Don’t do something you might regret

Regret is the worst emotion to base your decisions on. Regret is negative reinforcement. It is self-loathing and destructive.

Why do we often parrot the advice of “Don’t do something you might regret?” On the surface, it seems a message made to encourage caution, but it could be structured without the worry and pessimism.

Why not: “Do something you’ll be proud of.”

Or “Do something you would respect someone else for doing.” This places emphasis on allowing your values to drive your choices, rather than letting anxiety control your actions.

It is impossible to completely avoid regret—whether it comes through criticism, personal disappointment, or an undesirable outcome, the potential for regret is the cost of entry for progress.

Why not make decisions based on being the kind of person you want to be, and on the kind of impact you want to have—if regret comes, you needn’t worry whether or not you did the “right” thing, you’ll know the outcome was simply the result of things not turning out like you expected.

In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall.

―Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

It could be said that trying to avoid regret is a way we internalize “looking at the wall”—becoming so focused on avoidance that we end up hitting it head on in another way: by having regrets about the things we didn’t do.

And those are often the worst regrets of all.

Chasing Meaning vs. Avoiding Discomfort

Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal gave an interesting talk last year that became one of TED’s most viewed videos of all time.

She highlights that the stress that follows uncertainty (and risk) isn’t always something we should avoid, as long as the effort is bringing meaning to our lives.

The research she covered showed that those who experienced an ample amount of stress had an increased risk of dying, but only when they personally believed that stress was having a profoundly negative impact on their health. Strangely, those who had the lowest risk of death were the subjects with lots of stress, but who did not view the stress as harmful—their risk was even lower than those subjects with low-stress.

Do you think people who are able to handle stress well live their lives around “avoiding regret,” or by trying to do things they’ll be proud of?

Perhaps the stress for these subjects was coming from activities that also brought a lot of meaning to their lives; where, despite the hassles, they “wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The only time “Don’t do something you might regret” is relevant advice is when you are addressing stupidity, like if a friend thinks it would be funny to stick their hand in a snapping turtle’s terrarium (looking at you, Steve).

But how you view the potential for regret, stress, and uncertainty matters when it comes to decisions that are somewhat risky, but not stupid.

Starting a business is risky, but it is not stupid. Taking six months to publish your own book is risky, but it is not stupid. Quitting your current job to pursue a better career is risky, but it is not stupid.

All of those decisions could end with poor outcomes—but in order to make your life better, sometimes you have to risk making it worse. Strategic risk-taking makes all the difference.

This is the crux of why I believe the phrase “Don’t do something you might regret” can poison one’s thinking, if you aren’t careful.

It gives the presence of stress and the potential for regret too much importance, making assumptions that the hassle to follow nearly always outweighs the good that could come from doing something meaningful.

Be cautious with how you use it.

Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to handle what follows.

—Dr. Kelly McGonigal