Daniel H. Pink Has Some Surprising Advice: Your Regrets Aren’t Something to Fear. When You Embrace Them, They’ll Lead You to the Life You Really Want
Take a moment to think about how many times in your life you’ve said some version of, “I have no regrets!”
Maybe you asked someone out and even though they turned you down, you’re glad you went for it. Or perhaps you had a blow-out fight with a friend and said something you wish you could take back, but feel grateful that you got how you really feel off your chest.
Considering we’re taught from a very early age that the ultimate goal is to live a life with no regrets, trying to reframe these types of experiences so they fit in the no-regrets construct is understandable. But it happens to be dead wrong, says Daniel H. Pink, author of the new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.
“Here’s the thing: If you’re a human being, you have regrets. Period. Full stop. Everybody has regrets,” says Pink. “Despite all the exhortations that we should have no regrets, everyone does. The reason we have regrets is because they are functional.”
After all, regrets teach us and clarify what’s important. They remind us of what we really want in life, inspire us to make different choices for our future, and may even nudge us to look back and make amends for what we’ve done that we’re not so proud of. “Rather than living your life on a mission to regret nothing, the key is to ask yourself if you can use your regrets as tools for living better,” says Pink. “And the evidence is overwhelming that we can all do that.”
We sat down with Pink to talk about why regret is such a powerful and informative emotion, and how to reclaim our regrets so we can transform them into a force for good.
A Conversation with Daniel Pink
You write about how we tend to overvalue positive emotions and undervalue negative ones. Why is this—and how can we stop doing this?
Positive emotions are good. We all like positive emotions; they make our lives better. But having only positive emotions isn’t good for us. Negative emotions have a purpose, and that purpose is to teach us. We can’t ignore them, because then we won’t learn from them. We can’t wallow in them either, because then they’re debilitating. We want to use negative emotions to instruct us.
If we look at the whole panoply of negative emotions out there, most common is regret—which suggests it’s also our most valuable and informative emotion, too.
In your research, you collected more than 16,000 regrets from people in 105 countries and interviewed more than 100 people about their regrets. So, what are the trends? What are our top regrets?
What I found, to my surprise, is that over and over again people express the same four core regrets.
The first one is foundational regrets—things like smoking, not taking care of your body, not exercising, not working hard in school, or not saving money. These are the decisions we make that accumulate and create bad circumstances.
The second is boldness regrets—they go something like, “X years ago, there was a man/woman I really liked, I wanted to ask him/her out and I didn’t and still regret it.” These are things like not traveling, or not starting a business. These are regrets that happen when you’re at a juncture and you can either play it safe or take a chance. Overwhelmingly people regret playing it safe—even when they take a chance and it doesn’t work out.
Moral regrets are next: You’re at a juncture where you can do the right or wrong thing. If you do the wrong thing—think things like infidelity or bullying—that’s moral regrets.
The fourth category are connection regrets. You had or should have had a relationship and it comes apart. One of the things I learned by reading thousands of these regrets is the way relationships come apart isn’t very dramatic; they just kind of drift. What happens is nobody wants to reach out because they think the other side won’t care, and they’re always wrong. A connection regret goes something like, “If only I reached out.”
It’s important to remember that these four core regrets tell us something. They tell us what makes life worth living. They’re a photographic negative of the good life. Because if we understand what people regret the most, we understand what they value the most.
Regret is saying, “Hello, pay attention to me because I’m pointing you toward what makes life worth living!” What do we want out of life? Some stability. To do something—to learn and grow. Most of us want to do the right thing and feel bad when we don’t. And we want connection and love from other people.
What are some ways we can look at the moments in our lives that we regret and see how the decisions we made or how things played out actually served us? You talk about “undoing” and “at leasting.” Can you explain those concepts?
So, what you do depends on what kind of regret you have. If you have an action regret, certain kinds you can undo. Let’s say you insulted someone—you can go apologize. Let’s say you swindled someone—you can go make restitutions. Let’s say you got a tattoo—you can get it removed.
For other regrets, you can find the silver lining in them. You can “at least” them. I heard hundreds of women say something like, “My biggest regret is I married this idiot—but at least I have these two great kids.”
I’d love to hear about an example from your own life where regret has inspired you to make better decisions or has led to more meaning?
So, one of my regrets is not being an especially kind person earlier in my life. It wasn’t that I was being overtly cruel. But if I saw someone struggling, I wouldn’t do anything. Or if there was someone on the outskirts and I knew that, I didn’t do anything. This really bugged me over time.
What do I do about that?
First, you have to reframe the regret. I could say, “It doesn’t matter, I’m awesome anyway!” Bad idea.
I could lacerate myself and say, “You’re an idiot!” That doesn’t work either.
Or, I could show myself some self-compassion. If someone came to me with this regret, would I say, “You’re a terrible, horrible person!” No.
The key is to look at your own regret and ask yourself, “Am I the only one with this regret?” No! Reframe it as part of the human condition, something other people go through, and normalize it.
Step two is to disclose it. This both relieves the burden of your regret and begins the sense-making process. Emotions are abstractions, buzzing around in our heads to make us feel a certain way. When we take those and disclose them, we convert that blobbiness into concrete, less fearsome words—and it de-fangs the emotions and begins this sense-making process.
The other thing about disclosure is that we fear when we disclose our vulnerabilities, others will like us less. But in fact, they like us more. People will empathize with you. They’ll admire your courage. One of the things I found about regret is that if I talk about my regret, people inevitably want to talk about theirs.
And when you do this, you can extract a lesson from your regret. Then you can take that lesson and apply to next time. I’ll give you an example that I’ve tried to do: I say OK, I have to be kinder. The next time I’m in a situation and see someone on the outskirts, I’m going to reach out and bring them in—whether it’s mundane social gathering or at a meeting and I can tell someone is being left out. I’ll invite that person in. It’s a way to take my regret and do better.
When readers finish your book, what do you hope they take away—and what do you want people to do when they inevitably think about their own regrets?
Talk about your regrets with another person. I think when two people talk about their regrets together, you normalize them and neutralize them. Share the lessons you’ve learned from those regrets and apply them to the next decision you have to make.
What I really want to do is get past this idiotic view of no regrets and have people reclaim regret as a force for good. I think the way that begins is with a conversation.
Daniel H. Pink is the author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward (Riverhead, 2022). His other books include the New York Times bestsellers When and A Whole New Mind — as well as the #1 New York Times bestsellers Drive and To Sell is Human. Dan’s books have won multiple awards, have been translated into 42 languages, and have sold millions of copies around the world. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family.