Saturday, June 4, 2022

The Power of Regret

 The title seems counter intuitive. We are taught to forget about our past failures and move forward.  Daniel Pink did not let me down as he takes a closer look and tells us how to use our regrets to further our life.  This is a deep book that cannot be read without a lot of personal reflection.  As its subtitle claims you will understand "How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward."

Pink starts with a story about how a famous song got started.  If you know Edith Piaf, you probably have heard "Non, Je ne regrette rien."  The author contends despite the memorable song she had lots of regrets.  She would not otherwise be considered human as she dealt with several relationship breakups, poor health and addiction problems.

 We all do have regrets, but they contain many differences that can help us understand better.  The author is able to suggest different strategies to deal with regrets and even suggests how you can turn the concept to your benefit.  There are many scientific studies and anecdotes to illustrate different perspectives that guide one to cope with feelings of regret.

At one point he identifies four types:  Foundation, Boldness, Moral and Connectivity.  

Foundation refers to the concept of regretting you didn't better prepare for the future, in fact were focused on enjoying life as it happened.  A favorite quote from Bobby Knight "The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win."  Winning or getting the most out of life requires a conscious effort.

Boldness refers to not taking a risk.  Asking someone you wish to know better out.   Or going into business.  You regret the missed opportunity.  Jeff Bezos had a high paying job, but felt the future would be tied to the inter-net and he could make a lot o money selling books on the inter-net.  He quit his job and invested all he could into this new venture that became Amazon.  How he reasoned was to project himself to the age 80 and realized he would regret not taking this risk and at the same time would not regret if his risk failed.  In other words like many regrets it focuses on what was not tried rather than actions that failed.

Moral refers to violations of right behavior.  You felt coerced into something that you at the time and certainly later on knew was wrong.  It could be not speaking up against abusive behavior.  It could be joining in on some form of abuse.  Morality does mean different things to different people and Pink draws upon Jonathan Haidt speaks of a moral foundation that we all have that for many include issues others might not think of that way.  One example might be respect for parents.  Pink comments that Haidt affected his thinking and he also did mine.

Connectivity to the breaking of relationships.  Childhood friends who drift away or an event causes a disruption of a friendship or estrangement within a family.  Pink uses an example of woman who drifted away from one of her closest friends and then regretted and fear the break.  At different parts of the book he refers to the relationship while in the writing process.  At the end they both are grateful for a reconciliation while the author admits it may not always work out. 

A Chinese proverb says "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.  The second best time is right now."  Accept you can't change the past, but can do better for the future.  

Often you are harder on yourself than you would be with a friend or even a stranger.  One strategy is self compassion.  Ask yourself if a stranger came to you with the same predicament would you be kind?  Do you feel your regret is unique? or do you feel others share it?   Is your regret an unpleasant moment or does it define your life?  Aligned with this strategy talk of yourself in the third person--doing away with "I" may help distance yourself.

An interesting application was used by staff at Duke University who wanted to increase a response to a survey.  They offered a draw for a gift certificate and split the survey recipients into two groups.  In one group they were told everyone was entered into the draw.  The second group were told that if they hadn't returned the survey they would not be eligible for the prize.  Not surprisingly the second group returned a higher rate of the surveys.  In the second group apparently individuals wanted to avoid missing the prize and this phenomena was labeled "loss aversion."  In other words they anticipated a regret winning the draw, but losing eligibility.  Some of this thinking was part of the Covid 19 vaccination strategy as some were concerned that if they weren't tested or vaccinated they would regret passing on the virus.

A movie seen many years ago struck me as a courageous way of dealing with regret. In "bachna ae haseeno" (2008) A young man  played by Ranbir Kapoor, about to embark on a new love looked back at some romantic relationships and felt very guilty for how he treated the women.  As it turned out he ended up visiting India, Switzerland, Italy and Australia in an effort to apologize.  The women had all moved on with their lives and in some cases he managed to make their lives smoother.  It had a happy ending, partly because he overcame his regrets and of course the script called for it. 

We all have regrets and as the author guides us we can turn many of them to benefits.  Read the book; this blog is only a sketchy introduction to something that could change your life.

I would like to close with two quotes and a website.

James Baldwin's quote is at the beginning:  "Though we would like to live without regrets and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, that is not really possible, if only because we are moral."

The author ends his book and research with:  "After a few years immersed in the science and experience of our most misunderstood emotion, I've discovered about myself what I discovered about others.  Regret makes me human.  Regret makes me better.  Regret gives me hope."

To get a feel for the book check out (and contribute which I did) to his website:

An earlier blog on Daniel Pink;s "To Sell is Human"

An earlier  blog on Daniel Pink's   "A Whole New Mind" 

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