How to minimize regrets

Memento mori.

It means: Remember that you will die.

Sometimes people follow it up with the phrase memento vivere: Remember to live.  Why is that important now more than ever?

I learned a new phrase today: hustle culture.  It's a synonym for workaholism, but without the pejorative flavor.  Hustle culture involves doubling down on what you do well and profitably and giving everything you've got to your work, sometimes to the point of ignoring everything else.  It's a good way to make a lot of money.  It is also a recipe for regret.

Advice from people who have been there

How will you feel when you are 80 years old and look back on your life?  Is there any way to know?

We can use surrogation to find the answer.  In other words, we can use a proven method to find out what we will think about a situation we've never experienced:  Ask someone who's already been there.

First, let's meet some people who have done just that.  

In 2009 Bronnie Ware described herself as "a singer/songwriter, a songwriting teacher, and a writer from Australia." However, she would soon be known for something else. A blog post she wrote went viral a year and a half later. In the years since then, she has written a book on the subject, and her experiences have enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands by reminding us what is important in life.

The post was called "Regrets of the Dying." In her years of caring for people in their final weeks, she noticed five common themes.

At about the same time, Karl Pillemer of Cornell University - who has also spent many years helping the elderly - realized that he could learn valuable lessons from them.  He wrote:

It suddenly hit me that for life’s major challenges, I should go to people who have lived through them and tap their wisdom. So I began a quest to gather the practical advice of real people who surmounted difficulties, survived, and eventually thrived.

Tenzin Kiyosaki also has extensive experience caring for people who have less than six months to live.

I have compiled the observations of these three published authors into one master list.  First, let's consider what many of the people they helped regretted.  Then we'll take a look at three things that almost no one regretted.

The regrets

Not being true to themselves

Failing to pursue dreams and aspirations is the biggest regret. Instead, they did as others expected. In order to fit in, people often pretend to be someone they are not.

Working too hard

The biggest side effect of this regret was not making enough time for friends and family.

Suppressing their feelings

Many people chose not to express their feelings in order to avoid conflict.  Failing to say 'I love you' was one of the main sources of regret for people in that position.

Others chose to suffer in silence and became resentful as a result. These situations often strain relationships or even cause rifts. At the very least, it produces long-term pain in the heart of the resentful person.

Losing touch with friends

Relationships can suffer from overwork, which is the most obvious cause. The importance of maintaining good friendships is not obvious until it's too late, unlike paying bills or keeping up with daily responsibilities.

Not realizing happiness was a choice they could make

Too often, we get caught up in comfortable, familiar, but boring routines. We fail to stop and enjoy life, or we are too afraid of what others think to lighten up and act silly.

What they did not regret

Not buying more things

There's a humorous saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins." Although material things can enhance our lives, a focus on money and things will leave us hollow.

Not being as rich as someone else

We are all prone to feeling pressure to keep up with the Joneses.  However, evaluating our worth based on others' status and achievement is a sure recipe for discontent and regret.

Not earning a certain amount of money

People compete for lucrative jobs and put themselves through drudgery and stress to make money.  Their health and relationships often suffer as a result.  People who take a more balanced approach to life often find that they are more satisfied with their lives.

What about super-wealthy people?

Maybe these things are true of people in general, but surely those who have "made it" feel differently, right?  Everyone admires people like Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, and Steve Jobs, don't they?

Andrew Carnegie was a steel magnate, philanthropist, and at one time, the richest man in the USA.  Did his wealth and success bring him satisfaction? Journalist T. P. O'Connor recorded a conversation he had with Carnegie, who said:

I am not to be envied. How can my wealth help me? I am sixty years old, and I cannot digest my food. I would give all my millions if I could have youth and health. If I could make Faust’s bargain I would. I would gladly sell anything to have my life over again.Earthly Discords and How to Heal Them (1903) by Malcolm James McLeod

Steve Jobs is revered for his strong personality and business success.  But Jobs clearly had regrets about the amount of time he'd spent with his children.However, the often-quoted speech containing the line, "Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me," is most likely a fabrication.  Although he considered them more important than everything he had accomplished, his actions did not reflect that.

How to fend off regrets

First, it's important to recognize that not everyone will experience regret in the same way.  Self-discrepancy theory, developed by Edward T. Higgins in the 1980s, focuses on the difference between the ideal self and the "ought self."  

