I truly believe that regret is such a wasted emotion. For this reason, I have very little of it. The way I see it, once an undesirable event occurs, the only thing I could do is minimize or eliminate — if possible — the chance of that event repeating itself. I dislike feelings of regret and that’s exactly why I do my best to not worry about undesirable outcomes.
It turns out that I’m not the only who views life decisions this way. Jeff Bezos also thinks the same. Well, sort of.
In a 2001 interview, Jeff Bezos explained why he quit his high-paying job to start Amazon, a firm that initially sold books, a far cry from his secure life. He explained that his decision was rather easy because he used what he coined a regret minimization framework. He explained:
I wanted to project myself forward at age 80 and looking back at my life, I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have. I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. And I knew that that would haunt me every day.
Layman’s terms: ensure that you do things today, which even if they don’t pan out the way you imagined, you wouldn’t regret having done them. That’s regret minimization.
Personal encounter with regret minimization
Just before starting grad school, a good friend approached me to start a moving business together. This had nothing in common with my auditing background, but he knew I loved challenges. I took up the challenge and we were in business within a few days.
Although, it was challenging to run a moving business and attend grad school at the same time, we managed to grow.
Prior to graduating, I had the opportunity to return to a Big 4 firm where I had worked at and make more money or pick from a couple of other companies.
I temporarily crossed out that career path and decided to nurture the new baby that I begot with my business partner. It wasn’t because I suddenly found my calling to be an entrepreneur or anything fancy like that. No.
Like Jeff Bezos, my choice was mostly centered on regrets. I wondered what it would have been like to have missed an opportunity to try a different path even if it was less glorious: i.e., lifting sofas in my neighborhood vs working in a global consulting firm.
For me, the fear of not having tried something different made all the difference in making the decision. I thought to myself:
“You’ve worked in a couple of companies before, but you never started and ran a business. Now that’s an experience of a lifetime you don’t want to miss!”
My intuition was right. Pursuing the business was the best decision I’ve made at that point in my life. No, I didn’t become a millionaire. But I gained practical skills that many people only acquire after decades as employees. I learned firsthand how a food trading company such as Samsung could now be among the most recognizable brands in technology.
How was this possible?
Within two years of running the company, we went from lifting sofas to removing trash and to recycling within multiple states. Along the journey, we met some incredible people, dealt with some jerks, and we had outright dangerous moments. We also learned to be compassionate because we met people who simply had a very difficult life.
To top it all off, my friend and I made good money.
Would I have had the same experience had I decided instead to pursue a corporate gig after grad school? Maybe. But the moral of the story here is that I didn’t do it and I don’t regret the choice I made.
— My regret minimization worked.
What can we learn from regret minimization?
First: there are two categories of regrets and those that stem from actions we didn’t take tend to haunt us a lot more than regrets which result from actions we did take. This is because even the most ridiculous decisions we make often have a bittersweet nostalgia that lingers on.
On the other hand, if you missed the opportunity to experience something that you really wanted, the feeling that lingers on is a bunch of what-ifs. There is nothing (good or bad) to hold onto from that forgone opportunity.
Second: in the present, in this moment, there is lot you can do to live the life you want. This concept often appears abstract in the present but think about all the “challenges” you’ve faced and how mundane and manageable they seem today.
Human beings are a bit like roaches. We have an unbelievable capacity to survive, resist, and keep fighting. Call into existence this side of you to give you the courage to live a life where you don’t eventually sit alone at 80 years old, asking yourself a bunch of what-ifs.