Asking What If – Missed Opportunities, Regrets, and The Probability of Your Life Occurring

Noam LightstoneLife Lessons And Experiments Leave a Comment

What if?


How many times have you asked yourself that question?


What if I had said this…

What if I had done this…

What if I had tried this…


Then for each, what if I had ___ it this way, or that way, and so on…


We all wonder about different outcomes that may have happened if we tried something differently, from big decisions to small. It can lead to a mental cage trap that will make you utterly depressed, wondering if you could have changed a negative outcome and if you could have gotten a better one.


The Tree Root Theory – Decisions and Probability

When I was in high school, I started drumming up an idea about life being a series of branching decisions, like a tree’s roots… Hear me out on this one:

A tree’s roots continually divide at neck points. Consider each neck point a decision you make in life, where depending on what you choose, you travel down a specific root. The roots don’t cross since you’ve already made a decision and that has led you down one path. The other paths are now closed. By the end of your life, you’ve travelled down an extremely long, series of roots until the end. My thinking is that if there is a God or almighty being up there, perhaps they’ll let you see other paths that may have occurred if you made different decisions. Or, you may choose to not do this to not drive yourself insane and never see the alternatives.


tree diagram statistics

Let’s get a bit technical now though. You make millions of decisions everyday, mostly unconscious (cell divisions, nerve synapses firing, and so on) but some are conscious. For example: Get up for work or sleep in. What to wear. Go to the gym or skip the workout. What to eat. Whom to talk to….

Assume that you make one hundred conscious decisions each day (which is being conservative). Decisions like what to wear are complex with multiple outcomes, and even getting up for work versus sleeping in is not necessarily binary… You might get up, but hit snooze three times. Simplify all these assumptions with there being two possible outcomes in each case (again, being conservative).

In mathematics if two possible outcomes of a decision are mutually exclusive (i.e. they don’t affect each other), there is an equal probability that each will occur. So each decision now has a 1/2 chance of occurring.

Moreover, if each decision you make is also mutually exclusive of the next, making all those decisions together one right after another can just be multiplied to end up with the probability of making all of your given one hundred decisions. That would be:


1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x …. one hundred times. Or: (1/2)100


This is one day of your life travelling down a root. Let’s keep the mutually exclusive assumption going through out your entire life. Now you need to multiply the one hundred decisions by 365 days for one year of living, and then by the approximately eighty years of your life.


So: (1/2)100x365x80 = (1/2)2920000


The probability that you’d make all those decisions the way you have for 80 years of living is nearly zero if you put it into a calculator.


Think about that for a second. The fact that you’d make all the decisions is so improbable that it can’t be predicted, and I’ve simplified this GREATLY. The percentage chance is even LOWER that you’d end up at the spot where you are or will be.

Shows how predicting human behaviour and lives is a wasted effort, and how unique a life truly is.



While I believe we all think about “what if” scenarios with many things in life from the less important (“What if I hadn’t eaten that burrito?”) to the more substantial (“What if I had taken that other job?”), it seems like we focus more on our relationships.

When you look back so far on your life, do you think mostly about doing something different in University, or are you more concerned about working on your relationship with your parents, not telling that girl how you feel about her, not going up to say hi to that guy you were interested in, not letting your friends know how much they mean to you… These are the main things that I’ve heard from people and I experience.


I’m not suggesting you dwell and do “what ifs”, it can be pretty depressing and cause insanity, always worrying about the best choice. You make decisions and accept what you have done, hopefully learning for the future to not repeat the same mistakes you made. You can’t change the past, you can’t control the future, all you can do it act with what you feel NOW.

What I am saying is that if there are feelings towards people that you want to express, do your best to express them sooner rather than later. If, God forbid, your best friend died in a car crash, would you be OK with the relationship as it was, or would you be eaten with guilt and sorrow from the inside never telling them what they had done for you?


Moving Forward and Accepting Your Choices

You can apply this to quitting your job, changing cities, and so on… I now would rather know what happens IF I had done something than not follow through. The wonder will always kill more than the outcome. Though to make you even more INSANE if you are incredibly neurotic you’ll wonder the “what if” scenario if you HADN’T made the choice. Mind cage!

Perhaps I’ll get to see those decisions I could have made when I’m long gone, and I will worry about making X or Y decision… But all you can do is make reasonable decisions following what you believe is best in the moment. You learn from any mistakes or missed opportunities, celebrate the advances, and move forward.

Whatever happens though, you accept the choices you make, and the root you are travelling down. And if you don’t like that root, then you better start making some fucking changes.


mahnnet quote

An amazing quote from a man who has helped me greatly, Maneet Bhatia. Check out his blog, Psych State of Mind at:


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