By April 12, 2010 Read More →

Don’t Regret the Path Not Taken

Dont Regret the Path Not Taken

“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” – Fulton Oursler

If you carry regrets around with you, this post just might lighten your load.  It’s easy to regret.  It’s easy to second guess yourself, especially with 20/20 hind-sight.  It’s easy to ponder the “what if’’s” and “what could have been’s.”  It’s not so easy to let your regrets go.

I was having lunch with a friend when the topic of regret came up.  After my friend talked through his one regret in life, I mentioned that I had just read the perfect words on how to let go of regrets.  In essence, you could have taken your other path and been hit by a bus.  My take is, you never know how things will go.  Instead, you make the most of where you are now, and you carry the good forward — the rest is experience.  My friend instantly got it — it was an ah-ha moment for him, and he suggested I blog it to share more broadly.

The book that re-shaped my outlook on regret is, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less , by Barry Schwartz.

Hit By a Bus
Schwartz writes that life is unpredictable and it doesn’t help to waste time on regret:

I have a friend, frustrated over his achievements in life, who has wasted countless hours over the past thirty years regretting that he passed up the chance to go to a certain Ivy League college. ‘Everything would have been so different,’ he often mutters, ‘if only I had gone.’  The simple fact is that might have gone way to the school of his dreams and been hit by a bus.

Let Go of Regret
Schwartz writes that letting go of regret is better than second-guessing a decision:

Changing the one decision — going to the more prestigious college — would not have altered his basic character or erased the other problems that he faced, so there really is nothing to say that his life or career would have turned out any better.  But one thing I do know is that his experience of them would be infinitely happier if he could let go of regret.

I don’t know about you, but the “hit by a bus” really put things in perspective for me.

Photo by kandjstudio.

27 Comments on "Don’t Regret the Path Not Taken"

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  1. Alik Levin says:

    I liked the bus metaphor :)
    My way to combat regrets is just telling myself it’s in the past and it’s out of my control now so why wasting energy on something that cannot be fixed/changed, focus on what’s next, on something I have control or something I can influence.

  2. Sid Savara says:

    Hey J.D.,

    Thanks for the reminder – I liked the metaphor too, and I *love* the quote. I am not sure if I have ever heard it before – I am copying and pasting that for my collection ;)

  3. Cheryl Paris says:

    Hiya J.D. –

    You had good discussion with the friend.
    We need to let go of regrets else it will have us caught up and not allow to make the most of the present and to build a better future. If we all knew that this is path which will give us more success we all never would have gained “EXPERIENCE”.

    You know Great River of Life flows just beneath the bridge of our waiting and regretting lives when we are waiting for that perfect moment to dive in. Life silently slips by and dream go unlived.

    Bye for now,
    Cheryl

  4. Great post! It’s really hard sometimes not to live with regret, but I find that regret is a waste of time. You can’t go back and you have no way of knowing if things would be better if you could go back and do things differently. I’m a big believer in the notion that everything happens for a reason. And I LOVE that quote. I might have to use it in one of my posts! :)

  5. Valerie M says:

    Ach…. regret… that pesky little voice in your head.

    It’s easy to say things like “better late than never” and “wherever you are, whenever you get there, you’re right on time.” But in the end, it’s the truth.. doesn’t make it easy, it just is what it is.

    Also, that is a very good point that making different choices probably wouldn’t have altered one’s character. That’s very true and I didn’t see it that way.

  6. so simple – hit by a bus. It does put things in perspective!

  7. Kim says:

    Hi J.D.

    Experiences have shaped who we are today. A good question to ask is, ‘what can I do to improve my life from this point moving forward?’ The best we can do is turn regrets into life lessons. Thanks for the analogy that cuts to the chase.

  8. “experience of them would be infinitely happier if he could let go of regret.” This spoke to my soul most deeply.

    Sometimes I think back to dumb things I did that changed the course of my life forever. And I get a yucky feeling in gut.

    But they are past.

    This is a new day.

    A new moment to smile.

    Breathe the day in.

    And go forward.

    Hey, was that a Hallmark moment, or what!? :)

    Now off to read how you might’ve graciously responded to my totally unsolicited blog design advice in my comment on your post yesterday. :)

    xo

  9. Patricia says:

    I have three moments of regretful actions that come back to haunt me in my life – now only occasionally. The three are all motivated by irrational fear of an outcome. Once I tell myself “that I did the best I could do at the time, with the knowledge that I had” I can let go and each time I let go it gets easier. Practicing is good…

    I worry before the decision, trying to make the correct choice usually because I want to please someone or am hoping for love and appreciation…I usually get bread.

    Regret is not problematic for me, I live well with most of my decisions.

    Nice post, felt very nice to pause her this morning – Thank you

  10. J.D.

    I like the quote at the start -so true. Living with regret is futile – there is no way to change the past, all we can do is learn from it. It is true that we could be hit by a metaphorical bus at any time, so we should be bold and seize every moment. Thanks for a great post – and no regrets!

    Phil

  11. Hi JD,

    I have to tell you…I never have understood the concept of regret. None of us makes perfect choices all the time. None of us are born knowing everything. We learn as we go through life.

    The past is the past. We never will be able to change things. And furthermore, the road not taken probably is a blessing in disguise just as the whole hit by the bus thing illustrates. All we can do is take what we can from an experience and just go forward.

