Saturday, 10 December 2011

TEDCEMBER: Don't regret regret

I've been eyeing today's TED talk for a while and wasn't disappointed. In Kathryn Schulz's session on not regretting regret, we learn that regret requires both imagination and choice. The more opportunity we can see for a better outcome the greater our regret will be. This is why we regret missing a flight by 3 minutes more than if we miss it by 20, - it's more likely we could have done something to affect the outcome.

The things we most regret are our choices with regards to education, career, romance and parenting. This is probably because these things are difficult to remedy. Our response to regret is surprisingly primitive.

  1. Denial (I wish it hadn't happened)
  2. Bewilderment (I can't believe I was that stupid)
  3. Punishment (I could kick myself)
They are also perseverative - i.e. we keep repeating them over and over. My guess that this is an evolutionary trait from when making any mistake twice was far more risky than it is today.

To appease these unpleasant feelings of regret Kathryn suggests the following coping mechanisms:

  1. Find other people with the same regret - the example she gives is Goggling for regret+tattoo, you'll find 17 million other people with far worse tattoos than yours.
  2. To laugh at yourself
  3. Give it time
She leaves the fourth mechanism to her conclusion - rationalisation (a.k.a. spin). Focus on the positives, and if there aren't any, to remind ourselves that we should feel pain when things go wrong, to ensure we make better choices in future. 

I don't disagree with any of this, but on the occasions when I feel regret and the rationalisation engine kicks in, it usually allows me to move on, but I'm left with a nagging feeling that I've conned myself. There is however a more effective remedy. Empathy. We can empathise with ourselves just as we an empathise with others. So the next time you feel profound regret for your actions, ask yourself what need you were trying to meet when you took your decisions. It's not necessarily an easy thing to explain so I'll finish with an example.

About nine months ago I ran an evening session on behavioural driven development at SkillsMatter. It was the fourth time I'd delivered the presentation, but I hadn't dusted it off for a while so had taken the day of the event off to prepare. About a week prior I was invited to take part in a strategy day for one of my clients. I really like and respect the people at this company and felt honoured to be included. Unfortunately the date clashed with day of the presentation, meaning I would have less time to prepare. I accepted the invitation, and as a result the session was below par. Worst of all the video is available for all to see.

I regret that I didn't prepare properly, that I was lacklustre and that the audience didn't get as much from the presentation as they otherwise would have done. I've certainly learnt a good lesson, but knowing this doesn't make me feel any better. What does help is thinking about the need that I was satisfying by attending the strategy day - my need to spend time with people that I care about, respect and admire. When I remind myself of this, the discomfort associated with the regret vanishes instantly, which is why I believe self empathy is the most effective coping mechanism for dealing with regret.

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