Book summary: The Power of Regret by Daniel Pink

“The purpose of this book is to reclaim regret as an indispensable emotion—and to show you how to use its many strengths to make better decisions, perform better at work and school, and bring greater meaning to your life.” – Page 13

Do you want some tips to help you make better decisions, boost performance, and deepen meaning in life? Does the worry of regret sometimes immobilize you? Recently my daughter has been attempting to clean out her closet, but—fearing that she will throw away something that someday she will want and regret it—this two-hour job has lasted four days!

Regret has been a largely misunderstood emotion until now. However, in his latest bestseller, Daniel Pink has uncovered the transformative power of regret. 

For decades, Dan has been creating indispensable advice for living our best lives. His latest effort led him to conduct a World Regret Survey – collecting regrets from over 16,000 people in 105 countries. What did he discover? And more importantly, how can this help you? 

Reading this book will give you a new understanding of the benefits of our most misunderstood emotion, a set of techniques for thriving in a complicated world, an understanding of what makes you tick, and a deeper sense of what makes life worth living.

Idea #1: Regret makes us better

“Regret makes me human. Regret makes me better. Regret gives me hope.” – Page 211

Daniel’s research discovered that regret is not something to fear or repress. Rather, we should welcome, embrace, and learn from it. There are three benefits to doing this. The act of contemplating your regret results in your ability to: 

1) Improve decisions – It widens the possibilities of what you can do better next time. We consider more options, take more time to decide, step more carefully, and are less likely to make mistakes.

2) Boost performance – Regret deepens persistence, which almost always elevates performance.

3) Deepen meaning – Research shows that when people consider counterfactual alternatives to life events, they experience a deeper sense of purpose than when they simply recount the facts of those events. 

He suggests a life review focused on regrets can prompt us to revise our life goals and aim to live life with fresh energy.

Idea #2: Regret Revealed

“On the surface, their regrets poke through different patches of life’s landscape. Below the surface, they grow from common roots.” – Page 73

By understanding what people regret most, we gain insight into what is most valuable to us. They can become a compass, guiding us to live with greater wisdom, joy, and meaning. 

Most academic research on regret has categorized regret into the various domains of life: work, family, health, relationships, finance, etc. But Daniel found a deep structure of regret that transcends these domains. Nearly all regrets fall into one of four core categories: 

1) Foundation Regrets – These result from the failures of foresight and conscientiousness. This comes from overvaluing the present and failing to build a solid foundation for our future. For example, spending too much and saving too little, or drinking too much at the expense of exercise. The solution? Think ahead. Do the work. Start now to build your infrastructure of educational, financial, and physical well-being that reduces psychological uncertainty and opens time and energy to pursue opportunity and meaning.

2) Boldness Regrets – These arise from a choice to play it safe and stay comfortable in the moment. They leave us wondering what could have been. For example, we want to ask for her number, but we don’t, we want to speak up but remain silent, or we want to travel but don’t plan a trip. The human need here is growth—to expand as a person, to enjoy the richness of the world, to experience more than an ordinary life. The solution? Speak up. Ask her out. Take the trip.

3) Moral Regrets – These regrets come from wishing you did the right thing. For example, the inaction of not standing up for someone being bullied, being disloyal to someone, or dishonoring your parents. The need here is goodness. The solution? When in doubt, do the right thing. 

4) Connection Regrets – These regrets come from wishing you had reached out. Some of these regrets are closed doors (the person has passed) while others are open doors (the opportunity to connect remains). The barrier to fixing this regret is awkwardness. The need here is love. The solution? Do better next time. Place the call. Say what you feel. Push past the awkwardness and reach out.

Idea #3: What to do with regret

“When we handle it properly, regret can make us better. Understanding its effects hones our decisions, boosts our performance, and bestows a deeper sense of meaning. The problem, though, is that we often don’t handle it properly.” – Page 51

We all have regrets. Now how should we handle them? Daniel suggests a three-step process:

1) Disclosure – An enormous body of literature makes it clear that disclosing our thoughts, feelings, and actions—by telling others or even capturing them in writing—brings an array of physical, mental, and professional benefits.

2) Compassion – Research shows that we are harsher on our own mistakes than we are on others. By normalizing our mistakes as simply part of the human experience, we also neutralize them. Being self-compassionate is worth learning to do since the benefits are considerable.

3) Distance – Examine the regret without shame or rancor and try to extract a lesson to guide future behavior. Try assessing your own situation as you would if it was happening to someone else. Then, try looking at regret through the binoculars of the future. And finally, try looking at regret using third person pronouns. 

Closing

I hope this summary inspired you to read the whole book. I especially enjoyed the quotes from survey respondents sprinkled throughout. For me, reading this book turned regret from something I feared to something I can learn from. It is another growth opportunity! It will help guide my decisions to live my best life. Daniel did it again—helping me be better and do better.

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