I Went Down to the Crossroads

My greatest regret is the professional path not taken

Photograph by Getty Images

Regrets? As the saying goes, I have a few. And like most women, I could play the sentimental card and pony up the “great love” I didn’t marry, or the children I never had, or a refrain of “if only I had a better divorce attorney.”

But honestly, my greatest regret is professional and inextricably linked to my earliest ambitions and my truest sense of self. I find more in common with the men I know who say they regret the business not started, the patent not pursued, the conventional path taken over the more entrepreneurial.

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I can remember exactly where I was at the time — striding down Rue de Rennes with the Tour Montparnasse at my back, storefronts and cafés lining the sidewalk on my right, and traffic chugging along on my left.

The enormity of the decision I had to make was dogging me. And I didn’t have much time to weigh the pros and cons, either. I was in Paris — I was working in Paris — and I was just beginning to feel comfortable in my international job. Sure, it was temporary and nothing too exacting, but I loved every minute of it and there was discussion about keeping me on in Paris, or possibly shipping me off to Moscow. There, I would take courses for a few months. I could brush up my Russian and be better prepared for a broader set of assignments.

I didn’t envision myself in an international organization for life, but there I was and it was exciting! Two to five years? Why not? And especially when you’re 24?

To arrive at this point had taken persistence and determination. I was positioned to continue living in Europe, learning languages and maybe, just maybe, to become a “real writer.” If only I didn’t have this decision — an acceptance letter to business school — clenched in my hot little hands.

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I knew this was a fork in the road, a critical turning point, one of those Big Life Choices.

Staying in Paris? I was earning little and had college loans calling my name. The alternative was a responsible option, a conventional option, which incidentally garnered parental approval. I knew it would mean more debt that would tie me to the requirements of a certain sort of career, but my logical head said no to Paris and yes to Philadelphia.

Shortly thereafter, I began my graduate program at Wharton.

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I didn’t leave France behind altogether, mind you. That would have been unthinkable. Instead, I used my language skills to steer my marketing career into international waters. But with 60-hour work weeks, moving up the ladder, and then marriage and kids, there was little time for personal dreams — much less thoughts of another life that always left me wistful.

My memory of that time in Paris remains special — certainly not perfect, but remarkable all the same. I was pretty broke, often hungry and my rented room reeked of shabby without the chic. But three of us teamed up on a project and we were our own little female U.N. — one brilliant Persian engineer, one cracker-jack translator from Argentina and yours truly, with my native English, fluent French and rusty Russian. We hailed from three different cultures, three different continents and three different religious upbringings — operating as global and communal citizens.

But hey — coming home to the States for school made sense. In the years that followed, I made excellent use of my education, though I can’t deny looking back at that turning point and wondering if I chose the right path.

Coloring my sense of regret may be the snapshot of a twentysomething self — all energy and enthusiasm — entirely at ease in a language I love, not to mention a culture that sees no contradiction in femininity and feminism.

Naturally, I can never know how my life might have changed had I extended my stint in Europe and nixed the fancy MBA. Would I have become a better writer or simply a different one? A better woman or simply a different one?

No doubt I would have walked down the aisle with a different man — or possibly none at all.

I would have given birth to different children — or possibly none at all.

I might have led a more significant life — or possibly one with a smaller store of experiences than this, the collection of contributions that at times seems so inconsequential. Perhaps that’s the heart of my regret: from that idealistic and hopeful sense of global community to this, a narrower world and my conviction that I have achieved so little.

When asked about joyous moments, I conjure Paris. When asked about my dream home, again it’s Paris. When queried about regrets, I’m back at the crossroad in the middle of the City of Lights, faced with a pivotal decision that I’m aware will alter the course of my life.

For those who claim to never revisit the past or feel regret, I think it’s an admirable philosophical stance. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who harbors no secret sorrows or wishful thinking, much less the opportunity to stand at a crossroad again — and risk the path not taken.

Still, occasionally, I tell myself it’s never too late for Paris.

Tags: career

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