This weekend, when I was home in Kansas City to go to my high-school reunion, I ran into an old family friend. “Let me tell you one of my personal secrets for happiness,” he said. “Control your exit.”
“’Control your exit?’” I asked. “What exactly does that mean?”
“It means, always be able to leave when you want. Drive yourself to a party instead of getting a ride, so you can leave when you’re ready. Try to go to someone else’s house, or a public place, instead of having people over to your house, because there’s nothing worse than seeing someone lean back and cross their legs when you’re ready to go to bed. Or else have people over to your house before some event – before a dinner reservation or a movie – so you have to leave by a certain time.”
My husband would certainly agree with this advice. He never agrees to go to a party on a boat, or to go on a bus tour, or to put himself in any situation that would prevent him from leaving whenever he wants. He feels trapped and unhappy if he knows he’s stuck.
It occurs to me that “Control your exit” is advice that’s figuratively true, too. For me, one of the most memorable pieces of advice from Stephen Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin with the end in mind.” That is (if I remember correctly), know where you want to go. When you start or do something, maintain a vision of where you’re headed – especially important for people who are considering law school! Friends, don’t go unless you know where you want to end up!
Speaking of my husband and law, he applied this rule when he was considering post-law-school jobs. He thought that working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney sounded great, but he wasn’t sure what he’d do after that. What was the exit strategy? He knew he didn’t want to work in a law firm, and he wasn’t sure what other jobs would follow from a stint in the U.S. Attorneys office; he was worried about taking a job that didn’t seem to lead to any other opportunities that interested him.
My newest Secret of Adulthood is that “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” It occurs to me that in some situations, not controlling your exit would lead to happiness. There’s a lot of happiness to be gained from spontaneity, impulse adventures, and unpredictable undertakings. Even in those cases, however, I imagine it’s better mindfully to embrace this idea of uncertainty – to know that you’re deliberately choosing to give up control of your exit – rather than to have it take you unawares. For instance, people often ask me, “Where is all this happiness project stuff going?” I’m not really sure, and I’m trying to embrace that uncertainty as exciting and fun, instead of letting my control-freak side become obsessed with certainty and control.
What do you think? Is a resolution to “Control your exit” more or less likely to lead to happiness? Maybe, as Bill Murray explained in Ghostbusters, of “never getting involved with possessed people,” “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.”
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.