In early 2013, I published the following post on the issue of regret. As we enter into another new year, it’s usually there, lingering about in the corners of our mind…this idea that we might have regret or that we have to live with regret.
As a technical career strategist, much of what I hear professionals saying to me throughout the year, but especially when it comes to their career management, is that they are afraid of “regret” or that they are constantly being plagued by “regret,” which now has them gun shy, afraid to make any other poor decisions when it comes to their careers.
So I wrote this post for them and for those of you really struggling with regret. I can’t speak to all the personal regrets we might accumulate over a lifetime, but I can speak to the professional ones.
It’s time to give ourselves a break.
I was listening to the typical end-of-year, New Year’s-type speech the other day, which is meant to make us take stock of our lives and realize that time is tick, tick, ticking away so we better get moving and go after those goals. As is also typical in this type of motivational speech, the speaker was discussing regrets and how we don’t want to wake up when we are 92 with regrets.
Overall, it was a rousing speech that certainly did make me think about all the things that I still have left to do in life, much less in my career, but the whole issue of regret did give me some pause.
Now, before I state my position, let me just say that I get what he meant. It’s what every Hallmark, Pinterest, life-affirming quote always means. Carpe diem! Go for it! Charge ahead with your goals before it’s too late!
I mean, after all, it’s probably the most noncontroversial thing you can say to someone: Live with no regrets! Who doesn’t want that?
The problem, in my mind anyway, is that it is a pretty unrealistic goal. No regrets, none, really?
I understand that certain things might be easier to ascertain than others…certain moral standards, etc. (If I do X illegal thing, then I will likely go to jail and regret it, comes to mind.) But when it comes to many things in our lives, careers being one of them, it is not always easy to know which decisions will and will not cause you to have regret.
And, let’s face it, you are bound to make mistakes.
So to me, it’s somewhat unavoidable.
First of all, whenever we have to make a decision between two things, it is easy to wonder afterward whether we made the right choice, no matter which path we followed. So we just might have to spend the rest of our lives wondering “what if?” we hadn’t made this decision. But had we chosen the opposite way, then we probably would be doing the same thing anyway (wondering…)! So what did we gain?
Sigh. We’re left, at 92, with “what if?” either way!
If you think about it, this whole thing about regret implies you have some insight into the future, that you can predict outcomes and other people’s behaviors, and that you even know how you are going to look at life when you’re older (say 92). Also, it assumes that everything you want right now (Carpe Diem!) is, well, right for you.
Also, is all regret bad?
Some of my biggest mistakes (career and otherwise) have been my biggest learning curves. So in that sense, although I regret them, I’m also a bit grateful for them…how sticky is that?
Furthermore, the whole concept could be either pretty paralyzing or pretty damaging. If regret is your motivator, you will either be more afraid than ever to make a decision (even though it is meant to have the opposite effect) or end up charging out into the world with reckless abandon because it is all about you and your fear of regrets. (How many parents make sacrifices for their kids that might cause them to miss out on some important things? Sure, they regret they didn’t get to do such and such, but sometimes we make sacrifices for the ones we love even if it means we have some regret about what we missed. We can make the “right” decision and still have regret, after all.)
I know. I know. I’m crushing the Hallmark, Pinterest, life-affirming image! (It sounds so good!)
I have a friend who says she has no regrets, but what she really means is that she just chooses not to acknowledge her mistakes or missed opportunities as regrets. Some people call this healthy. I call it her way of coping. Either way, she still has things in her life she wished had turned out differently, some she could control and some she couldn’t. She just isn’t beating herself up over them…at least not yet…who knows how she’ll feel when she’s 92 and has more time to sit around and think about them!
My point is that although we like to have goals that we actually meet and bucket lists that we actually fulfill, we need to be careful about being motivated solely by the fear of future regret. Fear can be a powerful igniter, but it rarely sustains us in any positive way (certainly in any way that keeps us rational). To me, necessity is the best motivator, not fear or guilt.
I’m going to be 40 this year. Of course, I would like to limit the number of regrets I have (now and when I’m 92) as much as the next person. But I also know my mind likes to play tricks on me. It likes to make me sit around and stew on this or that regret and wonder what future ones I will certainly have. As I embark on 2013, though, I would rather think about what is and is not necessary in my life/career, how to live/move with a necessary purpose, and how to think more about leaving a necessary legacy that doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae. After all, time is tick, tick, ticking!
I want to focus on the necessity of leaving my mark,
no matter how small, not because it is something I might regret not doing later on but because it is something I need to do (not just for me but for those around me) right now. And I don’t want to be consumed about all the things I have yet to do right; instead, I want to be OK with my inevitable imperfection. I mean, there are just so many things about me I cannot seem to fix!
And most of all, I really don’t want to think about being 92; gosh, it’s hard enough to contemplate turning 40. 🙂