What Happens When You Get Stuck Wondering What If

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Wondering What If

I always jump into action when I remember that inaction leads to the scariest thing in the world, asking yourself over and over, “What if?” Looking back at your life and wondering what could have happened because of a missed opportunity is terrifying. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t get stuck wondering “what if?”

What if I had never had the courage to start Self Stairway? I’ll tell you what would have happened. I wouldn’t have my internships. I wouldn’t be making money on the side through freelance work. I wouldn’t have met so many people, influencers, and lovers of life. I wouldn’t have gotten my $500 scholarship that I recently acquired.

My resume would be empty right now and I wouldn’t have been able to eliminate THREE entire career paths in the past half a year alone.

What happened because I didn’t get stuck wondering “what if?” Well, all the above did happen. Imagine if I did nothing about my desires.

I used to be a dreamer. I used to dream about all the things I could be doing, the things I could say to make everyone fall in love with me, and the women I could be pursuing. My mind would run through all the possible outcomes of each adventure and arrive at the best scenario. Then I’d snap out of it and do nothing. I would do nothing about these desires no matter how quick my heart beat.

Not anymore. Too much time passed where I had sat idly by while the events around me unfold yet I remained unchanged.

That all changed when I realized that inaction is literally the worst thing possible. It is worse than the feeling of rejection, failure, and loss. Why? Because in the back of your head you will always wonder what could have happened and you’ll torture yourself. It’s much better to learn how to be confident and take action when you want or need to.

Obviously when it comes to taking action, you have to be smart. Can you realistically quit your 9-5 job to pursue your passion? Not if you rely on every paycheck to keep food coming to the table. But guess what? You can be strategic and do something on the side. At least you’re trying then. There may be situations where you really can’t afford to do anything on the side either, I acknowledge that. However, before you dismiss the idea you need to sit down and think about whether or not that applies to you.

What I’m actually taking more about are the little things that happen each and every day. The missed opportunities, each second that passes offering an alternative “timeline” in that is your life.

What Usually Happens When You’re Too Scared

The pretty girl that you smiled at in line while waiting for your Green Tea Frappuccino at Starbucks, what happened to her? You know the one. The one you wanted to go up to and say “Hi, I just had to come talk to you because I knew if I hadn’t said anything, I’d be asking myself ‘What if?’ all day.”

You fantasized about the moment over and over. You wondered if she’s the one you’re finally going to fall for. The one you like beyond just her physical appearance alone. You picture telling her that you’re in a hurry and that you’d like her number so you can take her out on a date sometime.

You then picture yourself later going off on spontaneous adventures together because finally, just finally you found a girl who is willing to be adventurous with you. You then find out you two have an insane amount of things in common.

You look at her and tell her you were never looking for a relationship, but just this time, just maybe this time you’re willing to surrender yourself.

What Happens When You Don’t Take a Chance

But then you open your eyes and you let the moment go. The girl walks away from the line and you look at her as she leaves. That beautiful girl left.

You look at the floor and ask yourself, “what if?”

Look, every moment you let slip away because something held you back, you let it go to waste. You could have been on an alternate timeline right now, you know? Do you get my point?

Maybe reality wouldn’t have been as glamorous as your mind made it to be, but damn it at least you know. You’re not going to go home and lie in bed wondering. You’re not going to be out with your friends, only half there with your mind while the other half is picturing what could have been.

So please, do not let inaction get the best of you. Don’t be afraid of rejection, failure, or whatever else. Don’t make excuses for yourself. Life could be so much better if you had gone for it. Even if it isn’t and you fail or it isn’t as great as you thought it’d be, at least you know.

I won’t lie, I still struggle with this on occasion, but I am so much better now. I’ve gotten so far in the past few years because I understand that inaction is scary. Asking “what if?” is scary.

The worst-case scenario if you go for it is that the desired outcome doesn’t happen. Guess what happens when you don’t take action? You default into the same place as rejection or failure would’ve gotten you. You’re at the same place you were.

