Problem: it can go by many names and many causes but what this post is really about is the feeling of regret, endless what if's, or holding on to what we've already "sunk" into our current careers or businesses and even though we haven't been feeling fulfilled in it, potentially for quite some time.
Plenty of people have this challenge in their lives, wondering "what could I have done if I wasn't doing this?" "Why didn't I take this other opportunity oh so long ago?" and on and on. Some people feel as though they could have been more successful if they'd only done something different with their lives. There are several issues wrapped up here and I'll try to pull some of them out and talk about what can be done about them.
First is this feeling of regret. While you may be regretting a missed choice that could have been, what is often happening as well is what's called Anticipated Regret. You always have the option(s) to do something different here and now. A fixation on the past regret could also be hiding anticipated regret of making a change and believing that it may not feel as good as or better than your current situation or that past missed opportunity.
Second is the concept of sunk cost. Economists have known of this phenomenon for some time but it's essentially believing that if we change something now or opt for an alternative approach, we will have "lost" our investment of time, money, energy, etc. in our current situation. We are trying to avoid loss, which according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleagues, is a feature of our operating system designed to keep us healthy and continuing on a path that "works." However, in modern times, with an abundance of choices and opportunities, it can turn into a bug in our operating system as well. It is a fixation on the past rather than focusing on what can be in the future. Whatever we've invested or paid for already in time, money, energy, etc. is already gone, what is more accurate is what we choose to expend on the future.
Lastly, the what if scenarios. Some of the drawbacks of this strategy are obvious. What if's aren't real and aren't action. While they can help you explore a variety of potential futures or outcomes of decisions, they can overwhelm your cognitive faculties, resulting in unhappiness and indecision. In Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses the effect of creating too many alternative choices and judging them by too many selection criteria. I described this in my post on Being Overwhelmed by the Options. We have diminishing faculties that can be put to bare on assessing a variety of choices and alternatives. We are fatiguing ourselves and generating a down spiraling malaise about what could be.
Potential Solutions (not complete nor guaranteed):
- Avoiding anticipated regret: first, recognize when you are anticipating future regret. Just calling it out can help. Do your best to accept that you feel a certain way but do not hold onto the anticipation. Rather, focus on positive aspects of what could be, and express gratitude for having the opportunities that you do.
- Overcoming Sunk Cost: when assessing past investments of time, energy, money, etc. that are irretrievable, instead ask yourself what you would do in the future with that same amount. Any time you sense yourself with the urge to fulfill or maintain a cost already expended, focus on the future opportunity. This is more of what's known as "cost avoidance", meaning that if you continued down your current path, and sunk even more into it, if you changed course now, you'd be avoiding that further cost. Most people want to avoid losing more money, time, effort! Another trick, which I may talk more about later, is doing simple Opportunity Cost analysis. I wouldn't go too heavy into this as a strategy because it has it's own drawbacks, but the in simple cases (with limited alternatives) the idea is to understand what the "cost" is of NOT taking a different course or seizing an opportunity. Truly grasp this as a potential loss as well and perhaps it can help cancel out the sunk cost effect.
- The variety of choices and "what if's". I spoke about solutions in "Being Overwhelmed by the Options" post but here is another one: Do some "fear setting" vs. what if's scenario's. It's not as if "what if's" are ALL bad but they can be overwhelming and in excess will result in unhappiness and indecision. Fear Setting, as popularized by Tim Ferriss, is a method to explore your "what if's" in the context of the fears about a given set of alternatives/choices/changes in life, understand worse case scenarios, and do some analysis to break yourself of their vice on you taking positive action in your life!