“No regrets.” You’ve heard people proclaim it as a philosophy of life. That’s nonsense, even dangerous, says New York Times Best Selling Author, Daniel H. Pink, in his latest bold and inspiring work, The Power of Regret. Everybody has regrets. They’re a fundamental part of our lives. And if we reckon with them in fresh and imaginative ways, we can enlist our regrets to make smarter decisions, perform better at work and school, and deepen our sense of meaning and purpose.
Daniel draws on research in psychology, neuroscience, economics, and biology together with his own survey of more than 20,000 people, to challenge widely held assumptions about emotions and behaviour. Pink argues, operate as a “photographic negative” of the good life. By understanding what people regret the most, we can understand what they value the most. And by following the simple, science-based, three-step process that he sets out, we can transform our regrets in a positive force for working smarter and living better.
In this interview, I speak to Daniel H. Pink on The Power of Regret and why regret, our most misunderstood emotion, can be the pathway to our best life. We talk about the types of regrets we have as individuals and societies, how we can best use regret to our advantage, and the extreme danger of no regrets culture.
Q: Why is no regrets culture so dangerous?
[Daniel Pink]: No regrets culture is a terrible blueprint for living. The idea that you should always be positive and never look backwards is not an effective blueprint for living a decent, meaningful, happy life. It runs against everything we know about the science of emotion! Regret is one of the most common emotions that human beings experience. It’s arguably the most common negative emotion that human beings experience. Everybody has regrets- the only people who don’t are babies, sociopaths, and people with brain damage. You might wonder why an emotion that’s objectively so unpleasant is also so ubiquitous? Well… it’s because it’s useful (if we treat it right).
People who are claiming they have no regrets are essentially saying they have no learning, no growth, and no progress. We need to recalibrate and make sense of this profoundly misunderstood emotion.
Q: How should we think about regret in a healthy way?
[Daniel Pink]: In our popular understanding we have come to assume that when it comes to our negative emotions… that we should ignore them… they’re not useful… we should forget them… not look back and always look forward. We are, in many ways, taught to put our fingers in our ears and drown out the negativity. That’s a bad idea and leads to delusion. Taking this approach can put a ceiling on the growth and learning you can achieve and can also mean you get hijacked by negative emotions through having an inability to deal with them. People end up wallowing and ruminating over regrets.
We should be looking at our regrets not as meaningless, debilitating phenomena but as signals, information, and data. If we do that systematically? We can use this emotion as a transformative force for progress.
Q: What are the different types of regret?
[Daniel Pink]: We have over 50 years of research in social and developmental psychology about regret. Some of the early work was done by economists and game theorists. What’s clear is that regret is ubiquitous, everybody has it, and it can be a powerful tool if we treat it right. Scientists have also looked at what people regret, and we can see regrets fall into several categories like career, education, romance, and finance. To an extent that’s useful, but it doesn’t yield much actual insight.
I undertook a quantitative survey called the World Regret Survey, after just two-tweets and a newsletter mention we had over 15,000 submissions. Today, we have a database of over 20,000 regrets from people in 109 countries. What I found was that if you forget the domain (career, education, romance or whatever…) and go one layer below, you find the real source of the regret.
We have hundreds of people in our database who have a regret that says that X years ago, there was a man or woman they really liked, who they wanted to ask out, and they didn’t… now they regret it. That’s a romance regret. We also have plenty of people who regret not studying abroad during their time in university… more people than I would have ever imagined, that’s an education regret… We also have a huge number of people who regret staying in a Job they didn’t enjoy… perhaps who wanted to start their own career… that’s a career regret. These may all appear to be different domains but they’re the same regret. They’re a regret about boldness… they’re a regret which says, ‘…if only I’d taken the chance.’
The other four types of regret are foundation regrets (if only I’d done the work!) these are regrets people have about small decisions surrounding their finance, health or education that causes their foundation to wobble later one. A classic foundation regret is, ‘I should have spent less and saved more…’ Moral regrets (if only I’d done the right thing!) relate to people who do something that violates their own moral code- common ones are infidelity or bullying. Finally, we have a full spectrum of connection regrets… maybe we didn’t reach out to that friend… maybe we didn’t take an action to make that connection….
Those are the four types of regret. Foundation, Moral, Boldness and Connection.
Q: We often see people who find their future lives paralysed by boldness regrets. How can we deal with that?