Sure, your ego can take a hit, but you’ll bounce back. At least if you go for it you have a fighting chance.

What I remind myself when I’m feeling like inaction is about to cripple me is that I envision the worst-case scenario. The worst thing that can happen is that what I wanted doesn’t happen. Okay, the ego hit. But hey, I’m still in the same place in life as I was before I failed.

The only difference is that I took the risk and I’m much more prepared for it next time. Maybe I’ll be scared to fail again, but I can internalize my previous mistake. I can improve on what I did wrong last time or I can remind myself that I freaking survived failure/rejection/anxiety/etc.

That makes it okay again. Wondering “what if?” is so much worse.

If you skipped the video from the beginning of this article, I encourage you to go back and watch it (or click here.) It’s very powerful when viewed before or after this article.

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive tips on how to be confident, happy, and become an overall well-rounded person, sign up for the email list below!

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Vincent Nguyen is the author of Self Stairway. After landing his dream job with Empire Flippers, he dropped out of college and began living a location independent lifestyle (still always drawn to coffee shops though.) Don't worry, he still publishes every Monday and hasn't missed a single week since starting this site in January 2013.

Latest posts by Vincent Nguyen (see all)

59 responses to What Happens When You Get Stuck Wondering What If

  1. “What ifs” will kill you little by little. They’re the worst kind of slow death. Maybe not death in body, but certainly in soul.

    Each moment you let pass, each time you run from fear, each time you fail to speak up . . . those little moments will chip away at you year after year. They’ll accumulate and compound. They’ll become the defining moments of your life. And you’ll have nothing to show for them.

    All you’ll be left with is a life of regret.

    You’re so right here Vincent. Better to just take action and take a chance. Because the worst case scenario isn’t failure or rejection. The worst case scenario is the “what if” you’ll be left with when the opportunity has passed.

    Cheers!

    • The chance is very worth it because it does give you the possibility for the positive outcome. Why settle for nothing when taking the chance can either give you one or the other. Inaction gives you one outcome: regret.

  2. I like to do an opposite “what if?” What if I keep writing books, keep blogging, keep speaking about my story? The answer: I’ll be helping and influencing others. I gain authority as a writer. I meet new people in the business. I make new friends. Okay, I still need to work on talking to the pretty women at Starbucks, but you’re inspiring me to take action.

    • That’s a different sort of what if asking but I like that! That’s what I did in the beginning of the post too so it does work both ways. I hope you get out there and do it, Dan. It feels amazing to talk to people you are attracted to.

    • That’s such an awesome way to look at it Dan! I can’t believe I’ve never thought of it that way myself!

  3. Oooohhhh! Dan beat me to it! The reverse what if! Damn it! Well at least I can use Trevor’s F-It to battle inaction. Great post – again – V!

    I think we become smarter at taking action through regular practice. I am no genius on the guitar, but I make great decisions on the fly when I play because I practice like a mofo and teach guitar every. day. It is one of the few places where I am fearless, oh – and on your blog, of course;)

    • The first step is always the hardest, CJ! That’s said quite often but that doesn’t make it any less true. A great way to get started on doing something for the first time (and make gradual improvements) is to take it in small steps at a time.

      Going back to my example with the Starbucks girl in this article: if you’ve never approached a girl with the intent of asking for her number before then practice approaching women to ask for something innocent like the time or where to find a store.

      Then work your way on keeping eye contact and smiling as you pass by people you are attracted to.

      Then create small talk. Once you’re comfortable enough, push for a number during a conversation.

      I doubt that there’s a single person who just picks up a guitar and just jams out. They learn the basics and do what is comfortable first. The rest comes much much later.

      • Thanks for the quality reply, V! I could have used all the communicating with girls stuff about 20 years ago. Now, I’ve got me Lady Hoombah;)

    • YES! I was fearless on the guitar back in my day as well. I was terrible, no doubt, but being godawful at something brings its own kind of fearlessness.

      • I know the feeling, man. Every time I put the guitar down, I get to learn how awful I can be a something;) Good point though. We get comfy with the fact that we are not going to be good at most things and try them anyhow, fearlessly, like bowling!!!

