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The Use and Abuse of Regret

The Use and Abuse of Regret
Maze of Regret

Two weeks ago, I asked Lifehack.org readers what advice you’d offer to your younger self, knowing what you know today. The responses were a little overwhelming — powerful, powerful stuff. More and better responses than I had hoped for, to be honest.

I’m not sure what advice I’d offer my younger self.  I’ve messed up a lot, taken a lot of wrong turns, but even the wrong turns have led me to interesting places. I know I’d tell myself to be careful with those credit cards and student loans — 37-year old me isn’t all too happy with 22-year old me’s spending habits!

But other than that, there’s little that I’d want to change — and any advice I could offer myself would potentially have robbed me of some of my more foolish and enriching experiences, like chasing a girlfriend to London even though I knew our relationship was past saving. I spent 6 months in London, and another 6 traveling Europe and living in Heidelberg, and formed the relationship that would give me 7 good years of loving and support.

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I didn’t realize it at the time, but a good part of the question I posed was about regret, about what we would change if we had it to do all over again. I think regret can be pretty useful in the short term — for example, you regret saying something that hurt someone and make it up to them, or you regret making a mistake and resolve not to make it again.

But in the long term, regret has an insidious edge to it. When we start second-guessing our past, it’s a short step to second-guessing our present, and ultimately our selves. If the things that brought us to where we are today were mistakes, then it follows that where we are today — who we are today — is a mistake.

And that’s unacceptable. I’m not saying we have to accept every little thing about ourselves — obviously, as a writer for lifehack.org, I believe in the possibility of personal development — but I think we have to accept the core of who we are, or at least accept the reality of who and what we are before we can set forth on the path of personal change.

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Regret — the deep, long-term kind of regret — keeps us focused not on who and what we are but on what we did and what we should have done or not done. We cant fix the past, alas — we can only fix the outcome of the past in the present. Like my lifehack.org colleague Adrian Savage recently suggested, to move forward we have to be willing to let go of the past. Not deny it, but stop obsessing over it, stop combing through it looking for ways to undo it — and instead, start looking at the present for ways to change going forward into the future.

But maybe there’s another, more positive way to think about regret. Regret is, in a sense, what’s left when you subtract what you knew then from what you know now. As my question and our responses suggested, if we’d known at 15, 20, or 25 what we know at 30, 40, or 50, we’d have acted differently. We’d have made choices that our older self would be happy with (though they might have made our younger self miserable). Regret is what happens when you learn.

And in that sense, maybe regret isn’t such a bad thing, after all — it’s the trace that a lifetime of experience and development leaves in us. You wouldn’t want to guide your life with it, but you also wouldn’t want to be without it, at least a little bit. Not feeling regret would mean you hadn’t learned anything from your experiences — that maybe you hadn’t had any expedriences worth having.

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I think that’s the spirit in which you, our readers, responded to my “We Ask, You Answer” question. Not with the kind of regret that’s a negative dwelling in the past, but with the kind of regret that is, in the end, something rather more joyous: an embrace of the past, of the mistakes we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned from them.

It’s taken me a week longer to return to this question than usual (I usually write a follow-up a week after posting a “We Ask, You Answer” question) because — and I don’t mean to be funny here — when I really started thinking about the question I kind of regretted asking it. It wasn’t until I could wrap my head around the question as a way of bringing forth from the murky depths those things which have made us who we are today — the mistakes that have made us who we are today — that I felt comfortable revisiting the topic.

I want to thank everyone who responded for their efforts. The responses were amazing and well worth a read. Taken as a whole, they’re a not-too-shabby primer on life itself, and there’s a lot of good advice there. Which is what I’d originally hoped for — it wasn’t until after the fact that I started thinking about the “bigger picture” implications of all this.

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Next week we return to our regular “We Ask, You Answer” question with something quite a bit lighter! See you then!

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Last Updated on November 5, 2019

How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

1. Always Have a Book

It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

3. Get More Intellectual Friends

Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

4. Guided Thinking

Albert Einstein once said,

“Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

5. Put it Into Practice

Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

6. Teach Others

You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

7. Clean Your Input

Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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8. Learn in Groups

Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

9. Unlearn Assumptions

You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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11. Start a Project

Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

12. Follow Your Intuition

Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

13. The Morning Fifteen

Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

14. Reap the Rewards

Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

15. Make Learning a Priority

Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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