It’s Okay to Have Regrets

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal that focused on the “no regrets” philosophy that has become a cultural goal for many Americans. Supposedly, a life without regrets has been touted as a goal for people to attain, much like the concept of “bucket list” (of things we must achieve before we die) has developed over recent years. The author of The Wall Street Journal article examined social science research pertaining to regret, with a sample size of over 16,000 people in 105 countries. The overall consensus across this vast array of studies is that most people have regrets and further, regrets are not necessarily negative. In fact, it seems that regret is a common experience among all kinds of people that can serve as a valuable learning tool. For example, by recognizing past regrets, it may be possible to avoid similar problems. David and I have discussed the concept of regret on numerous occasions, mostly in terms of the relationship between our professional lives as small business owners and our personal lives, specifically, in caring for our elderly, infirm, parents. When I tell people about David and I spending a considerable amount of time and money to support my mother for the last decades of her life, to ensure that she had an excellent quality of life, they often say, “Well, that’s great. Then you have no regrets.” The first time someone said this to me, I was stunned and didn’t know a nice way to explain that caring for my mother, and later, David’s parents, was the right thing to do, but it led to many regrets for both David and me. For example, caring for my mom, financially speaking, placed a burden on David’s and my business by diverting resources that could have been used to hire a sales force that would have expanded our business to the size of many of our competitors. Caring for all 3 of our parents took a huge personal toll on both David and me, in terms of all the days we spent driving to our parents’ out of town locations and tending to their needs instead of supervising our employees and assisting our clients. (I have written previously about losing a long time client because I chose caring for my mother over helping him.) Regrets? I have too many to list! This being said, I’m glad David and I are the type of people who rise to the occasion to help people who need our help.

In his signature song, My Way, Frank Sinatra sang the words written by Paul Anka:

Regrets, I’ve had a few

But then again too few to mention

I did what I had to do

And saw it through without exception

Paul, and/or Frank, claimed to only having a few regrets having achieved what each of them achieved.  It’s hard to guess how many regrets most people harbor.  Too few to mention?  Or, is it that one doesn’t want to revisit them.  When life presents multiple paths, forks in the road, with more than 1 choice, the path not chosen may end up as a regret.  Avoiding regrets is a motivator.  Nearing my college graduation, I contemplated avoiding a regret as I applied and interviewed for a Rotary Foundation Scholarship for a year of graduate study in an international location.  As someone who had never left home, despite having traveled some, the prospect of leaving the U.S.A. for over a year, leaving friends and family (including some elderly), as well as putting off starting a career was pretty intimidating.  But, when I considered that, if I did not take a chance on this opportunity, which required much effort in applying and interviewing, I realized I’d always regret not taking this leap of faith.  Faith that I could both get selected for the competitive scholarship (meaning I had to convince myself that it was worth spending the effort) and then “survive” and hopefully enjoy a year away.  In that vein, and not knowing what I might have missed while away, I have always been happy not to have any regrets related to that decision.  Yet, as Melissa points out, decisions, or choices, in life almost inevitably lead to regrets if we are honest with ourselves.  I believe, with regard to the choices we made to look out for our parents, that it is possible to have regrets about what doing what we did “cost” us while, at the same time, not regretting doing the right thing.  It was remarkable when dealing with my parents to hear many stories by the leaders of the facilities where they lived about how many residents were essentially abandoned by their families when placed in assisted living or nursing home care.  My parents set the example of not doing that with their parents and elderly relatives.   Neither Melissa nor I could have “dumped” them in that way.  But, it took a toll on my parents when they did it, and on us when we did.  We can live without the regret of abandoning them and still have regrets about what this did to us, both personally and professionally.  Facing regrets is part of learning and part of life.  

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