: Life is not a series of checkboxes. It’s a journey full of unexpected experiences. Rather than fearing those twists in the road, try your best to embrace them. Those curves are already built into the path ahead, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot avoid them.

Try to keep an open heart and mind rather than sticking rigidly to the life plan you previously imagined. Letting go of our plans isn’t easy, but sometimes releasing the wheel takes on a much better path.

Did your life go according to plan? If not, tell me in the comments below.

12 thoughts on “When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned: Rethink Your Options”

  1. I think your experience is pretty normal, especially for today’s generations. But in my case, its funny, my life went totally with my plan. In junior high I decided to become a chemical engineer and I chose that major in college and never changed my major. I expected to meet the girl of my dreams in college and 42 years later we are still married and in love. I expected to work for one company and I did for over thirty years, eventually running it. I expected to have good kids and we have three good grown ones now, all highly educated and well employed and off our payroll. I never expected to have any debt except a mortgage and we never had a single car payment or credit card balance. The only thing I didn’t expect was to retire early, but we had enough money that continuing to work full time seemed crazy so I did. But I bet I’m kind of a unicorn when it comes to the crazy stability of my life, even my kids lives have all taken crazy turns compared to me and my wife. But for all that I suspect you are a better and stronger person at your age than I was. Having everything come easy doesn’t build much character and all I’ve known is easy.

    • I’ve never met anyone before who followed their life plan in every way (work, life, partner, etc). That’s amazing. I do think you might be a unicorn! I agree with your final thoughts. The twists and turns of my life have made me stronger in one capacity or another, but I’m lucky that my curves in the road haven’t been too sharp. I’ve been fortunate to bounce back from major life obstacles and even find the silver linings in them. As I get older it’s actually difficult for me to think about another version of my life. Once I’m on the path I try not to waste too much time thinking about any other directions I might have traveled. Thank you for the comment. Your words are always so interesting and insightful!

    • I keep coming back to this article and your reply Steve. I too graduated as a ChemE, married my high school sweetheart, planned to have a large family (we have 5 at home, all very young yet), I’ve worked for one company and still live in my hometown in a large beautiful house. All according to plan…
      Except…(and this is tough to talk about, even with people with trust completely) We lost our first child 17 weeks into the pregnancy, our 2nd and 3rd pregnancies were healthy, though high stress, and then we lost our 4th and 5th children at the end of the first trimester in addition to some fertility struggles. On our sixth pregancy, we got triplets :). Thank the Lord they were born healthy and we were able to bring them all home after relatively short ~1month stays in the NICU. So, new vehicle that can handle 5 children 6 and under with all their gear, new house to comfortably handle a family of 7 + a nearly live in Grandma. Finally a few years later and looking at our family from the outside and everything looks great and according to plan. And it is. And it isn’t.
      I guess I’m just trying to say that even a life that goes to plan from the outside and may look pretty close to picture perfect, doesn’t always go to plan. I have an amazing family and amazing life, but it has taught me some empathy (hopefully) and to try not to assume I know what another person’s life is even when I know some of the broad strokes. I’m still pretty young and I’m sure some more surprises will come my way, but for now I have a new plan.

      • Hi Stephan, Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment. I don’t know how old you are, but at 43 years old I have definitely learned that life doesn’t often follow the plans that I imagine. I am sorry that you and your wife struggled with infertility. Of all of my journeys throughout the past forty years of my life those struggles were some of the most difficult. We live in a world where we don’t openly discuss fertility issues, which made the stress and heaviness of that time of my life that much harder to bear.

        It sounds like your life has been all that you bargained for AND a whole that you weren’t expecting. I hope you know that you are not alone. That’s why I wrote this post, because we all face that moment in our lives where we look at our life plan and our circumstances and try to match them up. Then we wonder what happened to bring us to this very moment. I’m glad that you decided to comment. Others will read your words and know that they are not alone either.

        I especially like your point about empathy. My empathy is growing and swelling with age. The more bumps I encounter in life the more I recognize that everyone else is also silently traveling over their own hills and mountains.

        I wish you the best of luck as you plot a new course. I only have two young children and I know that those first few years can be incredibly difficult. It will be so much better a few years from now. What amazes me most about my life is feeling the weight of a difficult moment in my life. Then looking back a few years later and remembering that heaviness, but also feeling like it went by in the blink of an eye.

