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The Power of Regret, How Looking Backward Moves US Forward

Interview of Daniel H. Pink by Judith W. Umlas on his latest book: “The Power of Regret, How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward” (published February 2022 by Riverhead Books, Penguin Publishing Group)

JWU: So many books have been written about letting go of regret, overcoming regrets, finding freedom from regret. Even another great thought leader Marshall Goldsmith wrote a piece entitled, “Don’t live with regret.” Do all these people have it wrong? You seem to be the only one that talks about the power of regret, and how looking backward moves us forward. Please tell us a little about your journey toward discovering this truth. What led to it? 

DHP: I started exploring this profoundly misunderstood emotion of regret — largely because I had regrets of my own. I was at point in my life where — surprise! — I realized that I had mileage on me. When I looked back, there were things I wish I had done, things I wish I hadn’t done. I knew that nobody wanted to talk about regrets. But when I very sheepishly mentioned my regrets to people, people leaned forward in ways that staggered me. Everybody wanted to talk about their regrets! They were just looking for permission. And that led me on a two-year journey of research.

JWU: How did you go about your research?

DHP: Three ways. First, I looked at 60 years of research on the science of regret – a half-century of studies in social psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and other fields. Second, I created the American Regret Project, the largest public opinion survey ever conducted about American attitudes on regret. Third, I also launched the World Regret Survey, which has now collected more than 22,000 regrets from people in 109 countries.

JWU: What did you find? What do we get wrong about regret?

DHP: For starters, the philosophy of “No Regrets” – the belief that we should never look backward, always look forward, never be negative, always be positive – is nonsense. It is not a recipe for living. What the science shows – very clearly – is two things.

 First, regret makes us human. Everybody has regrets. It’s one of the most common emotions human beings have. Indeed, not having regrets is typically a sign of a neurological disorder or mental illness. Regret is ubiquitous in the human experience.

 Second, regret makes us better. If we treat our regrets properly, they are a powerful engine for progress. The key is not to ignore our regrets – like the insipid “No Regrets” ideology suggests. Nor is it to wallow in our regrets, to stew in our regrets, to ruminate on our regrets. The key is to confront them in a systematic way. And when we do that, research shows, it can help us become better negotiators, solve problems faster and better, avoid cognitive biases, sharpen our strategic thinking, and find greater meaning in life.  

JWU: Were there demographic differences in regret?

DHP: Far fewer than I expected. In the World Regret Survey, people around the world seemed to have the same four basic regrets – regrets about stability, boldness, morality, and love. The big demographic difference was age. People in their 20s tended to have equal numbers of regrets of action and inaction – equal number of regrets about what they did and what they didn’t do. But as people age, the inaction regrets take over. Over time, people are much more apt to regret the things they didn’t do than the things they did. 

JWU: What are one or two techniques that leaders can use to harness the power of regret?

The good news is that there’s lots we can do to enlist regret to work smarter and live better. Again, the key is to find a third way between the extremes. We shouldn’t ignore our regrets. We shouldn’t wallow in our regrets. We should use them as signals and information. And I explain in the book a simple process for doing that.

That process begins with what’s called “self-compassion” — treating yourself with kindness instead of contempt. When we screw up, the way we talk to ourselves is brutal. But there’s no evidence such lacerating self-criticism is effective. Since we’d never talk to anyone else that way, we shouldn’t talk to ourselves that way. Instead, we should recognize that mistakes are part of the human condition and that they represent a moment in our lives, not the full measure of our lives.

The next step is disclosure. We think that when we reveal our mistakes, regrets, or vulnerabilities, people will think less of us. That’s wrong. In most cases, they think more of us. They admire our courage and authenticity. Even writing about your regrets for 15 minutes a day for three days can defang the regrets. Converting blobby negative emotions into concrete words can help us make sense of them.

Finally, we have to draw a lesson from our regrets. And the way to do that is to get some distance. Ask yourself what you’d tell someone else to do in your situation? Ask yourself, “If I were replaced tomorrow, what would my successor do.”

In short, look inward to reframe the regret and yourself. Express outward to disclose the regret and make sense of it. Move forward by explicitly locating a lesson in the regret and then using that lesson to guide your future behavior. 

For leaders in particular, I like measures like post-mortems and failure resumes. But the simplest thing to do is this: Gather your team. Tell them one regret you have. But don’t stop there. Also tell them what lesson you learned from the regret – and what action you’re going to take in the future to respond to it. I can almost guarantee this will lead to one of the most enriching workplace conversations you’ll ever have.

Judith W. Umlas

Dan’s “Fireside Chat” on the Power of Regret from IIL’s Online Leadership & Innovation Conference 2022 will be “Brought Back by Popular Demand” in Leadership & Innovation 2023. Stay tuned….

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