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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 January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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