The power of regret

23 January, 2017

Your regrets about the past can light the path to a more authentic, happier future

I recently came across a book written a few years ago by Bronnie Ware, a nurse in Australia. She spent many years working with people during the last few weeks of their lives.  While caring for her dying patients, she recorded the most common regrets her patients had expressed to her. She later published them in a book called  The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which was read by more than three million people in the first year of publishing. In it, the most common regret mentioned was I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

And this got me thinking. Rather than feeling regret in only one’s last moments – what if you felt some of that regret earlier on in life? Could you use it to do things differently?

So, drawing from that, my message this week is on regret and how it can shape your future life. 

My guess is that it will be hard-pressed to find people who haven’t experienced some regret in life. Though many of us may not want to admit or acknowledge it. Regretting something can be viewed as being backward looking or can bring out negative emotions. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, remorse over a mistake is a waste of time, “adding to the first act of stupidity a second.” To a degree, this is true: if we drown ourselves forever in self-pity or self-hatred, we would become paralysed and unable to move forward.

However, what if we let regret act as a catalyst for change? Can regret help put the past in context, be a positive force for your future behaviour, help you change course, and even kick you into action?

There are a number of ways in which we can turn our reflections from the past into a compass for tomorrow, helping us move towards a more fulfilled life. Here are six suggestions:

1. Know your regrets

Look back at the last few years and ask yourself: What are my regrets? What do I feel guilty about or wish I could go back and change? Forget the superficial errors, and focus instead on things that make you feel remorse. Now put them down in a list. No, this exercise is not about dwelling on your past mistakes and indulging in endless woe; rather, it is a way for you to check in with your inner voice.

Forget about what anyone else thinks and focus on the things that made you feel dissatisfied or repentant. Do you regret not taking on enough new challenges at work—or perhaps, taking on too much work? Losing a dear old friend over a fight? Not spending enough time with your loved ones? Spending too much money on luxuries—or maybe saving too much at the cost of everyday comforts? Writing down your regrets will allow you to get a clearer sense of where you stand. Guided by your conscience, examine what you need to change in order to move closer to your ideal life. Once you have done this, get rid of the list: shred it, burn it, or tear it up and throw it into the bin. Its work is done.

2. Forgive, and let it go

Say it as many times as you need to: everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. You are not superhuman, and neither is anyone else in your life. Whether your remorse springs from your own or someone else’s actions, at a certain point you must forgive in order to move forward. Holding on to blame and anger will only weigh you down and drag you back into the past—when what you need to be doing is moving into the future. If you are the one who made the mistake, stop torturing yourself; instead, allow yourself to learn and become better, so that you never make the same mistake again. In his New York Times story, What’s The Use of Regret?, Gordon Marino points out the necessity of regret—as well as of letting go:

“We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us. Perhaps the old biblical formula is best — repent, ask for forgiveness with a sincere resolve to change your ways.”

3. Take risks

While you should certainly learn from your former mistakes, remember that there is no way to eliminate all possibility of failure. In the quest to not fail, too many of us end up on the path of excessive safety. If you never step out of your comfort zone, you may never err—but neither will you be able to learn, grow or accomplish much. So, do your best to avoid repeating a past mistake, and then take the leap. As the lyrics from the song Sweet Loaf say it well,”It’s better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven’t done”.

4. Create your touchstone

Build your own reference point for future choices; this is a great tool to help you live a life true to yourself. Pick up a pen and paper and put down the ten things in life that are most important to you—these can be abstract concepts (growth, excellence, etc.), or tangible things (traveling the world, spending time with family, etc.). Do you have your ten items? Good, now cut these down to five—get rid of anything that’s not indispensable. Are you down to five items? Excellent. Now make it three. Yes, cut your list down to the three most important things in your life, those that you definitely do not want to compromise on.

These final three items constitute your personal touchstone. If you’re at a crossroads or if you find yourself feeling unsure about a decision, refer back to this list and ask yourself: which course of action will be in sync with my top priorities in life?

5. Enjoy the journey

In our goal-driven approach to work and life, we can sometimes forget that the end point isn’t all that matters—how you get there is equally important. Considering how much time you’ll spend en route to your ultimate destination, it’s crucial to enjoy yourself while you’re on the way.

In his Harvard Business Review article, Don’t Regret Working Too Hard, Peter Bregman describes a great way to understand how your day-to-day journey is going:

“Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an American Time Use Survey asking thousands of Americans to document how they spend every minute of every day…. According to the data, most of us spend 20 hours of each day sleeping (8.68 hours/day), working (7.78 hours/day), and watching television (3.45 hours/day). I know: shocking, right? Who sleeps that much?

It’s hard to look at the data and not think about where you fit in. Do you watch more or less television? Do you work longer or shorter hours? It’s a useful and interesting exercise to examine how we spend each minute of the day. To know where we’re devoting our wisdom, our action, our life’s energy. And yet, where we spend our time only tells us so much. More important, and completely subjective, is what those activities mean to us.”

Are you spending your time on pursuits that are meaningful to you? Or are your precious hours being frittered away on default activities like watching television or scrolling through Facebook? There’s nothing wrong with a little mindless relaxation—after all, we all need to de-stress! The question is, how much is too much? Would those three extra hours spent channel or internet surfing on the weekend bring more joy if used in a different way?  To avoid regrets, it’s crucial to enjoy our everyday journey—without this, achieving the big goals will end up feeling hollow and disappointing.

6. Lead the way

As leaders, we must do our best to ensure that our team members don’t end up with bitter regrets about their work and careers. In the above-mentioned Harvard Business Review article, Peter Bregman maps out of a course of action for leaders:

“So the question is, what matters to you?

That’s a critically important question to explore. With yourself and, if you’re a manager, with your employees. What matters to them? Not as a collective, but to each one of them. Of course having a fair salary, enough vacation days, and your respect matters to them. But you know that already. Go deeper.

First, ask about what’s working. What about their daily work matters to them? Why are they doing it? What part of it is a source of pride? What impact do they feel they’re having on people, ideas, or things that are important to them? Next, ask about what’s neutral. What are they working on that they couldn’t care less about? What doesn’t matter to them? What’s not important? Finally, ask about what alienates them. What about their work contradicts what matters to them? What makes them feel bad or untrue to themselves? What are they even slightly embarrassed about?

And then, slowly, over time, help them shift where they’re spending their time, so the scale begins to tip in the direction of what matters to them. Some things you won’t be able to change — maybe they’re working for the wrong company. But don’t be afraid to ask the questions. Your workforce, on the whole, will be tremendously more dedicated if they’re working on things that matter to them.”

Even as you spend some time thinking through how to channel the regret you may be feeling, do take a look at this insightful TED Talk, Don’t regret regret, by Kathryn Schulz. Schulz challenges the “no regrets” slogan of modern culture, suggesting that regret is in fact an integral part of being human, of becoming a compassionate and ethical person. She also recounts the top regrets of people according to a recent study, from decisions related to education and romance, to parenting and career choices. To borrow from her, “Regret doesn’t remind us we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.”

I look forward to hearing from you.


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