March 13, 2022

The Power of Regret by Dan Pink: why regret is not a dirty word

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About the book

“No regrets.” You’ve heard people proclaim it as a philosophy of life. That’s nonsense, even dangerous, says Daniel H. Pink in his latest bold and inspiring work. Everybody has regrets. They’re a fundamental part of our lives. And if we reckon with them in fresh and imaginative ways, we can enlist our regrets to make smarter decisions, perform better at work and school, and deepen our sense of meaning and purpose.

In The Power of Regret, Pink draws on research in psychology, neuroscience, economics, and biology to challenge widely-held assumptions about emotions and behavior. Using the largest sampling of American attitudes about regret ever conducted as well as his own World Regret Survey — which has collected regrets from more than 16,000 people in 105 countries — he identifies the four core regrets that most people have. These four regrets, Pink argues, operate as a “photographic negative” of the good life. By understanding what people regret the most, we can understand what they value the most. And by following the simple, science-based, three-step process that he sets out, we can transform our regrets in a positive force for working smarter and living better.

With Pink’s signature blend of big ideas and practical takeaways, captivating stories and crisp humor, The Power of Regret offers an urgent and indispensable guide for a life well lived.



About the author

Daniel H. Pink is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including his latest, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, published in February. His other books include the New York Times bestsellers Whenand A Whole New Mind— as well as the #1 New York Timesbestsellers DriveandTo Sell is Human. Dan’s books have won multiple awards, have been translated into 42 languages, and have sold millions of copies around the world. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family.



Big idea #1 — Regret is not a dirty word

Regret can actually be healthy. Over 70 years of research has concluded two things; that regret makes us human, and regret makes us better.

It makes us human because it engages this uniquely human ability that we have to time travel in our minds; forward into a hypothetical future to look at our lives if we took one decision versus another decision, backwards to think about what decision we should make now, and then forwards again into a different path or an alternate reality, to compare that to our current future or an alternative future.

Regret is especially painful as well as an emotion, because we can mostly blame it on our own decisions and actions or inactions. It is also a very common feeling, and one that is highly valued.

It makes us better by;

  • sharpening our decision-making skills (we need to feel a little bit bad in order to not to repeat those particular decisions or actions that we took or didn’t take)
  • elevating our performance (it can deepen persistence by imagining ourselves winning that gold medal / aceing the test / getting the job that we’re about to go into an interview for)
  • strengthening meaning and connection (by reminding us what is important, what we don’t want to do, what we do want to do, how we want to live, how we don’t want to live).

Obviously we don’t want our regrets to overwhelm us. There’s a quote in the book that says, we want regrets to “poke us, not smother us”.

Big idea #2 — The four types of regret

In the regret surveys that Dan created, adults shared their regrets and were asked to categorise them into eight domains. Those eight domains were family, partners, education, career, finance, other, health, and friends.

And they were in that order. So the most regrets were in the family domain, and the least regrets were categorised in friends domain. But when they looked at the data, they realised that they were looking at the categorisation or those domains all wrong, there was actually a different theming of the regrets that could be established.

Those four types of regrets are;

  1. Foundational — a failure to be a responsible conscientious person or prudent. And most of the regrets here come into those financial educational and health domains. Often it’s a lack of the right decisions around what’s best for you in the future, or taking care of yourself now in order to be in a better place in the future period of time.
  2. Boldness — most of these come from inaction forgone opportunities. We’re more likely to, and the fact that we’re more likely to regret what we didn’t do, so a boldness regret is a lack of boldness in the past.
  3. Moral — taking the low road, which normally involves cheating, lying, deceiving, something bad in that. 
  4. Connection — fractured or unrealised relationships with each other. The other term for this, this was rifts and drifts. So did you have a rift with someone; an argument or a falling out that was never really resolved, or did you just drift apart and you regret that and you feel guilty about not keeping in touch. Those come up later in life where maybe someone gets sick or passes away and you regret not staying in touch with them.

These underpin all of the domains, meaning it’s not the domain that regrets fall into that distinguish them, but the type of regret, or the reason that someone regretted the thing.

Other researchers that Dan spoke to said on boldness regrets that “regrettable failures to act have a longer half-life than regrettable actions”. Inaction is so much more painful for people, and throughout the book you can see this sentiment littered within the verbatim responses that people sent as part of the surveys.

Regrettable failures to act have a longer half-life than regrettable actions

It’s incredibly painful reading, you could almost read all the regrets and go away with a renewed sense of purpose and resolve to not let these things happen in your life.

Big idea #3 — Avoiding and fixing regrets

To avoid regrets we can learn from the ones we’ve already got, take different decisions and pathways in order to avoid doing those things again in the future. For regret we already have, we can do a few things to stop them smothering us.

Firstly we can undo it; maybe that’s apologising, or maybe it’s taking action and behaving in a way that will undo, improve, or fix what you did or didn’t do in the past.

Secondly we can ‘at least’ it; taking something from a regret to a relief or from an ‘if only’ to an ‘at least’.

Eg. Dan shares this example about his regret of going to law school, which wasn’t something he wanted to do. Rather than…

  • If only I hadn’t gone to law school, try
  • At least I met my wife there

This is good for the pesky stuff that niggles away at us. It’s a bit of gratitude and is more about changing the mindset around a particular regret.

This works for certain types of regrets, but you might have bigger ones or ones that are created by inaction, which can be harder to undo. The three steps to try here are;

  1. Relive and relieve: disclosing the regret (to yourself or someone else)
  2. Normalise and neutralise: practicing self-compassion, thinking how you would speak to a friend in the same situation who came to you for advice.
  3. Analyse and strategise: creating distance between yourself and the regret by looking at it in the third person (eg Steph didn’t do X, rather than I didn’t do X)



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