Another reason regrets are dumb

Chicken-regrets illustration

You’ve doubtless heard the maxim that “You don’t regret the things you do. You regret the things you don’t do.” I’ve never understood why so few are bothered by the major logical flaw here: You can’t do two things at once. Choose X? You can’t choose Y. Regardless of which path you choose, there’s something else you won’t be doing.

I think about this a lot when I’m questioning past choices or starting to second-guess decisions made months or years ago. More and more, I’m convinced that regrets aren’t signs of bad decision-making but rather reflections of temperament and cognitive style. Regrets don’t reflect objective truth. They’re simply interpretations.

A couple years back, I dipped a toe into the critical maelstrom surrounding the book Marry Him, writer Lori Gottlieb’s exhortation to younger women to marry that nice if slightly dull boyfriend instead of holding out for true love and risk ending up (like Gottlieb—and me) single at midlife.

Along the spectrum of Marry Him commentaries—which ranged from the virulently pro to the virulently anti—the review I wrote for the Chicago Tribune fell somewhere in the middle. While I certainly got where Gottlieb was coming from, I couldn’t buy her solution—and not because of its dubious politics but because I couldn’t see it working. (Indeed, with some dark humor, I couldn’t stop picturing a sea of future middle-aged women, cursing that stupid book that convinced them to marry the guy they’re divorcing.)

The fact is, life is risky. There are no guarantees, no fail-proof roadmaps to a fairy tale ending. The answer isn’t to blame ourselves or to look for ways to game the human condition but rather to do the best we can and accept our essential limitations.

I recently interviewed psychology professor Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion and author of a book by that name, and was struck by what she had to say on this topic: “We love to have an illusion of control because it makes us feel safe. In an ironic way, I think what happens when we criticize ourselves is that we’re saying ‘Oh, I should have had control.  If it was something I did, then I did have control, I just made the wrong move.’ When in fact, the reality is that I didn’t have a lot of control. I did my best, but I couldn’t make things turn out the way I wanted them to. In a weird way, sometimes it’s less scary to people to blame themselves than it is to admit that we human beings often don’t have a lot of say over our lives. It’s hard being human!”

My thoughts exactly.

The notion that our biggest regrets tend to stem from things we failed to do bears a striking resemblance to the maxim that “the grass is always greener on the other side”—the salient difference being that the two are invoked to make opposite points. Here again, I’m reminded of the 28 conflicting legal rules famously set forth in a 1950 law review piece. When judges go about inter­pret­ing laws, there are “cor­rect, unchal­lenge­able rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in hap­pily vari­ant direc­tions,” the author dryly concluded.

For her part, along with urging readers to make haste and marry, Gottlieb set out to do the same herself, albeit belatedly.  Her primary strategy: Be less picky. She expounds on academic research that places people in two relevant groups: “maximizers,” who demand the very best, and “satisficers,” who do fine with good enough. As Gottlieb sees it, the solution is clear. She just needs to switch teams.

It wasn’t until after my review was published that this thought occurred to me: Gottlieb has a beautiful child, a successful writing career. Wouldn’t a true satisficer start by focusing there?

When is it time to change course? (HT legal realism)

Kayak sobre las nubes / Sailing in the sky

Whether you’re reading a self-help book, a leadership guide, or any number of blogs, you’re likely to hear a lot about the importance of keeping commitments.

Indeed, the ability to follow through—to exercise self-control—is critical to success and happiness, according to the new book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by research psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times writer John Tierney.

As I recently wrote in Huffington Post, there are a number of proven strategies helpful in keeping us on course, including tracking our progress, limiting our priorities, and keeping our bodies fueled with the glucose that facilitates self-control. One of the more innovative (and amusing) solutions is, the brainchild of two Yale professors and one of their students. It works like this: Pick a goal. Report your progress. Fail to do what you promised? You are hit with an automatic penalty, such as making a payment to an “anti-charity”—a group with views you detest.

Such strategies can be especially helpful in Plan B Nation, where continued movement towards important goals can be especially hard to keep up. It’s one thing to finish a project on time when a boss is breathing down your neck. Quite another to plug away day after day alone on a seemingly unending job hunt. Over time, I’ve adopted a number of the strategies the Willpower authors describe—along with some of my own. They’ve helped me to move forward on numerous fronts, including launching this blog.

At the same time, as with pretty much everything, there are limits to willpower. Yes, thriving in Plan B requires a more-than-usual infusion of determination. But it also requires more-than-usual flexibility—a willingness to improvise, to take our opportunities where we find them. If we become too fixated on our goals, we may fail to recognize (and take advantage of) unexpected strokes of luck. Focus is good. Blinders are bad.

These thoughts have been on my mind as I wind up my first seven days of NaPerProMo. This is my personal (and intentionally silly-sounding) answer to National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, wherein more than 200,000 would-be novelists commit to penning 50,000 words in the course of 30 days. Taking this model as a jumping off point, I announced that on December 1, I would embark on NaPerProMo—National Personal Project Month—with the goal of writing a blog post a day.

It sounded like a good idea—indeed, such a good idea that I recently learned that the BlogHer network of women bloggers just concluded NaBloPoMo (National Blog Post Month).  At the same time, as I’ve found in the past week, it isn’t quite feasible, at least not if I want to write the sort of posts that you’ll likely want to read.  In large part this is because I’ve suddenly (and happily) been getting some paying freelance work, and for me, it was a no-brainer that this had to take precedence.

I remember remarkably little of what I learned in law school, but one thing that sticks with me is an arresting list of conflicting “canons of construction”—rules for how we go about figuring out what a law means.  Legal realist Karl Llewellyn famously listed 28 examples of such conflicting rules. (For example, the rule that “A statute cannot go beyond its text” exists alongside “To effect its purpose, a statute may be implemented beyond its text.”)  When judges go about interpreting laws, there are “correct, unchallengeable rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in happily variant directions,” Llewellyn concluded with dry humor in a 1950 law review piece.

Here, it seems to me, that life is very much like law. Stick to your commitments. Be open and flexible. These are both great pieces of advice so far as they go, but at times they will conflict. And at such points we, like Llewellyn’s judge, will have to find our own “right” answer. For me, right now, this means keeping in mind the spirit of my goal (writing more, building community, connecting with My People) but being flexible in how I go about it. And while I may not write a blog post each and every day, I can still keep moving forward.