When you look forward, the path naturally looks uncertain and the future impossible to predict. When you look back, all the dots seem to connect--except, of course, the dots that mark the choices and efforts you didn't make.

Those dots signal our regrets.

When we look back, most of us are more disappointed by the things we didn't do than the things we did. That's what we regret most: the things we dreamed of doing five or 10 years ago but didn't actually do...and now we think about how today would be different if we had.

Neal Roese, a psychologist and marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management, together with other researchers at Northwestern University analyzed 11 different regret-ranking studies and found that the top six biggest regrets in life center on:

  1. Education
  2. Career
  3. Romance
  4. Parenting
  5. The self
  6. Leisure

Why does education rank at the top of the list of regrets? The researchers say:

Opportunity breeds regret. Feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment are strongest where the chances for corrective reaction are clearest. Regret persists in precisely those situations in which opportunity for positive action remains high. This perspective offers a novel explanation for why education is the number one regret of Americans of diverse age, socioeconomic status, and life circumstance: In contemporary society, education is open to continual modification throughout life. With the rise of community colleges and student aid programs in recent decades, education of some sort is accessible to nearly all socioeconomic groups.

In other words, education is the most "popular" regret because it's something you can "fix" no matter your age or circumstances. You may not be able to rekindle that old romance or raise your kids all over again...but you can always go back to school.

And that means you can regret not having gone to college when you were younger--or regret not trying as hard as you could if you did--but you can also regret not going back to school right now.

It's a double whammy: You get to feel bad about the past and the present.

But if you're trying to improve a skill--even one that you feel you can't improve--you don't need to go back to school. You can do it yourself.

And you can eliminate at least one regret.

Do this: Think about a skill you tried to develop, whether it was in business, sports, personal...whatever.

At first, you improved at a rapid rate. You might have even thought, "Wow! I'm a prodigy!"

Then your improvement started to slow down. Eventually, no matter how much effort you put in, you just didn't seem to get any better.

So you did one of two things:

  • You decided you reached the limit of your potential and you quit, or
  • You decided that maybe you hadn't worked hard enough, and you kept digging.

Most of the time, you stop trying to improve because you assume your talent has taken you as far as you can go. You decide you'll never be the Mozart of your field. So you decide "good" is good enough.

And unfortunately, if you keep digging you still don't tend to improve, mainly because doing more of what got you to the level you have reached rarely results in further improvement. Think of that as my Modified Einsteinian Definition of Insanity: Doing (more and more and more) of the same thing, over and over and over again, and expecting different results.

Eventually, we all reach the point where the problem is no longer sheer effort; the problem is how we apply that effort.

Say you're trying to improve a physical skill. Over time, your skills become automatic. Automatic is a good thing, because it means you've internalized a skill. But automatic is also a bad thing, because anything automatic is hard to adjust. The key to improvement is to find ways to adapt or modify what you already do well so you can do that even better.

We learn best from making mistakes. To improve, find ways to make mistakes:

  1. Slow down. Forcing yourself to go slower breaks habits, and is a perfect way to uncover adaptations that weren't apparent at normal speed.
  2. Speed up. Go much faster than normal. Sure, you'll screw up, but in the process you'll disrupt old habits, adapt to new conditions, and find ways to improve.
  3. Break a complex task into smaller parts. Almost every task includes discrete steps. Pick one, deconstruct it, master it...then put the whole task back together. Then choose another component part.
  4. Measure differently. Pick a different measurement than you normally use to analyze performance. Measure speed instead of accuracy, for example, or use video or audio. (A friend taped four initial meetings with prospective customers and identified several bad habits he was unaware of. Watching yourself isn't particularly fun, but it's definitely objective.)

The cliché "perfect practice makes perfect" is accurate, because each time we practice with perfection as the goal we perform a task as well as we possibly can. When we try to do our best, every mistake is obvious--and then we can learn from those mistakes, adapting and modifying our techniques so we constantly, even if only incrementally, improve.

That's where talent and effort intersect. Skill, like talent, isn't an end result. Skill is a process.

Take Mozart. Everyone knows the "musical prodigy Mozart," composing and performing by the age of six. Less well known is the Mozart who put in thousands and thousands of hours of focused practice starting at the age of three. His genius lay not just in talent but also in effort. Talent took him far; hard work and focused practice (and a stage father) took him a lot further.

Here's a business example, one that illustrates the point in an unusual way. A friend of mine runs an excavating business. He spends a lot of time on a backhoe. Speed and efficiency are critical in his business because he's paid by the job. The longer it takes to dig footers for a new building, for example, the less money he makes. He's constantly trying new techniques and experimenting in unusual conditions like muddy or frozen ground or different types of soil. He approaches excavation like it's an Olympic sport--and he's gotten darned good at it.

Whatever you do, you can do better. It doesn't matter if it's a physical task, or making sales calls, or managing employees, or conducting interviews. Any task can be performed better and more efficiently. To improve, don't make the mistake of simply working harder. Shake things up. Reinvent a skill that has, over time, become automatic--but not perfect.

If you do, the results will be messy and frustrating at first, but with the right kind of effort, your skills will improve.

And then you won't have to regret not having worked harder to improve your knowledge, your skill, and your experience...which, if you think about it, is what education is all about.

And then you can also have your own Mozart moment.