Discover more from Below the Surface
Dive 40: How to live with no regrets …without spending a penny
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When I was a kid, I attended an arts-themed summer camp. One day, I had a drawing class where the teacher was showing us how to shade things to make them look 3D. I had to choose something to draw first, before I could shade it. And as a kid, I liked Tweety from Looney Tunes. The problem was I couldn’t draw Tweety, so the teacher drew one for me. Then he told me to use another sheet of paper to trace over his sketch, which I would then shade in. So, in effect, the whole drawing on my paper would be done by me.
But to show you how inept I am at drawing; I couldn’t even trace properly. I said to the teacher, “I made a mistake drawing one of the cheek lines, and now Tweety’s face looks weird.” For reasons I don’t remember, I used a coloured pencil for tracing, so I couldn’t erase the over-extended cheek line. I don’t have the original drawing anymore, but this will give you an idea of the mistake I made:
My teacher looked at it and said, “well, let’s see what we can do about it.” He took my sheet of paper, and I watched intently as he extended the cheek line even more, in what would become a bandage. My Tweety bird now has a bandage on his face. A literal bandage fix. (And, yes, Tweety is a boy).
Bandaged Tweety offers us a lesson about regret. But before we get into that, we have to understand what regret is.
Regret is what we feel when…
We wish we could have done something differently in the past…
Based on new information available now…
We assume there was a better outcome that could have been achieved…
And we want to change the past with future action.
Some people distinguish between the regret of having done something wrong and the regret of not doing something at all (e.g., a bucket list item). But from this analysis of regret, that’s a distinction without a difference. Either way, a “bad decision” was made.
I have a secret about regret I want to share with you: I don’t dwell on it and I never fear it. Do I have a bucket list? Absolutely not. Instead, I choose to approach life from a specific perspective that blows out each of the four pillars of regret I listed above.
And you can too. Here’s how:
1. Don’t dwell on the past.
To be clear, I don’t mind nostalgia. And, for sure, there are things in the past I might have done differently if I could go back in time to change them. I just don’t dwell on them. The next three points help with this.
2. Always do your best.
In university, I took a course on the History of Western Medicine. And on the first day of class, my professor said, “Beware of anachronisms. Beware of anachronisms. Beware of anachronisms.” She repeated it 3 times so we would remember. Well done, professor!
An anachronism is an idea misplaced in time. My professor wanted to instill in us a habit that good historians have. That is: when we look at history, we must think about what people knew back then. For example, it’s wrong to suggest that doctors in the past were “stupid” for believing in miasmas and being unsanitary before the advent of germ theory. So, judging people of the past for being unsanitary before germ theory even existed is anachronistic.
Psychologists call this hindsight bias.
Economists and game theorists also have this concept of incomplete and imperfect information. That is: you probably don’t have ALL the information you need to make the absolute best decision, AND the information you have might be wrong.
But we generally don’t have all the time in the world to wait for all the right information we need to make the absolute best decision. So, we satisfice. We make the best decision we can with the information we have in the moment to generate the best outcome possible at that time.
We know we don’t know everything. And we know what we know might be wrong. But we accept that, so we can carry on with our lives.
By combining the concepts of anachronism, incomplete information, and imperfect information, we can see how easy it is to think poorly of a past decision. It’s easy to assume we had more information than we had, and to assume the information was better than it was, all based on new information we have now. But that’s just hindsight bias and anachronistic.
So, when you think about a past action, it’s important to consider what you knew and didn’t know at the time. To assume you could have made a better decision with what you know now is anachronistic. That’s unfair to you.
Here’s how to look at past decisions: as long as you’re making the best decision you can at every moment, you’re doing your best in every moment. If you’re already doing your best all the time, then any alternate decision you could’ve made must be worse by comparison. So, there’d be no reason to go back and change any decision you made.
3. Don’t take alternate futures seriously.
Here’s a popular sentiment: “If only I did X, I’d be so much happier…”
Are you sure?