        • Yeah, I suck at bowling too. We seem to have a theme going on here . . .

          “Suck fearlessly, for the win yo”

          Could make a good post . . .

        • My issue is that I’m a freaking dabbler. Get good at many things (jack-of-all-trades, master of none) then move on to the next without becoming an expert. Bowling is a great example, Trevor, because I got really good at it then gave up at the first plateau. Now I swear I’m getting worse each time I play.

          Check out George Leonard’s “Mastery.” Great book on sticking with things to overcome plateaus and become an expert at whatever.

  4. I love that video

    Thanks for putting that together with your post!

  5. Vincent, I am sooooo happily married, but the scene you played out in the coffee shop made my heart skip a beat. That is just what a passionate life is about, and I think living a life without passion is pretty damn dull. I did it for a while, and I will never go back. I’d rather suffer rejections and fail then settle.

    Wow. I think that coffee scene is just beautiful. Even if it doesn’t work the first time, imagine what might be? I am a sucker for a love story and hate to see people in “blah” relationships! I guess you can see what thread I picked up on in your post, but I also think it applies to jobs too. I do understand that you have to earn the money, but I love your point about pursuing something on the side. (In jobs only, not marriage/love!)

    • Same here, Tammy! I really wish there were less “blah” relationships but I know many people who are in them! I can only say with honesty that perhaps two couples that I know are in awesome, stable, and happy relationships. Of course, that’s looking in more from the outside in, but I am very close to these two so I do see it from the inside as well.

      Indeed it does apply to jobs too! It is relevant to any situation where a decision to take action can be made.

  6. You take pretty much the same approach I’ve started implementing. I ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

    In the past, I often allowed the “what if” game to kill my opportunities at connecting with people. So now, I will often test the waters and initiate making plans with people. Of course I have struck out with a couple of people, but I’ve also made some really close friends because I chose to venture out of what was comfortable. In fact, I’ve met some awesome friends online first and had the courage to ask them to hang out in person.

    • It’s a great feeling to be proven right isn’t it? To validate that the risk was worth taking is the greatest reward and it serves as ammunition for the future. I often find myself lazy on certain days where I just ask myself, “Do I really feel like going out today?” So I contemplate telling my friends I’d rather not.

      Then I mentally slap myself in the face and say of course I want to. More often than not (if not always,) I end up meeting awesome people and having fun. It makes it worth it to combat the short feelings of unpleasantness. I wasn’t physically comfortable but that soon fell away.

      • Absolutely! Sometimes failure will try to tell us that we should not have tried and played it safe. But those successes obscure any lingering effects from prior failures.

        And like you’ve pointed out, relationships take top priority (or they should), even when we don’t “feel like it.”

        • Relationships of all kinds. I’m sure you’re aware of that but that note is more for people who are reading the discussion.

          Personal (platonic or romantic,) business, or anything else. Relationships should be pursued and regularly maintained. But to start one you’re usually going to have to be the first person to initiate. Don’t get stuck wondering “what if?”

  7. Too much people, I think, equate a 9-5 job with automatic boredom. A job should be a vocation, and there are plenty of 9-5 jobs that satisfy people intellectually and morally.

  8. Thought provoking words. I loved watching the video after I read your post. It was more meaningful to me. You touched my heart.

  9. It takes the “live in the moment” concept further. Don’t just live in this moment but live so that the next moment is just as amazing.

    Very well written, and thought out, article!

  10. Thanks for the reminder, Vincent! This is just what I needed today.

    It seems that no matter how many times I get rejected, it still hurts. However, I’ve come to realize that the pain of regret (and thinking “what if”) lasts far longer than the relatively brief pain of rejection. Rejections suck, but at least if we try then we’ll know.

    Seth Godin once said he is where he is today because he has failed far more than the average person. I think it’s time I get back to trying more (and spend less time asking what if)!

