If I don't, I will regret it!: Avoiding the Regret Matrix
February 28, 2010
Make service to others, relationships, passions, your priorities, and success will follow.
I have finished my last 100 presentations, workshops and speeches with this quote. I have believed for a very long time that the number of regrets--what we wish we did, chances we did not take, things we should have done--are a much better measurement of our age than the clock. You know the "shoulda, couldas." Not talking about the micro regrets of daily transactions like buyer's remorse over the cell phone you purchased. Or the tiny faux pas or thought about how you could have done something better. I am really not talking about anything you have done. I am talking about the heftier regrets of not acting, of not doing something that we regard as important or now see as an opportunity lost. I once asked Guy Kawasaki what his greatest regret was. He told me about a company that was formed by some nerdy Stanford students in Mountain View, who wanted Guy to be their CEO. Guy turned the job because the commute was too long and the name of the company was silly. It was Yahoo. Fortunately this is one of many stories that Guy does not regret! But if we accumulate many regrets, then we become old because we are not as fulfilled or satisfied with our lives. We are also not happy, especially when you look in the rear view mirror and keep asking, what if? Once you have a box filled of these regrets, you have the tendency to give up on your goals and dreams. You start to settle. You doubt yourself. You accept your fate and the rest of your story is predictable. And we lose the best you have to offer. And that's why this is the slipperiest of life's slopes. A slope that not only treats your personal and professional expectations as mirages but accelerates your life satisfaction on a downward aging spiral.
Met with a former colleague last week who has made great contributions to society and to our community. I like meeting with her because she is a source of strength and inspiration. She is going to complete her 14th year in the same line of work and I began to probe what was ahead. She started telling me how old she is (I already knew this) and how her options have narrowed. Saying meaningless things like, "I am not as young as I used to be." What?!!! She sounded tired and resigned to her choices. She is 60. While controlled, I was furious with her. Not because she is lacking great ambition at this stage of her life. Not because she is thinking realistically about her last few chapters of her life. But because she is starting to give up. In a last ditch effort, I said, "What do you have to do in the next 5 years, or you will regret it?" She began to regale me with her plans with her kids and family, travel that was important, and the specific goals for her organization. Her eyes became the windows to her soul again and were filled with the verve and intensity upon which I have become dependent. How can our ambitions evolve with our lives but continue to energize us? How do we continue to minimize our regrets?
Like exasperated fans who leave well before the game ends, their concerns start to turn to the traffic rather than on what they think is an unlikely chance to succeed. After all, giving up is the definition of death, isn't it?
What is not understood is if you try things and they do not work out or even if you fall down on your face, these items do not turn into these aging burdensome regrets. Those were opportunities that we did not pass on and we stuck our little necks out of our hard turtle shells and took a chance. As the baseballers say, hard to get a hit if you don't swing the bat. So to be clear, regrets, the ones that grow into tumors and weigh a life down like a bad set of samsonite are the regrets that resonate from chances not taken.
There is a great body of mathematical and probability research on decision making based on payoff or regret matrices. On the consequences and antecedents of decisions we regret. Most have to do with consumer behavior. One study published in the journal for the American Psychological Association (2002) concluded, "As a consequence, decisions not to act that are followed by a negative outcome result in more regret than do decisions to act that lead to outcomes." But while regret may be informed by the numbers it is ultimately a matter of the heart.
As a parent and a manager of people and someone who tries to lead others for a living, I have experimented with the proverbial carrot and have also deployed the stick. Can you get more from sugar than vinegar? Is a pat on the back as effective as one a little lower? Do bonuses work better than fines? Is pleasure a greater incentive than the pain of the consequences? Shouldn't a dream be more powerful than regretting not pursuing the dream? These debates about human nature have raged on for centuries. Like most complex processes, it depends. But one thing is certain, most people have thoughts about their futures. They can say they want to be happy and have meaning in their lives. They always say this. Inaction, by not doing something, is the source of regret. And considering in advance that regret may be the greatest motivator. Otherwise, life happens and those notions of the future get supplanted by the traffic jam of life rather than what they see down the road.
Many chroniclers of life have documented what people say at the end of their lives. Just finishing John Izzo's Five Secrets You Have to Know Before You Die. Like Po Bronson's book, What Should I Do With My life? or Habits of the Heart, by Robert Bellah. People tell us what they wanted in their lives and where they came up short. Regrets play a big part. Those that are the least happy have an unchecked bucket list. The top of the list is filled with relationships that were never consummated, reconciled, or handled well. Then there are a few other regrets. These are passports or experiential tickets that were not stamped. They failed to visit places and try things. They are often described as chances, as opportunities, as things that were vital to them but were never done. Now just a collection of "youthful" impulses that are no longer practical and gather layers of regret dust. Feel the gray hair and wrinkles growing uncontrollably?
How do we minimize or avoid this fate? Or how do we stop the slide down this depressing mountain? Pretty easy. Start acting on your ideas, aspirations, experiential wish lists, AND your relationships now! You have heard the ole questions: What will you say to those you love when you are on your deathbed? And why are you waiting until then?
Having no regrets, is regrettably a negative way of acting. But I think it works and it is powerful. It is the best way to make decisions of consequence that require your instincts and intuition. Which decision would we regret more? This can be very telling. Graduate schools, jobs, travel destinations. The one, if you did not have it, you would regret the most, is always your first choice.
Start listening to your heart and as I like to say, take great notes. Understand what you will regret and act to avoid it. A life without regrets is more meaningful and happier. And you know what you are like when you feel that way and the impact that has on everyone around you. And when we have more people taking chances and pursuing opportunities, we have a more vibrant and dynamic society. So minimize regrets in your life for yourself and for the rest of us too. It is a fool proof way to make you younger and happier and that is something you will never regret.
Thanks for reading. John