Top Quotes: “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward” — Daniel Pink

Austin Rose
13 min readMay 22, 2024

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Introduction

“October 24, 1960, a composer named Charles Dumont arrived at the posh Paris apartment of Edith Piaf with fear in his heart and songs in his briefcase. At the time, Piaf was perhaps the most famous entertainer in France and one of the best-known singers in the world. She was also quite frail. Although she was just forty-four years old, addiction, accidents, and hard living had ravaged her body. She weighed less than a hundred pounds. Three months earlier Piaf had been in a coma because of liver damage.

Yet despite her wispy presence, she remained notoriously mercurial and hot-tempered. She considered Dumont and his professional partner, lyricist Michel Vaucaire, who had joined him on the visit, second-rate musical talents. Earlier in the day, her secretary had left messages trying to cancel the meeting. Piaf initially refused to see the men, forcing them to wait uneasily in her living room. But just before she went to bed, she appeared, swaddled in a blue dressing gown, and relented.

She’d hear one song, she told them. That’s it.

Dumont sat down at Piaf’s piano. Sweaty and nervous, he began playing his music while softly speaking the lyrics Vaucaire had written.

Non, rien de rien.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

No, nothing at all.

No, I regret nothing at all.

She asked Dumont to play the song again, wondering aloud whether he’d really written it. She assembled a few friends who happened to be visiting to hear it. Then she gathered her household staff for a listen.

Hours passed. Dumont played the song over and over, more than twenty times, according to one account. Piaf telephoned the director of L’Olympia, the premier Parisian concert venue, who arrived just before dawn to hear the work.

Non, rien de rien.

Non, je ne regrette rien.

C’est payé, balayé, oublié.

Je me fous du passé.

No, nothing at all.

No, I regret nothing at all.

It’s paid, swept away, forgotten.”

“A few weeks later, Piaf sang the two-minute, nineteen-second song on French television. In December, when she performed it as the rousing final number of a concert that helped rescue L’Olympia from financial ruin, she received twenty-two curtain calls. By the end of the following year, fans had purchased more than one million copies of her “Je ne regrette rien” record, elevating her status from chanteuse to icon.

Three years later, Piaf was dead.”

“Regret is not dangerous or abnormal, a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.”

About one of every five people who get tattoos (presumably including people whose tattoos read “No Regrets”) eventually regret their decision.”

“How often do you look back on your life and wish you had done things differently?

Only 1 percent of our respondents said that they never engage in such behavior — and fewer than 17 percent do it rarely. Meanwhile, about 43 percent report doing it frequently or all the time. In all, a whopping 82 percent say that this activity is at least occasionally part of their lives, making Americans far more likely to experience regret than they are to floss their teeth.”

At Leasts make us feel better. “At least I ended up with a medal — unlike that American rider who blew it in the final seconds of the race and never reached the podium.” “I didn’t get that promotion, but at least I wasn’t fired.” At Leasts deliver comfort and consolation.

If Onlys, by contrast, make us feel worse. “If only I’d begun that final chase two seconds earlier, I’d have won a gold medal.” “If only I’d taken a few more stretch assignments, I’d have gotten that promotion.” If Onlys deliver discomfort and distress.

It would seem, therefore, that we humans would favor the first category — that we’d choose the warmth of At Least over the chill of If Only. After all, we’re built to seek pleasure and to avoid pain — to prefer chocolate cupcakes to caterpillar smoothies and sex with our partner to an audit with the tax man.

But the truth is different. You’re much more likely to have a Silver Emma moment than a Bronze Borghini one. When researchers have tracked people’s thoughts by asking them to keep daily diaries or by pinging them randomly to ask what’s on their mind, they’ve discovered that If Onlys outnumber At Leasts in people’s lives — often by a wide margin. One study found that 80 percent of the counterfactuals people generate are If Onlys.

By making us feel worse today, regret helps us do better tomorrow.”

Regret and Performance

“Leaning into regret improves our decision-making process because the stab of negativity slows us down. We collect more information. We consider a wider range of options. We take more time to reach a conclusion. Because we step more carefully, we’re less likely to fall through cognitive trapdoors like confirmation bias.

“This is one of the central findings on regret: it can deepen persistence, which almost always elevates performance.”

“Sparked by this regret, she and her siblings bought their father, who’s in his seventies, a subscription to StoryWorth. Each week the service sends an email that contains a single question (What was your mother like? What is your fondest childhood memory? And — yes — what regrets do you have?). The recipient responds with a story. At the end of the year, those stories are compiled into a hardcover book.”

“When you feel the spear of regret, you have three possible responses. You can conclude that feeling is for ignoring – and bury or minimize it. That leads to delusion. You can conclude that feeling is for feeling – and wallow in it. That leads to despair. Or you can conclude that feeling is for thinking – and address it.”

“We attribute these failures, in ourselves and others, to personal choices when they’re often at least partly the result of circumstances we can’t control. That means that the fix for foundation regrets, and a way to avoid them, is not only to change the person, but to reconfigure that person’s situation, setting, and environment. We must create the conditions at every level – society, community, and family – to improve individuals’ foundational choices.”