    • It definitely does hurt but like you said, the feeling of wondering what if is far, far worse. Failing builds up resilience and it can be a learning experience. What do you accomplish through inaction?

    • Failing doesn’t get any easier the more times you do it – but the biggest growth experiences I’ve had are from when I’ve come up short. Keep at it!

      • I’d argue it does get easier! Especially if your biggest fear was the pain you’d feel. You can look at it two ways: the pain hurts less because you’re used to it OR/AND you realize it doesn’t hurt as bad as you’d thought. Boom, next time around you are a ready Teddy.

  11. What a great post. Yes, the what ifs are worse than failure.

  12. I usually phrase this as – do something, even if it’s wrong! You are right on – inaction is WORSE than doing the wrong thing.

  13. As Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” We never know what our action or inaction is going to bring. But your dead on when you say that the very worst thing you could do is not take action. That’s way more shitty then any of the terrifying things that you visualize.

    The butteries in your stomach are there because that thing that scares you is outside your comfort zone. And EVERYTHING we want in life is outside of our comfort zone. It’s just a matter of conditioning ourselves to recognize that in the face of fear and keep moving.

    Solid shit man.

    • Thanks for adding in your thoughts, Kevin. The comfort zone is also something that can be changed and expanded as you go along. My comfort zone is infinitely larger than it was a few years ago and it’s because I had the realization that inaction is the WORST thing you could fall into.

  14. Love the video. Great reminder that time is going to go by whether we take action or not. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and wonder “what if.” Congratulations on turning your “what ifs” into action.

  15. I think the best way to get over the ‘what if’ scenarios would be to simply push through your comfort levels.
    A lot of people hold back due to being too afraid to go for it. But the more you hold back, the more you tend to realise that the fear of regret always seems to be more painful than the fear of actually doing it and seeing what happens.
    It’s a massive realization I made in the last 5 years years and it makes me wonder where I would be had I realized it sooner.

    • It is always easier said than done though, right? I recommend people who want to step outside of their comfort zone to take gradual steps. It varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, but I think it may be fairly obvious if you sit down and brainstorm.

  16. Vincent,

    This is a great question. I’ve always heard that when people are on their deathbeds they never regret the things that they’ve done, they regret the things they never did.

    Fear of rejection, fear of failure and just plain fear of social situations can often paralyzed people. But it is very important to push through these fears and get things done because the what if the question never want to ask yourself. Unless the question is, “What if I hadn’t taken action”

    SJ

    • I’ve heard that a lot too, SJ! That’s pretty damn scary because I wonder if there’s anything in the future that I will look back on and wish I did. As of right now, I don’t think there’s any major regrets really.

      As for wondering about what would have happened had you not done it, it’s about acceptance. Some things you just have no control over and once it’s over it is over. I wish there was a better solution than that, but really, what is there to be done? Learn from your mistakes and grow.

  17. I think when I get stuck, my first reaction is frustration and anger, but then I give myself some time to think about the situation, I mentally get used to the thought of it and then, I start thinking more clearly and looking for a solution. Obstacles make me always more persistent to keep going forward and determined that I need to overcome them – no matter what!

    • Although this may sound bizarre, I may have an idea that you can feel free to use. Since you know you react with anger or frustration, work on being less reactive and tell yourself, “Okay, Elena. Don’t get upset yet. Wait it out a few days then you’re allowed to be mad.” Sometimes just acknowledging these emotions before or even as they happen let you desensitize yourself over time.

  18. Hey Vince, great article. I’ve seen that video before and it really hits. It’s funny how we both wrote similar articles… except I started to get really nerdy and mathematical in mine, calculating the probability of someone’s life occurring with the decisions they make :p (http://lightwayofthinking.com/what-if-missed-opportunities-and-regrets/)

    What bugs me is that you could ask “what if” about so many scenarios. For instance you mention talking to that cute girl (or guy). If you see so many people you want to meet, can you ever talk to all of them? Or will you just spend your days doing that, not doing anything else?

    Then if you really think about it, what if you hadn’t watched that one YouTube video, or gone to X event instead of Y. You drive yourself insane!