Higgins points out the connection between self-esteem and the difference between one's actual self and their ideal self.  Yet in some instances, people's self-esteem may be determined by what others expect of them, often referred to as their "social ideal self."Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319–340. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.94.3.319

Using the self-discrepancy theory as a basis, Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich studied people's regrets in 2018.  It turned out people can have severe regrets, not only for what they didn't do in pursuit of their dreams, but also for what they did.  Those who regret doing or failing to do something they should have done tend to experience stronger emotions, which in turn drives them to take more immediate action.  Or, they may "file away" these transgressions where they are less likely to remember them.Davidai, Shai; Gilovich, Thomas (April 2018). "The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regrets" (PDF). Emotion. 18 (3): 439–452. doi:10.1037/emo0000326.

The prisoners interviewed for the study tended to focus more on their failures to fulfill their duties and responsibilities than their unfulfilled goals and aspirations.  What is the lesson?  It is important to balance following our dreams with living up to our responsibilities.

Keep a future self journal. Be grateful for what you have, but make sure to keep track of what you want in life.  The method I've outlined includes the WOOP method, which can be used to transform dreams into realistic goals.

Davidai and Gilovich point out, "The constant chase after a series of ever-increasing aspirations may lead to more regrets over falling short of the ideal self."  You can avoid this trap by visualizing your ideal self as clearly as possible.

In your journal, have a page for each ideal self. Spend time creating a description that is as specific as possible. Record the date and the mindset that you are in as you add each detail.

Decide not to regret something that is out of your control.  Review your future self journal regularly, evaluate the situation, and take action when you are able.  In the event you can't take action, you will have a record of the events that prevented you from reaching your goals.  The knowledge that you did everything possible will minimize future regrets.  Life doesn't always allow us to do what we want.

Make a list of all the reasons you can't take action right now. Afterward, compare each reason with the importance of reaching your ideal goal. Keep track of a factor that prevents you from reaching your dream if it truly matters more to you than realizing the dream.  There will always be hard choices to make.  Giving up something you want to prioritize something you want more isn't a reason to regret it.  It's a reason to be proud.

Do you hesitate to take action for fear of what others will think?  It is rare for people to think about us as often as we think they do.  If we don't meet their ideals, they will usually get over it.  They probably shouldn't be on our list of most important relationships if they don't.

Pillemer advised thinking from the perspective of your older self. What would you like to see in your biography?

But imagine you have just learned that you have a terminal illness.  Based on the prognosis, you have one year left in your current state of health.  How would you like to spend that year?  Could you make space for it now even though you may still have many years to go?  Ware wrote, "Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."

After reviewing a long list of regrets and suggestions including the ones I've noted above, I typed out a list of suggestions of my own.  The list includes other lessons I've learned:

1. Find out who you are. This means understanding your values.
2. Be true to yourself. This takes ego strength.
3. Decide on your relationship with money. Can you get by with less? How much will your dreams require?
4. Interview people who have reached your dreams. Was it worth it?
5. Try to find people who are 1 step ahead of you, 2 steps, etc. Learn from them.
6. Prioritize relationships.
7. Prioritize communication.
8. Always look for ways to provide value.

More sage advice

The nearly 1,500 elderly people Pillemer interviewed had some more advice that's worth mentioning.  While none of them recommended an unbalanced emphasis on work, they had several suggestions regarding work:

  • Prioritize intrinsic rewards over financial rewards.
  • Keep looking until you find a job you enjoy.
  • Try to find a job with as much autonomy as possible.

My article How to Find a Career with a Bright Outlook covers all these.  In addition, the respondents did not recommend leaving a job too soon if you don't enjoy it.  Many experts learned invaluable lessons from bad jobs.

Finally, no one should underestimate the importance of interpersonal skills, aka emotional intelligence.

In fact, the six elements that I've identified as necessary to being a well-rounded person all contribute to minimizing regrets:

  1. A well-rounded person has a strong sense of their values and principles.
  2. A well-rounded person is balanced.
  3. Curiosity keeps us exploring ways we can improve our lives.
  4. Willingness to take risks means that we'll be more likely to grab opportunities instead of wishing we had.
  5. A well-rounded person cultivates strong interpersonal skills.
  6. A well-rounded person prioritizes other people and sincerely cares about them.

While I was writing this post I took a few breaks to check Twitter and I found a few tweets that went right along with it, such as Ondrej Markus's delightful illustrations above.  I also recommend the article referred to in this tweet:

Mike offers some excellent suggestions for creating balance in life.  My first encounter with the phrase "hustle culture" was when I read it in his post.  Also, the personal angle makes his article more compelling.  It's a great article.

Memento vivere!

Remember to live: Recognize that conventional wisdom often does not lead to happiness.  Maintain a future self journal to track your dreams as you strive to be well-rounded.  Your future self will thank you!