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What You Need to Know About Regrets

How looking backward shows us the path forward.

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animation of woman on moving walkway looking back
Josie Norton
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Do you ever get a stomach-churning feeling that life would be better if only you had acted more wisely and made smarter choices in the past? Or do you stifle any reminder of your life’s wrong turns because you prefer to live in the present?

“Having regret is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human,” New York Times best-selling author Daniel H. Pink points out in his latest book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward. “We need the ability to regret our poor decisions, so we can improve going forward.”

Many of us have done things we wish we could take back. We may have hurt people with our words or actions. Or we kick ourselves for the chances we let slip away and the dreams we did not fulfill.

And yet, the no-regrets culture is alive and well. We see the credo on bumper stickers and T-shirts, on book titles and carved in ink as body tattoos. Or consider the French singer Edith Piaf. “Non, je ne regrette rien.” (“No, I regret nothing at all”), she belted out in what became one of the most recognizable songs around the world. Piaf continued: “It’s paid, swept away, forgotten. I couldn’t care less about the past.”

In reality, Piaf’s life was filled with tragedy. Abandoned by her alcoholic mother, she grew up in her grandmother’s brothel; gave birth at 17 to her only child, who died a few years later; lost her great love in a plane crash; was addicted to morphine and alcohol; and, while in financial ruin, died of liver failure, at age 47.

Despite her misfortune, the famous songbird (or the Little Sparrow, as Piaf is also called) claimed she felt no pang of remorse.

Pink, however, observes that regret does matter and that by embracing our past lapses in judgment, we can live a more authentic and meaningful life.

So how do we reconcile with regrets as we age? For older adults, it can be bittersweet to compare what is to what could have been, as our chances for a do-over dwindle. “My biggest regrets are my own secrets, and a secret is different than a lie,” a close friend revealed. “And there are some unwise moves I have made. Though we cannot move forward in life but living in a woulda, shoulda, coulda mentality — the past is the past. Once we own our regrets, we can let go and move into a smarter life.  I view my regrets as old, not-so-great friends I have left behind. Though I carry with me forever some very wise lessons learned.”

My own basket of regrets is as bountiful as it is assorted. What if I had not given up on my career when I married and raised my children? If only I had spent more time with my parents. What if I had remained in Paris after my studies? If only I had not run out of time to have more children. What if I had followed through on going to medical school? If only I had traveled the world.

Some of the regrets I am trying to rectify. While I have reconciled with never becoming a physician nor making France my home country, I have decided to do more solo traveling to places I have always wanted to see. I am making it a priority to visit with my elderly parents, both on FaceTime as well as in real life.

Career-wise, in my mid-50s, I am finally picking up where I left off some 20 years ago. I was born in Sweden and now live in the United States. In a past life, though, I was a journalist all over Europe, and I’m thrilled to be writing again.

“My regrets are about the chances I passed up,” Kirsten Finnell, 57, told me. “I wish I had been less afraid of failure and believed more in myself.”

On her 40th birthday, she was invited by the Rolling Stones to fly on their private jet from one tour city to the next. Finnell got to know the band through her husband, a photographer on some of their tours. She ended up turning down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because her spouse was not included in the private-jet invite.

Although the jet ride would have been an unforgettable experience, the more important regret, she explains, was her mindset that led to her passing on the invitation.

“As women, we often forgo opportunities, to make it easier on those around us or to not come off as selfish,” Finnell says. “We tend to downplay our own significance, as if self-sacrificing is nobler than saying yes to what we truly want or have rightly earned.”

Finnell and her husband divorced a few years ago, and now she is hoping for a chance to redeem her jet-ride raincheck. As the Rolling Stones are celebrating 60 years together by touring Europe this summer, she will be attending as many concerts as she can.

“I am nearing 60 myself, and getting another shot at that private-plane ride with the band would be the ultimate, serendipitous birthday gift,” she said with a big smile. “And I have learned my lesson. These days I savor every moment and grab every chance I get.”

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