What Can Our Regrets Teach Us?

Calm, sunrise, man walking

Over the years, I have talked to many friends and colleagues about regrets. “I should have pursued that partnership earlier”, “I should not have worked so hard and missed some special moments with my children”, “I should have saved more”, etc.

We all have regrets, but there is a silver lining that can help us plan.

I am sure that we have all noticed that high-performers and motivated people are often both self-critical and critical of those around them. Why is this? Is it because they feel that others have not done what they ought to i.e., a regret over taking the wrong action? Or is it because they have not lived up to their ideals and high-performance standards of themselves and others? i.e., a regret of inaction?

There is a silver lining in noticing our regrets. It can help us focus on important lessons learned, new relationships formed, and new doors opened.

We will all be different people in 10 years time than we are today. We can’t turn the clock, but we can reflect on what we should have done and what we didn’t do to think about how we would like to live in the future.

In the excellent book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, Bronnie Ware, a woman that provided palliative care to the dying, lists the following regrets as being the most common for those at end of life:

1.    I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2.    I wish I hadn’t worked as hard.

3.    I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4.    I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.

5.    I wish I had let myself be happier.

A couple of key themes come through in these regrets; (1) regrets around inaction such not being or expressing our true self (e.g. I wish I let myself be happier) and (2) regrets around misusing our time (e.g. I worked too hard).

You may note that regrets relating specifically to becoming wealthier are absent on this list. Could this be because money alone does not bring joy?

Some people have the misconception that financial planning is advice to help people become wealthier. While this is a goal for some people, most of the work that I do focuses on using financial knowledge to help people achieve their goals. i.e., live their life to the fullest and spend their time the way they want to.

Another interesting insight into regret was shared by Neal Roese and Amy Summerville in their 2005 article ‘What we regret most… and why’. In the article, they discussed how opportunity is a key driver behind what people regret. People are more likely to regret actions or inactions where there is still an opportunity to change.

For example, it’s never too late to learn something new, call a friend, or express your feelings.

It is here that we find our silver lining. While some regrets are in the past and cannot be changed, many of the regrets people have, relate to areas where there is still opportunity. I am sure you will find these regrets and insights thought-provoking, and I trust they will stimulate you to take some time to think about where you are now. What regrets do you have, and how can you use them to move forward and start designing your ideal future life?

Andrew Nuttall is a Financial Adviser with Cambridge Partners, a fee-only advisory firm based in Christchurch. Disclosure statements are available on-demand and free of charge. Telephone (03) 364 9119, www.cambridgepartners.co.nz

Andrew Nuttall

In addition to a keen interest in investments, Andrew is passionate about the holistic side of planning and developing strategies that guide clients towards achieving their life and financial goals.

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