Episode #28 - How to Regret-Proof Your Decisions
Hey Rebels! Welcome back to another episode of the podcast.
In 2019 I gave a talk at a conference called Dent. It's a unique conference where they gather people from a wide variety of industries to explore what seeds can be planted that will ultimately make a "dent in the universe." It was an extraordinary experience. I met some fascinating people who were doing some amazing and unique things in the world. In fact, my talk followed the women who solved one of the most famous serial killer crimes in San Francisco. And yes, that was a helluva act to follow. But so many of the talks were really interesting, and it was quite an honor to be in that community.
Now, for context, it's very similar to TED talks which are designed to present "ideas worth spreading." And actually, I also did a TEDx talk, which I'll drop a link in the show notes in case you haven't seen it, and that was a pretty awesome experience too. In fact, as a side note, I was recently talking to a young gentleman who was helping me with a customer service issue, and he recognized my name because he had listened to my TEDx talk. Needless to say, I was shocked but excited to hear that my work is making an impact on people. But I digress.
I brought up my talk at Dent because my topic was on avoiding regret, and I want to pick up on that topic today. In fact, it's a topic I've been talking about a lot for the last few weeks, and I wanted to explore it more on the podcast.
Tom Gilovich is the leading researcher on regret and did a study called, The Experience of Regret. He found that more than 1/2 of the people in his research (54%) regretted actions they didn't take—their unrealized ambitions, unfulfilled dreams and intentions, and incomplete goals. But only 12% had regret over the actions they did take, and the rest had regrets over other things.
Now, the percentage was relatively low for the action takers because fundamentally action-related regrets, although painful, often help people learn from their mistakes and move on, or they get over them over time. But regret related to inaction – those things undone, the opportunities lost – is harder to fix. This kind of regret is more likely to lead to depression, anxiety, a sense of "stuckness," not knowing what could have been.
But overall, the point is that 100% of the people in his research were experiencing some type of regret.
Regret is closely linked to decision-making because regret is really about the underlying fear of making the wrong choice. Now, I've done a podcast on the fear of decision-making and taking action, and I invite you to go back and listen to it. Fear can keep us from going after those ambitions, and FOMO, fear of missing out, can make us take leaps toward something, and in the end, they both can lead to regret. So you see, fear, regret, and decision-making are all linked together.
When it comes to career regrets, it usually circles around the million-dollar question: Do I stay or do I go? Do I walk away from a career that I know, where I'm successful, that I've worked hard to build even though I know I'm not happy and maybe it's not the right career for me? Or do I stay put for all of the same reasons? And what do I do if I regret either decision?
Or we could be stuck on regretting that we ever took the job, chose the career we're in, picked that major, or attended that school.
The thing about regret is that while it's a powerful emotion, it doesn't come from the action we took or didn't take. It comes from our thoughts ABOUT those actions or inactions. It's a thought you're choosing to think. A cognitive thought about a choice you've made that's compounded by constantly going over the merits of that decision repeatedly in your head. You obsess over it, beating yourself up, telling yourself you should have known better, or you're looking for evidence to convince yourself that you don't know how to make good choices and decisions.
You may even look at others who made decisions you thought you should have made, and if their lives or careers look great, you use that as further evidence that you made the wrong choice. But it's only because you keep choosing to think thoughts that keep you living in the cycle of regret.
So what does this all mean? How can you avoid regret? By not choosing it. Regret is a choice. Like I said, it's a cognitive decision. And beating yourself up, judging, and telling yourself you made a bad or wrong decision doesn't change anything. It only brings you more pain and grief. This is true for your career and, honestly, in every area of your life.
It's a waste of time and energy.
For example, if you've been listening to the podcast, you know I was a labor and employment attorney for years before changing careers. I ultimately moved into a career better suited to my skills and zone of genius. Now, I could spend my days, weeks, and years regretting my decision to go to law school, beating myself up for spending three years in law school, spending all of that money on my education, and the blood, sweat, and tears it took for me to pass the bar exam. But why would I spend so much time and energy on something I can't change? No amount of thinking, wishing, claiming, or regretting will change anything.
Now, the truth is I don't regret one thing about that decision. On the contrary, I've learned how to leverage that experience to my advantage in multiple ways. For example, I still use what I learned in the practice of law in my coaching business today. That training and experience have also been a benefit to my clients.
But just because you don't choose regret doesn't mean you can't review your past decisions to see what you can learn and use in the future. By examining why I decided to attend law school, my motivations, and my goals, I figured out something that has now been incorporated into the first step of the framework I use with my clients in helping them make career decisions.
After I went through a divorce, I could have wasted time in regret about my decision to get married, who I married, and the time I spent in my marriage that I could have spent in other ways. But instead, I spend time celebrating and being thankful for my two kiddos that resulted from that marriage, the friends I made because of the geographical moves we made, the strength and confidence I've developed from that experience, and the new pathways that opened to me as a result.
