“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets”, wrote Arthur Miller, famed playwright (and husband of Marilyn Munroe for 16 years).
There’s a lot of wisdom in that sentiment. We all have regrets. We all sometimes wonder what might have been. But if we want to live a full and happy life, we need to come to terms with the decisions we make and the consequences that flow from them.
In fact, the good thing about decisions is that we can always turn them into the right decisions. As Daniel Gilbert so entertainingly explains, we all have a “psychological immune system”. We’re much better at rationalising our decisions and finding the upside in everything we do than we think we are.
So although we can’t avoid regret, I’m not a fan of it, and I try not to dwell on counterfactuals and what-might-have-beens. I prefer to live the life I have and play the deck of cards I’ve got.
Instead of regret, embrace pregret
Making decisions can be hard.
Yes, I’m talking about the brand of peanut butter to buy, and then deciding between “smooth” or “chunky”. But I’m also talking about the bigger things.
It’s painful to agonise over a big decision. It’s not fun to experience uncertainty.
When we’re making a big decision, there’s an enormous temptation to pick the easiest option or the first option that presents itself.
But when it comes to big decisions, riding that uncertainty is important. I think of that uncertainty as a tiger. Instead of letting the tiger go, I recommend riding it.
When making a big decision we need to think about the outcomes you want. We need to think about the outcomes we don’t want. It’s valuable to do a pre-mortem. It’s important to think about the worst-case scenarios and come to terms with how we might feel if they occur. It’s valuable to consider similar decisions we’ve made in the past, and decisions that others have made and how it turned out for them. We need to consider the costs and benefits. We need to think about what we can afford to lose. And of course, we should consider the upside.
To make the right decision, it’s important to trust our intuition. But our intuition is best informed by living inside the decision, within the constraints of the time and opportunity that are available.
In other words: we should embrace pregret. We need to ride the tiger.
If we’ve done this, once we’ve made the decision, we can let it go.
Decisions have uncertain consequences
The fact of the matter is that difficult decisions are hard because they involve uncertainty. We don’t know the future. We don’t know for sure what the outcome of any of our decisions will be.
Good decisions can have bad outcomes, and bad decisions can have good outcomes.
Once we come to peace with this, we can make a decision and live with it.
The time to agonise over a decision is when you make it
It’s easy to worship hindsight and distrust foresight.
Everything is obvious, in retrospect. Events only move in one direction, and we can come up with all sorts of post-hoc rationalisations for what happened.
We read and watch the news, which focuses mainly on what happened.
But how much attention do we give to foresight? Making decisions about the future is the thing that actually makes a difference in our lives.
Our past, and the news of the day, can inform the decisions we make, and the outcomes we’ll experience in the future. They can help inform our future decisions.
But the decisions we make now won’t impact the past. The consequences are in the future.
There’s limited benefit to experiencing regret for the decisions of the past. But there’s a world of benefit to riding the tiger of pregret, because the consequences of these decisions will impact us in the future.