Dying with regrets is a common fear. When making decisions, it's normal to wonder how we'll feel about our choices in five years, 10 years, or even 50 years later. As Dan Shipper explains, reframing the way we think about choices is key to living without regret.
Photo by electerra (Shutterstock).
Even though I'm in college I still take a class with my old high school history teacher. No grades are given, and class takes place sporadically on the weeks when I'm back home in Princeton.
Many teachers dislike when students bring food to their classrooms and eat while they lecture. In this class, food is a requirement and lectures are held at the Panera by my house. Most classes become unbearable to sit through after about an hour and a half. Students start wriggling around in their seats, and coughing loudly. The clock starts to move more slowly and the view outside the window suddenly becomes captivating. In this class, though, the hours seem to melt away almost imperceptibly. This is a class I hope I never graduate from.
Mr Figueroa is probably the smartest person in any room he walks into. He's also the type of person that doesn't seem to know it. Or if he does, he doesn't let it on.
He's 40ish and married with two kids. He grew up in Puerto Rico, and moved to the US after he was accepted to Princeton for college. Eventually he ended up staying at Princeton as a professor. Back in those days, his students probably called him Professor Figueroa. These days he teaches high school history. Everyone calls him Fig. And that's the way he likes it. Most of his classes centre around religion, or philosophy, politics or history. Today's class, however, is on regret.
"The older I get the more consequences each decision seems to have. It feels like everything has more weight. Like staying in school. What if by staying in school instead of dropping out I missed my opportunity to build a big company?" I begin. Fig is listening intently, hands folded in his lap. "How do I live with myself if that's what happens?"
"Do you feel like you regret staying in school?" The thing about Fig is that no question is innocent. One question leads to another, which leads to another, until he's asked you so many questions that the answer becomes clear to you. Very rarely does he need to do any explaining himself.
"Most days I don't. But at least for me it's sometimes easy get stuck on ‘what ifs'. And sometimes it's difficult to get rid of. I read somewhere that you end regretting the things that you don't do, rather than the things that you do. That kind of stuck with me."
"Let's think about that. You end up regretting the things that you don't do, rather than the things that you do. Explain that to me a little more." Fig replies leaning back in his chair.
"Well the idea is if you go and ask senior citizens what they regret, most of the regrets start with ‘I wish had pursued my music career' or ‘Or I really missed out on hanging out with my kids'. So most of their regrets come from times when they decided not do to do something."
"But isn't every decision not to do something, also a decision to do something else in disguise? So when the senior citizen said ‘I wish I had pursued my music career' couldn't that just as easily have been rephrased as ‘I wish I hadn't become an accountant'?"
"I guess," I say thinking hard.
"So ‘You regret the decisions you don't make' seems like a pretty vacuous distinction doesn't it?"
"Well when you put it that way it does, I guess. But if it is a meaningless distinction then there's no easy way to figure out which decision to make when you're faced with one."
"Sounds about right," he replies with a wry smile.
"This is not helpful," I say shaking me head and laughing to myself.
"Every single person that has regrets, has them with the benefit of hindsight. But you don't have the benefit of hindsight when you're making your decision do you?"
I shake my head, no.
"So it makes no sense to judge a decision you made without the benefit of hindsight and let it affect your emotional state. When you make these types of decisions, and you make them carefully, sometimes you'll choose right and sometimes you'll choose wrong. All you can do is always make the best decision given the facts at hand. If you're lucky you'll learn your lesson from the wrong decisions and correct them. But other than that you can't beat yourself up about these kinds of things. It's just not useful." Fig takes a bite of his sandwich. "The other thing is, regretting a pivotal decision basically means you want an entirely new life."
"What do you mean?" I say.
"Well let's say you regret going to Penn instead of Princeton," he starts.
"That's one thing I definitely don't regret."
"Alright, well for the sake of argument let's say you do. In your imagination you're thinking, if I went to Princeton my life would be exactly the same except that at the top of all my resumes I could write ‘Princeton Class of 2014' and I could go to Princeton reunions and hang out with all of the high fliers." Another pause for a bite of his sandwich.
"But what you're not thinking about is that if you went to Princeton instead of Penn, by doing so you'd have to give up every single moment from the time you decided to go to Penn until now. Everything. Every friend you've made, every class you've taken, every website you've worked on, every lesson you've learned. You're a completely different person if you choose differently on a decision like that."
"Ok, I see that."
"And so the only time you ever regret a decision, is if you'd rather give up every single part of your life from then until now. Now, thinking about it that way, do you regret not leaving school?
"And that, my friend, is the regret fallacy."
The Regret Fallacy [Dan Shipper]
Dan Shipper is a programmer, entrepreneur and writer from Princeton, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @danshipper.