“Seth Margolis and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, have found that asking people simply to act like an extrovert for one week appreciably increased their well-being.

At Leasts can turn regret into relief. On their own they don’t change our behavior, but they change how we feel about our behavior, which can be valuable. And because At Leasts spring to mind naturally far less often than If Onlys, we must summon them ourselves at the right time. At Leasts work like antibiotics. Sometimes we need to reach into the medicine cabinet and pop a few of them to fortify our psychological immune system and fight off certain harmful emotions. If we use these antibiotics too often, their efficacy will wane. If we use them intelligently, they can aid in healthy functioning.”

“Psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, have conducted studies that suggest people should process negative and positive experiences in different ways. In this research, writing about negative experiences like regret, and even talking into a tape recorder about them, for fifteen minutes a day substantially increased people’s overall life satisfaction and improved their physical and mental wellbeing in ways that merely thinking about those experiences did not. Yet the reverse was true for positive experiences: writing and talking about triumphs and good times drained some of their positivity.

The explanation – and the reason self-disclosure is so crucial for handling regret – is that language, whether written or spoken, forces us to organize and integrate our thoughts. It converts blobby mental abstractions into concrete linguistic units. That’s a plus for negative emotions.

Again, regret can make us better when we use emotions as a signal for our thoughts. When feeling is for thinking, and thinking is for doing, regret can perform its decision-enhancing, performance-boosting, meaning-deepening magic. Writing about regret or revealing a regret to another person moves the experience from the realm of emotion into the realm of cognition. Instead of those unpleasant feelings fluttering around uncontrollably, language helps us capture them in our net, pin them down, and begin analyzing them. By contrast, the same approach for positive experiences is less effective. For life’s happy moments, avoiding analysis and sense-making helps us maintain the wonder and delight of those moments. Dissecting terrific events can diminish their terrificness.”

“• Write about your regret for fifteen minutes for three consecutive days.

Talk about your regret into a voice recorder for fifteen minutes for three consecutive days.

Tell someone else about the regret in person or by phone. Include sufficient detail about what happened, but establish a time limit (perhaps a half hour) to avoid the possibilities of repetition and brooding.”

“Going to a different location to analyze the regret or even literally leaning back, rather than forward, in one’s chair can make challenges seem less difficult and reduce anxiety in addressing them.”

“OTHER TECHNIQUES YOU WON’T REGRET

  1. Start a regret circle. Think of regret circles as close cousins of book clubs. Gather five or six friends over coffee, tea, or drinks. Ask two of them to come prepared with a significant regret. Let them tell the story of their regrets. Have the others respond to each regret first by categorizing it. (Is it action or inaction? Into which, if any, of the four deep structure categories does it fall?) Then, for each regret, the group works through the Disclosure-Compassion-Distance process. When the gathering ends, the two people commit to adopting a specific behavior (for example, speaking up to an unpleasant boss or asking out a crush). At the next meeting, the others hold the regretters accountable for that promise – and two new people share their regrets.
  2. Create a failure résumé. Tina Seelig, a professor of practice at Stanford University, says we need a “failure résumé,” a detailed and thorough inventory of our flops. A failure résumé offers another method for addressing our regrets. The very act of creating one is a form of disclosure. And by eyeing your failure résumé not as its protagonist, but as an observer, you can learn from it without feeling diminished by your mistakes. A few years ago, I compiled a failure résumé, then tried to glean lessons from the many screwups I’d committed. (Disclosing these embarrassments to myself will be sufficient, thank you very much.) I realized I’d repeatedly made variations of the same two mistakes, and that knowledge has helped me avoid those mistakes again.
  3. Pair New Year’s resolutions with Old Year’s regrets. A core point of this chapter – of this entire book – is that looking backward can move us forward. One way to imprint this principle onto your life is to establish a ritual. In late December, the temporal landmark of January 1 stirs us to make New Year’s resolutions. But as a precursor to that practice, try what I call “Old Year’s regrets.” Look back on the year that’s about to end and list three regrets. Do you regret not reconnecting with a relative or former colleague? Or never getting around to launching that side business? Or telling a lie that compromised your values? Write down these regrets. And make undoing the action regrets and transforming the inaction regrets your top resolutions for the new year.
  4. Mentally subtract positive events. Consider all the decisions and in-decisions, mistakes and triumphs, that led to that happy situation. Now take them away. I could mentally subtract having met my wife. The result is misery and gloom. But, as happened with George Bailey, the subtraction deepens my gratitude and casts my regrets in a new light.”

Regret Anticipation

“One morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel awoke to a surprise in the morning newspaper. On the pages of the publication, in black and white for all to read, was his obituary. A French journalist had mistaken Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, who had died, for Alfred, who most assuredly had not. It was fake news for the fin de siècle set.