When I was a kid, adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a pilot.
I’m not a pilot. But it’s fun to imagine that alternate reality. Especially when I watch real pilots showing off their glamour on YouTube.
But I also learned enough about the job to know what happens behind the scenes. Early mornings, irregular hours, days away from home, piles of paperwork, and being stuck in a stuffy cockpit staring at screens for hours. At least I can go outside for fresh air any time I want as a software developer.
Would my life have been better? Maybe. Maybe not.
I think of it this way: five years ago, I couldn’t even predict I’d have a newsletter today. So, why would I assume I know exactly what my life as a pilot would have been like? And why would I assume it would be completely positive? How does it make sense to assume that my life would’ve turned out one particularly positive way?
Regret hinges on the farfetched assumption that there’s a single, better alternate reality you definitely could have achieved with the right decision. But that’s just a product of a narrow imagination. Your life right now could also be substantially better than the alternatives.
“I’m done dwelling on the past….I can’t make guesses about what would have turned out if I hadn’t run away. I’m here now and I’m going to make the most out of it.”
- Aang, Avatar: The Last Airbender
4. Accept the past.
This can be tough. But the sooner you realize you can’t erase history, the freer you’ll be. Let me explain…
I had a close friend growing up. But, because of my stupidity, I ruined our friendship. We’re not friends anymore. And I accept nothing will change that event in history.
I have to.
Because what I realized is that when we deny a part of our history, we deny a part of our present. Because everything that happened in history led up to the present moment. If we deny a part of our history, then our present won’t make sense. We end up confused, lying to ourselves, causing stress and anxiety as the truth battles with lies we tell ourselves.
By denying your past, your past will hold you hostage.
By accepting your past, you can learn from it. You grow. Then, you can decide whether and how you can make up for it.
I can either apologize and reach out to my friend to make amends. Or we can continue not being friends. Either way, nothing changes what already happened. What happened was unacceptable, but I accept that what happened… happened.
So, about my bandaged Tweety…
Do I wish I didn’t overextend his cheek line? Sure. But I did my best in the moment with my drawing skills limited to what they were. Would it have been nice for me to draw a perfect Tweety instead? Of course. It’s nice to imagine, but that’s just a fun fantasy. I accept I made a mistake. And because I couldn’t erase it, the best thing to do was to go with it, which my teacher helped me do by turning it into a bandage.
“There are no mistakes. Only happy accidents.”
- Bob Ross
So, you don’t have to go skydiving, bungee jumping or completing any bucket list items.
You can avoid regret just by changing your relationship with your past.
Don’t dwell on the past.
Always do your best.
Don’t take fantasies seriously.
Accept the past.
BONUS: A Message from a Massive YouTuber
The day before this post was published, I saw a video from Joey Bizinger (“The Anime Man”)—a YouTuber with 3.3 million subscribers—reflecting on 10 years of creating YouTube videos. In the video, Joey shares exactly what a life of no regret looks like as I described in this Dive.
...hey you know what? I've made some mistakes in the past. I've made some really bad content in the past.
Maybe I took a decision in my content and in my career that wasn't for the best.
Maybe things could have gone like this. Maybe things could have gone like that. I think to myself, "No. You know what? Maybe I did make all the right choices or maybe there was no right choice to begin with."
"Maybe just the fact that I was so aimless and switching around and just doing whatever I wanted to do was actually the correct way to go."
And, you know, we may never know the answer unless we have access to some... multiverse or whatever, which is probably never going to happen.
You know this was the right choice and the fact that I'm still able to sit here and confidently say that "hey, I am still loving YouTube. I still love making content. And I'm really happy and proud of myself that I got to this point," is telling that, hey, you know what? Everything is all right... everything was for the better.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of regret. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. What are your thoughts on regret? Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
If you found this interesting, please consider sharing it.
Thank you for reading. Live life without regrets. And I’ll see you in the next one.