Listen, I'm not saying it's easy, and frankly, I'm not saying it's supposed to be easy. But what it IS…is a choice and one you have the freedom to make every day.
Now, there are two key underlying assumptions or thought errors people make that lead to choosing regret. The first assumption is believing your life or career would have been better if only you chose differently. So let's talk about that one.
I don't know a single person who hasn't thought, if I had chosen option B, I wonder what would have happened? I wonder what my life or career would be like now? The problem with spending too much time there is that as you build this fantasy world of "what if" in your mind, you start to believe that option B would have someone been a better life, filled with all of the things you currently don't have but somehow would have "if only" you had made a different choice.
It works the other way as well. You could believe that you had no choice but to choose option B because it would have been a far worse tragedy had you chosen option A.
But that's the problem with that assumption. You have absolutely no idea how your life or career would have turned out if you made an alternate choice. You can only guess or fantasize about what might or might not have happened. What's on the other side of that assumption is a lie. It's always a lie because you can never know what's on the other side.
What if I didn't go to law school? What if I went to a different law school? What if I focused on family law instead of employment law? What if I quit after the first year and did something else? You see, where does it end? It never does. And more importantly, why does it matter. The fact is I went to law school—end of story.
If you've been stuck in this loop, I want you to ask yourself, "what am I thinking would be different or better if I made a different choice?" Then, explore how it's not true and why you're choosing to lie to yourself, believing your life or career would be better as if there would be no challenges or problems with the other option.
The second assumption is believing there IS a right choice. We live in a binary society of yes, no, up, down, left, right, good, bad, etc. And because of that, we believe that there's either a right choice or a wrong one, and so we spend our lives terrified of making a choice for fear it will be the wrong one, and if we do make the wrong one, our lives would be ruined, which goes back to the first assumption. Regret then becomes the indicator that we choose wrong. That we ignored the signs, we didn't ask the right questions, we didn't think it through, we should or shouldn't have listened to our family or friends, we got swept up in whatever, I mean, you fill in the blanks.
I always tell my clients there is no right choice; there's only the choice you make right now. And the choices you make at the moment are the best choices you can make with the information that you have. Now, I'm not talking about careless, reckless decisions that you made when you weren't thinking clearly or in your right mind for whatever reason. I'm talking about decisions you made based on some options or choices in front of you.
Yes, with more information, experience, time, etc., maybe you would have made a different choice, but as they say, hindsight is ALWAYS 20/20. But once the decision is made, it's done. The work then becomes why did you make the decision so you can grow and learn for the next one.
You know I love the movie The Matrix; it's filled with so many excellent metaphors. But there's a moment in the film when the Oracle tells Neo, "you already made a choice; now you have to understand why." And that's what we get to do. Not regret the choice or beat ourselves up about the choice, but to understand why we made the choice AND what we can learn from the choice so in the future we can continue to make decisions and not be afraid of decision-making.
When we were kids, our whole world was about figuring things out. How to walk, talk, eat, run, get things, push boundaries, explore, get our way, etc. How far would we have gotten if we tried to walk and fell and then spent the next six months in self-loathing, regretting the choice we made that led to us falling? Or if we told ourselves that we couldn't trust our decision-making abilities? Sounds ridiculous, I know, but that's precisely what we do when we choose to regret.
We need to reclaim that childish curiosity we once had that encouraged us to keep trying, to keep making decisions, without having to know the outcome. Believing, like we did when we were little ones, that nothing has gone wrong; it's just the process we go through in this amazing thing we call life. That now, we have a new piece of data, some additional information, that we can store away and use when it's time for the next choice or decision.
When we're filled with regret and remorse, we cloud our brain's ability to think logically. We're also not giving ourselves any grace or compassion. The beauty of any decision you make is that it can be changed. Again, it's about choice. We can learn from our decisions, move forward, or make a pivot, or we can abandon self-compassion and live a life of regret.
When you embrace this approach and abandon the underlying assumptions that inform regret, decision-making won't be so hard or taxing. Instead, you'll do it thoughtfully and with intention, knowing you're making the best choice you can make for yourself right now.
As I said, I'm not saying it's easy; frankly, I'm not saying it's supposed to be easy. But what it IS…is a choice and one you have the freedom to make every day.
Well, that's it for today, Rebels.
Hey, have you heard of my new monthly roundtable called The Boardroom? It's a monthly facilitated discussion on how to successfully navigate the key issues facing midlife career professional women, and I want to invite you to join us.
Our next roundtable is TOMORROW, Friday, June 24th, at 10 am PST. You can register at www.carolparkerwalsh.com/boardroom, and I'll also add the link in the show notes for your convenience. If you can't make it, you'll get a recording of the roundtable, but you have to register. We'll be talking about salary negotiations, so if you have a question about that, you can submit your question in advance or get your questions answered live in our session.
And don't forget to come and say high to me on social media. I hang out mainly on LinkedIn and Instagram.
Until next time, have an amazingly rebellious week!