But what really rankled Alfred was how the obituary’s headline encapsulated his life’s work: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). Nobel, a Swede who spoke five languages, was an ingenious chemist and an accomplished inventor. And what he invented were things that went boom: detonators, blasting caps, and, most famously, dynamite, which he patented in the 1860s. He built dynamite factories all over the world, which made him a multimillionaire and one of Europe’s most prominent industrialists.

Yet the obit didn’t tell a story of technical genius and entrepreneurial pluck. It described a contaminated soul with a shameful legacy – a greedy and amoral man who became fabulously wealthy by selling people tools for obliterating each other.

Eight years later, when Nobel did die, his will contained a surprise. Instead of leaving his fortune to his family, his estate established a set of prizes for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” – the Nobel Prizes.

The impetus for this gesture, the legend goes, was that premature obituary. Nobel glimpsed a preview of his future and he regretted what he saw. Anticipating this regret, he changed his behavior to avoid it.

If the previous two chapters were about regret through the rearview mirror, this chapter is about regret through the front windshield. Regret is a retrospective emotion. It springs into being when we look backward.

But we can also use it prospectively and proactively – to gaze into the future, predict what we will regret, and then reorient our behavior based on our forecast.”

“In 2016, DUL sent half of Duke’s six thousand undergraduates a survey and told them that if they completed and returned it, they’d be entered into a raffle for a $75 gift card.

The other three thousand students also received an email with the survey. But the accompanying rules were different. Everybody would be entered in a raffle for a $75 gift card. But if the organizers drew someone’s name and that person had not completed the survey, he would be ineligible for the prize and the organizers would select another name.

Which approach yielded the most survey responses?

It wasn’t even close. Within a week, only one-third of the students in the first group had completed the survey, but two-thirds of the students in the second group had done so. The first instance was a good old-fashioned raffle. The second was what behavioral economists have come to call a “regret lottery.”

Regret lotteries are one way that anticipated regrets can alter our behavior.”

“A pile of studies over the last fifteen years has demonstrated that anticipating regret can also prompt us to: eat more fruits and vegetables, get an HPV vaccine, sign up for a flu shot, use condoms, seek more information about our health, look for early signs of cancer, drive more carefully, get a cervical screening, quit smoking, reduce consumption of processed foods, and even recycle more.

Anticipating regret offers a convenient tool for judgment. In situations where you’re unsure of your next move, ask yourself, “In the future, will I regret this decision if I don’t do X?” Answer the question. Apply that answer to your current situation. This approach underlies the (small but growing) popularity of “obituary parties” – in which people channel their inner Alfred Nobel, draft their own obits, and use the written pieces to inform their remaining years.”

“If we don’t anticipate properly, we end up making the regret-minimizing choice rather than the risk-minimizing choice.

Sometimes that means no decision at all. Regret aversion can often lead to decision aversion, many studies have shown. If we focus too much on what we’ll regret, we can freeze and decide not to decide.”

“The conventional wisdom is also wrong. Nearly every study conducted on the topic has shown that when students change answers on tests, they are significantly more likely to change from a wrong answer to a right answer (sweet!) than they are to switch from a right answer to a wrong one (d’oh!). Students who change their answers usually improve their scores.

So, why does this wrongheaded advice endure?

Anticipated regret distorts our judgment. In 2005, Justin Kruger, a social psychologist now at New York University, along with Derrick Wirtz, now at the University of British Columbia, and Dale Miller of Stanford University examined the erasures on more than 1,500 psychology exams taken by students at the University of Illinois, where Kruger and Wirtz were then teaching. Consistent with previous research, switches from the wrong answer to the right answer were twice as common as switches from right to wrong.

But when researchers asked the students which they would anticipate regretting more — “switching when I should have stuck” or “sticking when I should have switched” — the responses were revealing. Seventy-four percent of those students anticipated more regret from switching answers.

“The Regret Optimization Framework holds that we should devote time and effort to anticipate the four core regrets: foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. But anticipating regrets outside these four categories is usually not worthwhile.

So, under the Regret Optimization Framework, when deciding a course of action, begin by asking whether you are dealing with one of the four core regrets. If not, satisfice. For example, if you’re buying lawn furniture or a(nother) microwave oven, that decision is unlikely to involve any fundamental, enduring human need. Make a choice and move on. You’ll be fine.

If the decision does involve one of the big four, spend more time deliberating. Project yourself into the future — five years, ten years, at age eighty, whatever makes sense. From that future vantage point, ask yourself which choice will help you build your foundation, take a sensible risk, do the right thing, or maintain a meaningful connection. Anticipate these regrets. Then choose the option that most reduces them.”

“Dan McAdams is a Northwestern University psychologist who has long argued that people forge their identities through stories. According to his research, two prototypical narratives wrestle for primacy as we make sense of our existence. One is what he calls “contamination sequences”—in which events go from good to bad. The other he calls “redemption sequences” — in which events go from bad to good.

McAdams has found that people whose identities involve contamination narratives tend to be unhappy with their personal lives and unimpressive in their professional contributions. But people with narratives rooted in redemption are the opposite. They are generally more satisfied and accomplished — and they rate their lives as meaningful.

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Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at https://peacejoyaustin.wordpress.com/blog/