The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on October 28, 2010.

If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

That’s the question that was given during the Table Topics Contest at the Toastmasters Conference I attended last weekend. In Table Topics, the contestants are brought into the room one at a time. They are asked the question, and must immediately give a one-to-two-minute answer. The judges are looking at technical elements such as speech development, language and delivery. The audience members are looking for a thoughtful, entertaining and memorable response. And some, like me, can’t help but think about how we would respond if we were up on stage answering the question.

One of the contestants said he would have been nicer to himself. Another said he would have stuck with some things longer and not given up on them as quickly as he had done. A woman who lost her sight during college, due to juvenile diabetes, said she would have prepared earlier for the adjustments she would need to make and for a career in which being blind was not perceived as a handicap or disability.

One contestant said he wouldn’t have set so many fires, and another spoke of people he should have listened to when he was younger. One mentioned a quote I used to hear from my grandmother, that we grow too soon old and too late smart. And one contestant talked about Oedipus Rex and how Oedipus, after his future was foretold, fulfilled his own tragic destiny by trying to change it.

Several people – including the one who won the contest and another who had been divorced twice and who had four kids in three different households – came to the conclusion that if they knew then what they know now, they still wouldn’t have changed a thing, because everything in their lives had brought them to where they were right now.

That, pretty much, would have been my response, too. My life has included some stunning and wonderful joys and accomplishments, as well as devastating and humiliating losses and defeats. There have been happy coincidences as well as hard-fought battles. I’ve experienced excitement and anticipation that propelled me forward, and fears and false starts that slowed me down. But each came with its own lessons and wisdom, and each of them contributed to the person I am today. Although my life is far from perfect, the bottom line is that there’s no one and nowhere else I’d rather be.

Even when I reflect on mistakes I’ve made in my life, I have to say that if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have wanted to avoid making them. If anything, I’d want to have made them sooner, since it’s my biggest mistakes that have given me my best education. It’s the most difficult and painful experiences that have given me my greatest strength and understanding.

The question from the Table Topics Contest gave me a chance to reflect on my past. But it also gives me a chance to reflect on my future. I can ponder and wonder what it will be like one, five, ten or more years down the road.

If I knew now what I will know then, what would I do differently?

The best part of the question is knowing that whatever the future holds, it will be shaped by what I learn, decide, and do from this day forward. There will always be surprises – both good and bad – and there will be circumstances that are totally beyond my control. But if I can remember that the greatest influence on my future will come from the decisions I make and the actions I take, if I can have the patience, grace and courage to face and accept the challenges and disappointments that are still ahead of me, and if I can take with me and add to the wisdom, the knowledge, the lessons and the memories I’ve already acquired, then I know I’ll have the same feelings then as I do now about the path my life will have taken.

And if I know then what I know now, I won’t want to change a thing.

© Betty Liedtke, 2010