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Moving past the regret of missed opportunity

Is it possible to live a life with #noregrets?

Sometimes I feel plagued by the what-ifs:

Most people don’t know this, but I secretly started a youtube channel in 2012 but then stopped because you know, life. What if I had kept on going? Maybe I would be a millionaire influencer by now…

What if I had the confidence to act on what I truly wanted and moved to Europe earlier?…or…

Messaged that guy I met while abroad despite being scared that he wouldn’t want to make long distance work? And then perhaps not be single at 31?

It is good thing to look back on your positive decisions — ones that perhaps put you on the path to where you wanted to be in life. But ultimately it is the decisions you didn’t make, some life changing, that linger with you.

In a society where there are boundless opportunities thanks to social media, dating apps, and access to travel, these types of regrets can eat you up inside. I call it the persistent and never-ending state of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Why are the things we don’t do so much more painful over time than the things that we actually follow through with?

What do we regret most?

There are two types of regret: short-term and long-term.

Short-term regret is the ‘regret of actions’. We have all been there, saying something rude or out of line during a meeting and after leaving, thinking “why did I do that!?”.

Long-term regret, on the other hand, is the coulda-woulda-shoulda of actions not taken or missed opportunities.

According to research, long-term regrets are the most common. We consistently regret missed opportunity.

When people are older and they look back on their life, they do not as often regret the actions they did take, but the actions they didn’t (that is probably a proverb somewhere).

According to Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work, the biggest long-term regrets fall into the following five domains:

  1. Education
  2. Career
  3. Romance
  4. Parenting
  5. Self-improvement

Education, career, relationships… our errors in these domains loom so large because of all the possibilities that might have changed our lives. These are also the experiences we are most likely to remember.

I find it interesting that money or finances (should have spent less/more) is not one of the top five, but that may also be included under the umbrella of career. But that may just be my bias from living in an expensive city.

Why is regret so painful?

Maybe that is why the regret of missed opportunity is so painful — because our life journey is actually in our hands. And to be wrong can be gut-wrenching.

Why are the things we don’t do so much more painful over time than the things that we actually follow through with?

Harvard happiness expert Dan Gilbert explains, “why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions… when our inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because… well, there wasn’t one.”

As humans, we rationalize our ‘bad’ decisions, not our good ones. It is harder to rationalize and ponder over something you never did.

You’ve heard yourself rationalize you’re mistakes before, digging for silver linings such as:

  • This bad decision will teach me a life lesson
  • It was meant to be
  • Well it could have been much worse…

While, I wholeheartedly want to believe that there is a pre-destined, serendipitous role for me in this world, part of me knows that the majority of life is based on how you react to things and/or the decisions you make as a result.

Maybe that is why the regret of missed opportunity is so painful — because our life journey is actually in our hands. And to be wrong can be gut-wrenching.

Maybe that is why the regret of missed opportunity is to painful — because our life journey is actually in our hands. And to be wrong can be gut-wrenching.

And decisions from the past are always easier to make in the future:

  • You have learned new information
  • Watched things evolve
  • Know more about yourself

Of course, I wish I was making six figures and bought a house two years ago before the housing boom. But hindsight is 20/20, right?

But unless I invent a time machine, I can’t go back in time to re-live my life choices.

But I can prevent them from happening in the future.

Stay tuned for lessons in Part 2: How to trust your gut and say ‘yes’ to opportunity

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