How often do you face decisions that do not seem to have a clear-cut answer? Do you agonize through the process of choosing an alternative when there doesn’t seem to be a good one?
When I was 19, I faced one of those forks on the road. I was starting my second year of engineering in Peru. My school, a state university, had been suffering due to frequent strikes and instability. In part, this was a reflection of the country going through an unstable period under a military dictatorship. This led me to apply for a scholarship the year before to study in the United States, since neither my parents nor I had the resources to fund my studies abroad.
After several interviews, tests, and heavy paperwork, I was awarded a tuition scholarship to study engineering in the United States. The good news did not last long, however, as I was expected to cover the rest of the expenses (room, board, books, and others). I politely reminded the scholarship grantors that my family had provided the evidence that we could not cover the expenses and thus we had requested a full scholarship, not just the tuition portion. The answer, as expected, was that a tuition scholarship was all they could offer me at that time, and if I did not want to accept it, there was another student waiting in line.
I got cold feet and told my parents, who were with me during this meeting, that maybe I should stay and finish my studies in Peru. I could always go later to the US to do post-graduate work. There was just too much financial uncertainty around this partial scholarship offer.
It was then that my parents posed the following question: What’s the worst that can happen? The resulting conversation can be summarized as follows: Today we don’t have the money to fund the full program abroad. However, based on your savings and ours, we could fund the nontuition expenses for the first year. No doubt it will be a stretch, but it’s doable.
So, what’s the worst that can happen? You finish your first year in the US, you run out of money, and you come back to Peru. You will have had an experience abroad that very few people in this country have. You will have significantly improved your English and you would likely be able to get credit in your current school for the courses taken abroad.
Now, what’s the best that can happen? Once you get to the US, you can improve your financial situation through on-campus jobs and additional scholarships. Our financials could also improve, and we can help you as well.
After a few moments of reflection, I chose to accept the scholarship and study in the US.
And as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” The worst-case scenario never happened, and the best-case scenario did. I graduated as a chemical engineer three years later.
I was very fortunate to receive this timely and life-changing advice from my parents. If I had to do it all over again, I would follow the same path. In fact, I continue to ask myself this same question every time I face a fork on the road.
I have also used it in my coaching practice when the executive is not clear on a specific choice he or she needs to make. As you face difficult choices in your life, consider asking yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
Percy M. Cannon