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“No regrets” is a popular tattoo and common sentiment echoed by a wide variety of people from Bob Dylan, Angelina Jolie, and Justice Ruth Bader to Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins, and Edith Piaf and her famous 1960s song: “Je ne regrette rien”.
But in his latest (2022) book, The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink says this is not a healthy recipe for a good life. Regret is in fact “universal,” “valuable,” and “needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.” Repressing or ignoring regrets is unhealthy and foolish. It can often stop us from doing the work we need to do so we can improve our lives! Bottling up regrets can also lead to negative health consequences over time.
What are the benefits of acknowledging and exploring your regrets (since it is a painful thing to do)?
a) Better future decisions – use regret to improve your future and clarify your values
Some of what we value most comes from regrets. For example, as I tried to explain the book to my 8-year-old daughter, I reminded her that one of my life regrets was that I only told my dad that I loved him once in my life – and it was the last time I saw him before he died of cancer. And that this was why I so frequently like to express my love to her and her brother.
b) Improved performance from instilling deeper persistence
Failing to succeed at something can deepen our resolve and cause us to try again even harder, eg, failing to land a big prospect or coming second in a contest. Regret can help us develop a “journey mindset” which helps us SUSTAIN good habits after we hit a goal and not unwittingly slack off.
c) Increased sense of meaning and connectedness
Regrets from relationship failures can help us make better decisions in the future or to right past wrongs so we don’t repeat past painful experiences.
In the past, most studies about regrets would typically elicit responses where people mentioned that they regretted not getting enough education, not saving enough money, not taking care of their health, and relationship. Pink has gone deeper with his research and identifies four main areas of regret that people have.
1. Foundation Regrets
These regrets include a failure to be responsible, conscientious, or prudent – of not making the short-term sacrifice for the long-term payoff. “I should have worked harder in school,” “I didn’t look after myself when I was younger,” “Not saving money from an earlier age.”
2. Boldness Regrets = INACTION
“I regret not taking more chances and being so shy.” “That I never found the courage to ask her out.” “I should have taken bolder actions in my career earlier (and started my business sooner).” “I regret not traveling more.” “I regret not coming out as a lesbian to my parents early in my life.”
Pink puts it really well: “With boldness regrets, the human need is growth – to expand as a person, to enjoy the richness of the world, to experience more than an ordinary life. The lesson is plain: Speak up. Ask him out. Take that trip. Start that business. Step off the train.”
3. Moral Regrets
This is the smallest category but the broadest where we make morally dubious decisions. “I regret being unfaithful to my husband.” “I bullied a new kid at school.” “I physically hurt a man when I was eighteen years old.” “I regret not joining a branch of the military.”
All of us can do now is apologize if possible and live by this mantra from now on: “When in doubt, do the right thing.”
4. Connection Regrets
This is the largest category of regrets because other people give our lives purpose but often we fail to honor this – and live to regret it. We end up empty as the John Lennon lyrics: “All the lonely people: where do they all come from?”
We don’t keep in touch. We don’t resolve old disputes. We let good people drift away. The longest-running study of the lifetime well-being of a single group of people was started at Harvard in 1938. Its conclusion in 2017: “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.”
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR REGRETS
The key is this: relive your regret (write or talk about it for a limited period of time), then show yourself some compassion (don’t beat yourself up anymore), and try to look at the regret from a 3rd-party distance , eg as if your ‘best friend’ has the regret or you’re a neutral doctor examining it.
Take action. Don’t keep replaying an old failure. Pink recommends answering these three questions and then looking ahead:
1. How could the decision I now regret have turned out worse?
2. What’s one silver lining in this regret? Pink shares his own example, “Going to law school was a mistake, but at least I met my wife.”
3. “How would I complete the sentence? “At least…”
How can you at least reframe your regret and, if possible, act to counter it now?
4. Anticipate regret
a) Imagine you wake up tomorrow and find out you are now living a second life the way you wished you had lived your first life. How would you script it?
b) Ask: “In the future, will I regret this decision if I don’t do X?” In the early 1990’s Jeff Bezos had this idea to sell books on the newfangled internet. His boss at the bank implored him to take a few days to think before leaving his high-paying job.
“I wanted to project myself forward to age 80…I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.” As founder of Amazon, he’s now one of the richest people in the world.
c) At a minimum from your future vantage point, “ask yourself which choice will help you build your foundation, take a sensible risk, do the right thing, or maintain a meaningful connection…Anticipate those regrets. Then choose the option that most reduces them.”
Done right, regret can give you hope and help you fuel a powerful future. Most of us have many years left to make all kinds of magic happen. Accept your humanity and imperfection and live the life you’ve always wanted to.
To using regrets for progress!
Founder & President
Matt Anderson International
1177 Oak Ridge Drive, Glencoe, IL 60022, USA
Phone: +001 (312) 622-3121