    And if it gets really bad and you’re a perfectionist (or hard on yourself), even when you go for it, you think it could have gone differently/better if you had said X or Y, or done A or B…

    Such I guess is one of the perils of of asking the “What If?” question. I still have issues with it as well and I know where you’re coming from. I’ve gotten a lot better too but I guess all we can do is keep trying every day to push a bit, and knowing we have come a long way from where we started!

    • Hey, Noam. Perhaps I subconsciously stole from you while looking over your blog. :)

      To answer your question about wanting to talk to so many people, what’s more realistic is that you’re not going to get these burning desires to talk to EVERYONE. There are only going to be a handfull of people at any given moment that attract you in that way. That’s the truth, so I’m not sure if the rhetorical question applies too much here. That’s the way I see it.

      Overthinking is a dangerous thing to do and there’s a fine line, which is why I try not to think about opportunity cost. When you want to do something, try your best to go for it to avoid that loop of “what if?”

  19. Beautiful points and perspective.

    Regret is like worry in that we’re better off just taking action. (Focus on what you control and let the rest go.)

    A common theme we hear time and again is that we don’t regret the things we do — we regret the opportunities we missed.

    That said, my favorite reminder about regret is “Hit by a Bus”, where Barry Scwartz says:

    “I have a friend, frustrated over his achievements in life, who has wasted countless hours over the past thirty years regretting that he passed up the chance to go to a certain Ivy League college. ‘Everything would have been so different,’ he often mutters, ‘if only I had gone.’ The simple fact is that might have gone way to the school of his dreams and been hit by a bus.”

    • Whoa, what Barry said is very profound. Choices really do have more than one possible outcome and it isn’t always the most optimistic outcome that may occur like you wish. That’s what makes it important to do it anyway so that way you don’t get stuck in that internal loop of “what if?”

  20. I’ve learned nothing great happens when we stay in our comfort or fear zones. They only hold us back from our potential and dreams. Even through failure we can still learn something that helps us move forward. Great post!

    • Right, Dan! I’ve recently forgotten (then remembered) the idea of “I don’t give a f*ck.” I used to swear by that mantra a few years ago and it helped when used in moderation. It allowed me to expand my comfort zone by getting outside of my own head and removing the worries of what others thought. Then, a lot of great things happened.

  21. This was such a beautiful post! I try to read this everyday (since you posted it) so I remember it and try to practice it daily. It’s inspired me so much and the video was a really smart thing to do! It’s a great video and a little bit scary. The first time I watched it, it even freaked me out a little. It’s so scary how so many things can be different with just one decision, to try or not to try.

    It’s really given me courage to not hold back and just do the things I want to do and be the girl I’ve day dreamed of being. I’ll admit, it’s not the easiest, but I’ve made the decision to try!

    Failure really sucks. And so does rejection but now I think the worst is when you think “what if”.

    Best post so far!

    • Wow, Rayshena! Do you really read this every day? If so, I am very honored and thank you. I remember my first reaction to the video too. I was scared and thought to myself, “Crap, how many opportunities have I let go of?”

      It’s pretty interesting to see it illustrated (the fade effect sells it.)

  22. Vincent, your article and that video really struck a chord with me. At orientation for a summer job last May, I sat next to a girl a lot like the one in the video. I noticed that she was playing Temple Run on her iPhone and that she looked a bit nervous (likely because it was her first day), so I cracked a joke or two and we made small talk for a bit. Then we went our separate ways.

    After that I walked by her in the hallway quite a few times, but never got the courage to say ‘hi’.

    Every time I walked by her I thought of other opportunities I had missed because I was too scared to say anything, and so one day when I walked by her, I turned around and introduced myself.

    Ardyn and I are celebrating one year together next Wednesday. Timely post my friend, thank-you!

    • Whoa, Chris! HUGE congratulations to you and Ardyn. That is awesome and I’m really glad you shared that with us. That gives us single people hope that maybe just one spontaneous interaction will lead you to finding someone you really connect with. :)

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