Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.
“My Way,” Frank Sinatra
Fear is temporary; regret is forever.
In the Christian tradition, we ask for forgiveness “… for what we have done, and for what we have left undone” in the Confessional Prayer. That’s a provoking request. Whether you are religious or not, it’s a powerful notion that we have accountability both for our sinful deeds, and for the righteous things that we failed to do. The purpose of this post is to examine the impact of regrets on our lives, and how to move beyond guilt and remorse and into our highest potential.
For the last 30 years one of the most popular treatments of the importance of living a life on purpose, and with few regrets, comes from Stephen Covey’s classic “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” His second habit, “Begin with the end in mind,” examines the impact of having a long-term, “win-win” mindset. When we focus on our longer term desired outcome, the “end,” our approach can change dramatically. Too often, we allow ourselves to get swept up in the moment, wanting to always be “right” and winning at any cost. I’ve seen too many leaders fight to the death to win every battle, only to end up losing the war.
Research on Regret
Research into this topic is not very uplifting. Psychologists, social workers, and medical doctors consistently find that as we advance in age, most of us have serious regrets. They also find that the older we get, the heavier and more troublesome these regrets become. Typically our regrets are not related to risks we took and failed. In other words, we usually don’t look back and regret being the first to say “I love you” only to be rebuffed, or taking a risky promotion that required relocating our families. As disappointing as it might be to fail, or to feel rejected, we don’t regret taking the risk because of the exhilaration and learning that is waiting for us outside of our comfort zones. What we do regret, however, is not having the courage to take the risk to move to another city, or to be vulnerable in a relationship. In other words, our regrets are most often related to the dreams we didn’t follow, what we left undone. And while this topic may seem depressing there is good news for us. The wisdom from the voices of those who have departed found in the research on regret can teach us how to live a better life today.
The most common regret is not pursuing your dreams and aspirations. So many of us take the easy, safe, or expected road instead of the path that is calling to us. We put our lives “on hold” to make enough money or to feel more secure, only to realize too late that 20 years or more have passed us by. The reality is most folks look back and regret not following their dreams. So, Lesson #1, follow your bliss and do what makes you happy.
The second most common regret is spending too much time at work, and too little time with family. Often this is very well-intentioned, as extra time at work can result in additional perks and opportunities for our family. I suppose the question you should ask is this: is tomorrow’s perk worth you missing out on today’s victories and challenges with your family? So, Lesson #2, spend more time with those you love.
Finally, research demonstrates that many of us will look back and wish we would have let ourselves be happier. For me personally, this really hits home. I would say that I am reasonably happy, but always looking for the next challenge or opportunity. I believe that growth and development are important, but when they come at the cost of always feeling unsettled and thinking “what’s next?” I’m reminded that the question I should be asking myself is “what’s the point?” Happiness really is a choice, and many of us are trapped in the notion that more “stuff” will provide it. It doesn’t. So, Lesson #3, choose to be happy with a grateful heart with whatever you have, wherever you are.
The Obituary Exercise
A powerful self-actualizing exercise is to write and read your obituary to a loved one or group of friends. Known as “The Obituary Exercise,” it really brings home the point of beginning with the end, the ultimate end, in mind. Having facilitated this process countless times, I can tell you that very few people want to be defined by their accomplishments or success. Most of us want to be remembered as loving partners and parents, loyal friends, and responsible citizens. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t add up. We often put an inordinate amount of our time and energy into accomplishments and success, often at the expense of our families and communities.
Realistically no one is perfect, and therefore we are all likely to have some regrets in our lives. But I believe if we live with “the end in mind,” we would be more likely to follow our dreams, work less, love more, and allow in our lives only others who lift us up and make us happy.
If you wrote your obituary today, what would it say? What have you left undone? Are your regrets too few to mention or too numerous to count, and too painful to acknowledge?