Turning Regrets to Riches

I read of a survey (of course, I always question the validity of these surveys) that asked people about what they regretted most. The results that most often trigger regret, according to one such survey, were:

• Education (32%)
• Career (22%)
• Romance (15%)
• Parenting (10%)
• Self (5.47%)

“Studies have proven” (according to one article I read) that regrets of inaction persist much longer than regrets of action.

Without any further explanation about the categories and the kinds of responses grouped into each, it is difficult to know exactly what all this means. It is unclear what the “self” category includes – I regret the breast implants? I should have had a nose job? Wearing a Speedo at the church swimming party? I regret getting drunk at the class reunion? Mind you these are just some hypothetical things Mr./Ms. Average might, perhaps, think of. And this could include regret over drugs and bad relationships and not getting one’s act together and just idling and drifting. And it is also unclear if the breakdown would be different for women vs. men. One article I read focused almost solely on romantic regrets of women in their twenties.

I would be inclined to put education, career and self together. They all relate to improving one’s abilities and skills in order to improve one’s chances in life, to learn, and to grow. I don’t quite know what to make of the romance category though.

I suspect, though I don’t know this for sure, that individuals whose primary regret has to do with romance are likely to be younger women with low self esteem. Over the last 20 or so years, I’ve come to believe that self esteem is absolutely critical to one’s success in the world, not only in such pursuits as education, jobs and careers, but in how we function as complete human beings, really fully interacting with our world, our environment, with life.

I think the best thing about regrets is their ability to act as powerful motivators if harnessed properly. Unfortunately, I think a lot of us spend way too much time wallowing in regret. Too much “oy vey,” “if only,” “it’s too late,” and too many pity parties. And, too, the amount of time, the number of years spent regretting, rather than acting, is sometimes amazing. I know, because there were times when I fell victim to some of the excuses and used them myself. I guess that’s a human thing. No one is immune.

The one thing I think you can always do is go back and get more education. In the Education category of the survey results, I would be surprised if anyone regretted getting additional education, though I suppose there is someone who might think it was a waste of time. As far as continuing education, though, even if you only take one night class per semester for the rest of your life, and some of them at community colleges, you build your knowledge base. Investment in yourself can’t ever be taken away – I think it is the best investment one can make, better than real estate or stocks. And many colleges and universities offer “lifelong education” classes for seniors/oldsters on a pass/fail basis. I know some individuals in their 80s who are still taking classes, not because they missed out when they were younger, but because they just love learning.

If you look hard enough, you can find discussion groups outside of a formal education setting. They are great venues for learning too, even if they don’t qualify as formal education. They can be found in church communities, sometimes in book stores, community centers and libraries. And, if you are truly motivated and disciplined you can buddy up with a friend who is taking a class, get a copy of their syllabus or reading list from a class you might be interested in, and do some self study. You and your buddy can then discuss the readings and learning points over some lunches, happy hours or dinners. You can pick your friend’s brain for nuggets. I have found, serendipitously, that some of the best stuff I ever learned was out of the mouths of people making casual observations about their reading experiences, and often these were blue collar people who had minimal formal education. But they were self-directed, independent thinkers.

One author, commenting on one of these “regrets surveys” said there is little you can do for the missed opportunities of the past. I disagree. True, you can’t go back and duplicate the exact circumstances of the moment when something might have been possible, and you failed to act, enroll in the class, get to know a potential mentor better, or pursue Mr. “Maybe He’s The One.” It is true there are no do-overs. But you can use the memory of them to alert you when a similar opportunity presents again, as a little red flag in your brain (ping!) to remind you to act this time, to risk, to take a chance.

One thing I might have done much earlier in life, and I suppose you could say I regret not doing it, is not pursuing more specific goals at an earlier age. But then that is one of the human frailties of being young. You always think you have so much time. I really think we should make our bucket lists (that list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket) at a far younger age – not at 79 when you have a terminal illness, or at 67 when you just beat a cancer scare. How about at 26 when you still have energy, hope and health? Maybe you might be able to achieve some of the important ones by age forty. But if you don’t, we shouldn’t think it is too late. That would be tragic. Then we’d have another regret – I regret I gave up at forty.

One of my “useful badgers” says he thinks I was meant to be a writer. So I wonder about my writing – should I regret I didn’t do much with it in my earlier years – 20s, 30s, 40s? Based on the way I lived my life, I didn’t have a lot of life experiences to bring to the table, or the keyboard as it were. There is always imagination and creativity to try and catch – like the brass ring on a carousel — but you still have to have some life experiences to mix it with, to bounce off of, to use as a balance beam, a bellwether. I don’t think I had that when I was younger. I was doing pretty safe things – going to work, coming home, watching TV. Then at some point, I branched out more – joined organizations, faced my fear of public speaking, met more people, had more experiences, did more socializing, faced some social phobias, made some career moves. In short, I put myself out there more, bit off little bits of risk and found out it didn’t kill me, so I took a few more bites, and I was still intact, so I kept going. And at some point you look back, sort of without thinking, maybe while updating a resume after a job change, and see there has been progress. And it feels good. Your self esteem takes a little bounce.

So that may be what it comes down to – little bounce, after little bounce, after little bounce. Until you have achieved discernible momentum. And then? And then you have created energy, more than enough energy for achievement and crossing things off the bucket list.