    The learning never ends….what a gift! :)

  12. Lance says:

    JD,
    Yes, that whole “hit by a bus” idea is something I have thought about. And it’s really that we never know how things could have been different…and so why worry about that. In fact, my life will be different because I am here, typing this – which will alter the timing of everything I do after this. We just never know…..

  13. Travis says:

    Well said. While it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in regret and thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, we truly NEVER know how things could have turned out. What maybe looked like a golden opportunity could have instead become a living nightmare. Besides, with so much of a future to look forward to, who wants to waste time looking back?

  14. Wouldn’t be who I am without the mistakes I’ve made. Doesn’t change the need to apologize. Or make amends. Or at the very least learn a lot. But if the past is going to be changed it’s only through the next set of actions – not the last.

  15. Davina says:

    We never really know how things could have turned out do we? And think of all the people we’ve met after making the choices we have made. It’s amazing to think how one decision can change the path of their life. I feel regret sometimes, but it passes and I move on.

  16. JD says:

    @ Alik — Letting go of what you don’t control is a great way to get more energy and focus back for what you do control. It’s a smart strategy.

    @ Sid — As I was sifting through quotes on regret, this one ended up my favorite.

    @ Cheryl — I’m really liking your river of life flowing below the bridge metaphor.

    @ Positively Present — One of my managers was very effective as asking, “What did you learn?” He echoed your point that regret was a waste of time.

    @ Valerie — You’re right … there’s what we tell ourself, and then there’s what we truly believe. Our explanatory style makes all the difference.

    @ Lana — I didn’t even see it coming. As I read his words, it slapped me upside the head and rang a perfect truth.

    @ Kim — Yes, life lessons from the school of hard knocks ;)

    @ Jannie — It certaintly was and you always have a way with Hallmarks.

    @ Patricia — You always flow with wisdom and I like your perspective on doing the best with what you know at the time. That’s all we can ever ask of ourselves.

    @ Phil — Yes … being bold and siezing moments!

    @ Nadia — I really like your perspective of a “blessing in disguise.” That truly turns it around.

    @ Lance — Talk about connecting with the moment … yes, even typing your message shapes your path.

    @ Travis — You reminded me that we drive our life forward by looking through the windshield, not staring in the rear-view mirror.

    @ Fred — That’s a very healthy look on regret, from the balcony view.

    @ Davina — Putting a focus on the people we’ve met along the way is a great perspective. I can’t help but think of Dorothy on her path down the Yellow Brick Road.

  17. Dr. J says:

    Usually the path we take is the one we needed to walk.

  18. JD says:

    @ Dr. J — Pithy and practical.

  19. Michael Yanakiev says:

    Hi! J.D….What an interesting approach for the topic of regretting. I would say that one must not regret the past, should not dream aimlessly about the future,and has to guard himself from being preoccupied with the present. The best policy to me is to be able to soar in the sky and
    watch the panorama picture from above. As for Barry Schwartz,he also did influence and reshape some of my views with his wonderful book.

  20. JD says:

    @ Michael — “watch the panorama picture from above” … now that is a perfect metaphor and sticky too!

  21. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. I like the post – so true. Life could be easier than it is now – here – but on the other hand I wouldn’t be here with you all .. and be getting these essential insights into life – here and with other bloggers .. I’ve learnt so much – that if I hadn’t taken the various paths .. as you say: I wouldn’t be here.

    Don’t regret .. we’ve learnt too much – have a good weekend – Hilary

    PS I like the metaphor above .. “watch the panorama picture from above”

  22. Baker says:

    Hello J.D
    I have found in my own life I haven’t looked back when I followed my inner guidance. I belive that people who consistently follow their inner guidance, the idea of regret does seem to be a very foreign concept. Excellent post!!!

  23. JD says:

    @ Hilary — Well put. That’s the key to making the most of our paths — always finding the upside in whatever path we take.

    @ Baker — Leading your life from the inside out is a perfect way to stay true to you.

  24. Georgi says:

    Hit by a bus – definitely. Another analogy I use is that if I were allowed to go back in time to whenever, and re-make a decision, then everyone else would be back in time too. After all, it would be then, again. And so they would re-make all THEIR decisions from that time to this… and you see where this leads… to a different world. The point is, if I can put myself back in time, it follows that everyone else would be back then too. Usually the expert regretter assumes that only s/he gets to re-make that crucial decision; everyone else MUST make all the same decisions over again. This further assumes that the re-decided decision has no effect on one’s life or the rest of the world. Science has disproven that. A butterfly wing flap in Ceylon can start a hurricane in the West Indies. Our little decisions probably do cause big results, somewhere. So little is known of chains of cause and effect. Really, though, haven’t you noticed that Regretters are also indecisive? Great stuff.

  25. Martin says:

    I’m not sure about this bus thing. Might it be the case that one has regrets about a path not taken because one has been hit by the metaphorical bus on the pat that was taken. My point of view is that it is rare that a path not taken is shut off altogether, or if it is there will probably be something similar that remains open

  26. Priya says:

    Hi All,

    I feel really gud enough after reading few of your posts.
    My past was killing me often and I regret everyday :(

    Now I feel light. Hope I wud change my way of thinking now.

    Yes, there is nothing we get from regretting/worrying the past.What I am now is the blessed moment for me.

    Thanks All :)

    Regards,
    Priya