“I have no regrets,” declared the old, frail woman. “If I could live my life all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing!”
I was in my 20s when I first heard those words. Now, three decades later, I ponder her words and think, “What a foolish old woman. She should know better.”
Yet, I find myself hesitant to think about my own regrets and even more reluctant to write about them. I don’t want to go there. Why do I have fear in asking, “What regrets do I have?”
Why are we afraid of admitting our failures – even to ourselves? Why are we so afraid of what others might think of us if we admit we have regrets – that we’re less than perfect?
This has been a difficult letter to write. I think to myself, “I’m writing to a very high-powered audience of leaders, movers and shakers. They live in the fast lane and are not concerned about their periodic crashes into life’s guardrails, seemingly unafraid of failure. What will they think of me – someone who has regrets?”
Regrets? I have plenty.
I regret the time my oldest daughter came home from high school exuberant about a conflict she had resolved between the school’s administration and the student body. Rather than affirming her, I offered advice on how she could have been even more successful. Standing in our living room, she burst into tears, crying, “All I want to hear, dad, is for you to say you’re proud of me” and off to her room she ran. I stood stunned. “That didn’t go well,” I said to myself. Minutes later, I followed her upstairs, sat on the end of her bed, and asked her forgiveness. “Can we try a do-over?” I said.
I regret the time I came home from work, walked into the kitchen and my wife started telling me about her horrible day. “The car broke down and I had to call a tow truck,” she explained. Rather than listening, I moved into my stereotypical husband, manly, fix-it role and offered advice. (Ladies, please be patient; some of us guys are slow learners.) She stopped me dead in my tracks with “You know, Len, I felt more compassion and concern from the tow truck driver than I do from you, my own husband.” Ouch. But, she was right on.
I regret the financial trauma I brought to my young family when I started an audiovisual production company in my mid 20s without knowing anything about business. I regret the times in my career when I hired the wrong person or took too long to terminate poor performing employees.
In contrast to the old woman, if I could live my life over again, I have many regrets and would change many things.
What are the benefits of embracing our regrets?
Embracing regrets builds character. Reflecting on our life and the decisions we’ve made takes courage, strength and persistence. Reflecting is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps because of my personal discipline of journaling and/or getting older, I’m outgrowing the need for posturing or to impress people with how strong or smart I am. A colleague once said to me, “Len, I’ve discovered one of the secrets to your success is you’re comfort at being the dumb guy in the room!” I’ve learned good, healthy people often say, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know.”
Embracing regrets teaches us life is a weaving of both good and bad. Though I regret that my college education was not a higher quality, I’m thankful I met my wife, Deb, in college. I’m thankful for the deep collegiate friendships I developed and still exist. What I missed in formal teaching jettisoned me in my 20s to be an insatiable reader and life-long learner. But, still, woven in the fabric is the regret.
Here’s a key: I can wish I had made a different decision without having to dismiss the good that came from the decision I did make.
Admitting we have regrets requires us to embrace our failure. And, when we learn from our failures, our wisdom propels us toward success both personally and professionally.
At a recent stockholders meeting, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz acknowledged the chain’s rapid growth had “masked flaws and inefficiencies.” (Translation: we screwed up by not seeing serious problems.) When store-growth stalled, Starbucks looked for cost savings. And, the leaner cost structure resulted in a first-ever dividend to stockholders and revealed free-cash flow forecast at $1 billion.
Embracing regrets is not wallowing in self-pity. Wallowing serves no good purpose. As a hard-driving executive once said, “I tell my direct reports to (1) admit the mistake, (2) learn from it, and (3) move on. Any questions?”
Be assured, it’s okay to have regrets. It’s okay to admit failure. Face the truth. Embrace your regrets. Don’t be shy or fearful. Take some time to reflect. And, include forgiveness for yourself and for others. Learn from it. Then move on.