What if we knew now what our biggest regrets would be and had the chance to avoid them?
In a way, we do.
In a recent interview with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, Jeff Bezos had the following to say about regrets:
"When you think about the things that you will regret when you're 80, they're almost always the things that you did not do. They're acts of omission. Very rarely are you going to regret something that you did that failed and didn't work or whatever."
His words remind me of an article written by a nurse who spent her life working with older, terminally ill patients--people who kept lists of their most glaring regrets. Over the years, she found the most common were:
- I wish I hadn't worried so much.
- I wish I had focused on being happier.
- I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
- I wish I had lived the life I wanted to live.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with friends and family.
In the short term, people tend to regret things they've done. But deep, long-term regrets often come from things we wanted to do but didn't.
"I wish I hadn't worked so hard" is a regret that resonates with many of us. Why? Because when we are working long, hard hours, we are often giving up time and energy we might have spent doing something more personally valuable.
It's easy to get caught up in the idea that working hard now will make it possible to focus on being happy later--but that's not always true, as the terminally ill patients discovered. And the fact is, we can do what we really want to do now. We just need to approach things from a different perspective.
Integrate, don't defer your happiness.
One of the most impactful books I've read in the past 10 years is Tim Ferris's The 4-Hour Work Week. In it, Tim debunks the typical "life deferment" plan in which people save money for many years doing work they really don't enjoy while waiting to retire and finally "enjoy life."
The problem with this plan is that none of us knows how long we'll live or how healthy we'll be in our later years. We may be working for a reward we'll never get, rather than finding what happiness we can along the way--which is, of course, the better way of going about this game called life.
It really is about the journey, not the destination.
The key lesson from the Bezos interview, the wise hospice patients, and books like The 4-Hour Work Week is this: Live life so that you don't regret the things you could have done.
Recently, I've begun implementing this philosophy in my own life. I've been saying yes to more things I've always wanted to do, and I've been taking advantage of the health and vitality of my friends and family. I took a sabbatical in Australia. I went to the Super Bowl on a whim. I took a chance and began building a global company. So far, I have had some disappointments, failures, and mistakes, but no regrets.
If you're still not convinced, consider this: Before starting Amazon, a mentor tried to persuade Jeff Bezos that starting an internet retail company was too big of a risk to take when he had a great Wall Street job. Jeff decided not to follow this advice, but if he had, I imagine it would have been weighing on his mind at age 80.