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.