You turn right or left.
You have a second cup of coffee or you don't.
You take the job in Dallas or Berkeley.
Science fiction is rife with stories about alternate universes. Some physicists believe they exist for real. I don't understand the science nearly well enough to form an opinion about that, but isn't it fun to think about? To imagine all those different lives our counterparts could be living because they chose differently?
I thought of this tonight because of a post on Captain Awkward, one of my favorite advice column blogs. The letter writer had just about completed a first novel, and instead of being thrilled, felt sort of meh about it. Where could the writer find the motivation to keep going?
Captain Awkward had tons of great advice. The piece that clicked best for me referenced, of all things, the theme song from Flashdance.
"First, when there's nothing ..." the song starts. I am skeptical that "Flashdancing" is actually a thing-distinct-from-stripping that was popular in working-class Pittsburgh in the 80s, but I do think that all creative acts start there.What does this have to do with alternative universes?
First, there is nothing.
And then there is you.
And then there is something that didn't exist before in the world.
When I ponder all the different courses my life could have taken, one of the first things that comes to mind is songwriting. In how many other universes do I end up doing that? My answer is always "not many." Not even if every version of my life provided me with a random song idea. Inspiration is the easy part for daydreamy fog-heads like me. It's the follow-through that's hard.
The first three lines of what would become my first song came out of freaking nowhere. A gift from the universe, or God, or random neurons colliding. The rest of the line and the vocal melody for the verses came just as quickly, through improvisation. Anything else—if there was to be anything else—I'd have to work for.
I mused, That's kind of catchy. It could be a song.
I thought, That's dumb. I don't write songs.
Here's where the road forks.
I easily could've thought: Yeah, I don't write songs, no point trying. That would've been the end of the line. Why attempt something so difficult when I knew I'd fail anyway?
I also could have given myself a pep talk. You can do it! You just have to believe in yourself! It probably wouldn't have worked. Not for long, anyway. Not enough to overcome my natural fear and self-doubt and laziness the first time I ran into an obstacle higher than my knees.
What I actually thought surprised me. One of those pieces of internal dialogue that seem to come from someone else. Okay, said the indifferent voice in my head. But if you don't, nobody else will.
If I didn't make it exist, it wouldn't.
So I did. And here I am.
And sometimes, like tonight, I think about all the universes where I didn't keep going because I didn't understand why I should. I feel bad for those other selves.
Then again, who knows. If I wrote my first song when I was 30, another me could write my first song when I'm 44, or 63, or 80.
It's never too late to do the unlikely thing that changes your life.
If you don't, nobody else will.