        Thank you again for leaving this comment and for letting me know that this post helped you.

  2. You’ve been writing such great posts! I laughed remembering my teenage dreams for myself. I did not become a doctor or go into international business. I didn’t live abroad or marry a hot foreign guy. I didn’t write a book and I don’t have a stable full of horses and I have never owned a Jaguar XJS convertible. I’m not sure that those dreams would make me happy now- in fact I’m pretty sure many of them would not. My BFF is a doctor. It’s not as glamorous as it sounded. Also I hate hospitals. But there have been moments in my life when I banged my head on the shower and wondered how, exactly, I ended up here.
    Mostly I’m happy. Life is different, and I could never have imagined it when I was 16, but its good, and I am content.

    • I’m so glad you like my recent posts. When COVID-19 first struck I felt a little stumped for writing material, but lately I have more ideas than time to write them all down! I feel the same way about my childhood dreams. I can look back and say, “I never could have imagined the path my life took, but I am content with the path I’ve traveled.” I’m glad that you feel the same way.

      Oh and I’ve had a few of those shower banging moments myself 😉

  3. What I’m doing now wasn’t part of the life plan I thought of when I was younger. But I’m enjoying it a lot 🙂 Over the years, I’m learning to trust my gut feel in making some of my life decisions and so far, it has led me to things that I never would have thought possible.

    Happy Sunday Ms. Jewels! I’m binge-reading your blog today!

    • That’s a great point you’ve brought up. I was thinking about a change of plans that results in a negative feeling, but you are absolutely right. There are plenty of positive changes that can occur too!

  4. I’ve had a long journey. As I’m sure most people do, with the few that they’re journey went just as they expected. I truly wish that were me. As a young girl and teen I wanted to be a doctor but worked until 25 because I couldn’t afford school and do not come from a wealthy family. Finally I joined the Army expecting to be the best athlete, soldier and did very well in the Army, and planned to make it a 20 year career and suddenly woke up and after five years it was ending because of an injury. It was heart breaking and took so long to overcome. When I returned home, I pursued a career in Nursing and finally got accepted into a Nursing Program but was unable to pursue the program because I found out I was pregnant and high risk. Again, I was crushed. Soon after my husband who was still in the military came down on orders and we had to move to another state. Alone with a child and secluded I felt lost, however I came back again and started rising in the Logistics career I started in the Military as a civilian. However, I recently have tried to advance and have struggled to climb higher not only that after nearly 8 years I’ve discovered I am absolutely miserable in my career. So the regret is heavy. Being the person I am; driven, perfectionist. My mind has been wrapped for so long around my success and what I’ve always wanted to do how I lost that and where I’ve ended up and how do I reconcile this and continue on. You almost feel a sense of extreme loss like you are grieving. Now I have finally considered pursuing Nursing once and for all because nothing has worked out I might as well pursue what I wanted all along.

    • I spent many decades as a driven perfectionist so I completely understand your frustrations, but I no longer feel them so intently. When I was younger I measured my success by how much money I had or how high I climbed on the corporate ladder. Now I realize that those things don’t matter to me nearly as much as I thought they did. What matters now is spending time with my children, my husband, my parents, and those I love. It’s enjoying the sunrises and sunsets, and spending as much time as possible outdoors. We all have different ways of measuring our success, but think carefully about the way you measure yours. While a successful career is important to many it is not the end-all-be-all that we think it is. It sounds like your heart has always been in medicine. If you can pursue that career by all means reach for it, but do not feel down about the path your life has taken. My entire identity was wrapped around my career. When I was laid off eight years ago I cried for days, but my life is better now that it’s ever been. I stopped allowing society to measure my success and began creating a different scale to measure it for myself. I hope you can learn to do the same! I wish you all the best and hope you will return many years from now with an update on how things turned out!

  5. yes life is not going as I planned , I understand things are not going as planed , I don’t know others but mine was not going as planned, I tried to accept what God is give it to me but others blaming me why don’t doing or performing as planned I tried my best still I didn’t achieve what I want.

  6. But life did go as planned in some ways- it appears you became a mother, even if you went through horrible difficulties in achieving that goal.

    Remember that many fail in their infertility journey. How can anyone adjust to that?


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