[Daniel Pink]: The power of regret is that it clarifies what we value and instructs on how to do better. The fact that we have so many of these boldness regrets suggests that when people tell you what they regret they most, they are telling you what they value the most, and what most people value is growth and learning. We all value leading psychologically rich lives, and when we make decisions that thwart that. We feel regret.
Let’s think about some decision-making heuristics. If you’re thinking, ‘… oh my god, I don’t know if I should take that risk…’ a very easy decision-making heuristic would be to self-distance and say, ‘what would I tell my best friend to do?’ In most cases, we’d tell them to take the shot. Another technique comes from Andy Grove, the former CEO of intel. When he was stuck with a decision he would ask himself, ‘what would my successor do?’ – one final technique is to ‘time travel’ – if you make a phone call to yourself, 10 years from now, and talk about what you did in any given situation, and who you are in the future, you can make some pretty safe bets around what you’d end up regretting..
When you’re feeling stuck… when you feel you can’t make that act of boldness… use some of these self-distancing techniques and that’s going to tell you what you should do.
Q: How do we distinguish, at the societal level, between guilt and regret?
[note: while asking this question, I also shared my experiences post 9/11, of the sense of ‘guilt’ that manifested in Indian, Muslim and Sikh communities as a result of the racism they experienced post-event]
[Daniel Pink]: Guilt and regret, at a societal level, are hugely different things.
Post 9/11, here in the USA, we were still in a reality that many Americans didn’t understand the difference between Hindus and Muslims (even though 1947 saw a seismic split in one of the most important regions of the world over that very issue). We had people spitting on folks who were Sikh because they had a turban on! It was horrible! So, this opens an important point. Regret requires agency. Regret is your fault and that’s important. That’s why regret stings. If people felt bed because an international tragedy was committed by people who- in a very vague way- resembled them… that’s not regret… that’s deeply misplaced guilt. It’s very important to interrogate those feelings and not accept them. You must realise where you have agency in your life, and where you don’t. This is perhaps one of our most important emotional skills. If we feel a sense of shame or guilt for things that are outside of our control, and for which we have no agency, we must interrupt that.
I was raised in the Jewish faith here in the United States, and a few years ago, there was this shyster (who passed away recently) called Bernie Madoff. He was an absolute conman, who happened to be Jewish, and who had a lot of Jewish clients. The idea that someone who is Jewish would feel a sense of guilt or shame because of Bernie Madoff. It’s ridiculous. We must scrutinise and interrupt that emotion if it happens.
What are you responsible for and what are you not responsible for? That’s a fundamental question in life. If we start feeling bad about things over which we have no control, that is the inevitable source of a downward spiral.
Collective regret is different. Have a look at the experience of Germany. There is no doubt that the German state committed atrocities during World War 2, that is not a matter up for debate. German citizens at the time could rightly feel a sense of regret about what was done in their name, and modern Germany has also responded well. Germany never tried to deny it happened… they never brushed it off and said they only look forward… they never felt so debilitated that they wanted to disband their nation states. They reckoned with what happened and learned from it. There are memorials all over Germany, they changed laws, and used that regret well. Here in the United States, we are also reckoning with our own history of slavery. The guy on our $10 bill owned slaves! That’s a problem. It’s delusional for us to ignore this, or only look forward. We must reckon with it – and if we don’t, it compromises our capacity as a country to effectively govern ourselves. If we look at South Africa… after years of apartheid, they created a commission dedicated to truth and reconciliation. Truth and Truth and reconciliation… that’s what we need.
Q: What can regret teach us about living our lives well?
[Daniel Pink]: Regrets tell you what you value. We need to think about regrets as photographic negatives of the good life. Each regret reveals what we want out of life. We want stability; a good life is not precarious. We want to do something with our lives; a good life is not without boldness. We want to grow… we want to learn… we want to live our lives in this fleeting moment on our planet. I’m also convinced that most people want to be good, and be seen as being good, and so naturally… we want to be moral… and very few of us, if any, want to live a life that isn’t full of connection and love. Regrets give us a sense of what makes life worth living.
What we think of as important today is rarely what really matters. In 10 years’ time, you’re not going to regret using the wrong Instagram filter, or not getting enough likes on a social media post. You’re not going to regret getting the wrong colour car… you will however, regret not reaching out to someone before it was too late… you will regret not moving your life forward when you had the opportunity… you will regret that risk you didn’t take on yourself… and you certainly will regret taking the low road.
There are a few things that matter deeply and a large universe of things that simply don’t matter.