Eliminate regret by becoming process-oriented
Regret. It’s a common human emotion. It transcends gender, race, culture, and socioeconomic class, and is a side-effect of our need to make decisions. Every decision we make and, more broadly, every advancement that humanity works towards, has to contend with three variables:
(1) Available Information
(2) Mental Processing Power
Learning how to apply these three variables to our decision making will help us productively evaluate our decisions in a way that can lead to self-improvement and will ultimately eliminate regret.
Regret is a personal and difficult topic, which is why I want to give you a window into understanding what it means to me.
My story of overcoming regret extends back to the Summer of 2011 when I stood up to my family and stated that I will not go to law school. To realize how monumental this decision was, you need to know, first, that I am the youngest child of highly-educated immigrants and, second, the caption below my 5th grade yearbook picture read “Future: Attorney.” What changed that summer was that I put my undergraduate studies to use and did a financial analysis on my future. The numbers demonstrated that, in 2014, only 37% of starting lawyer salaries were $75,000 or more, and 10% of starting salaries reached $160,000. Additionally, the financial recession had impacted the legal profession since students who would have otherwise started their career pursued law school instead, and therefore saturated the market. These points were crucially important considering that I already had nearly $200K in undergraduate debt, with more debt expected to pile on for law school. That undergraduate debt alone should be enough to stop someone in their tracks! That is why, at 20 years old, I told my family I was going to get a job after graduation instead. The response was contentious! Tensions rose and I started to regret listening to my parents academic advice, questioned why I didn’t ask questions sooner, and stressed over my job prospects.
It wasn’t until I read a classmate’s Facebook post that everything started to come into perspective: “Wish for the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This phrase helped me suppress the feelings of regret, and I was able to evaluate my actions through the following three variables:
(1) Available Information
My parents were doing the best they could with the information they had, and no one knew the recession would happen. There was no forcing function that would have lead me to question the path earlier, and the knowledge that I gained while at Georgetown was not available to me before.
(2) Mental Processing Power
When I was in high school, my priority was getting good grades and supplementing my academics with extracurriculars. The majority of my energy was dedicated to this, and it is unlikely I would have been capable of applying any additional energy elsewhere.
Even when unexpected events occur, like the 2008 financial recession, life will still follow a schedule. My path to law school or starting a career was always bound by a finite length of time — four years of college. Fortunately, I decided to shift course before the time ran out.
Thinking about my academic path in this way helped me realize that the only reason I was capable of having regret was because my available information increased.
Additionally, I understood that regret is pointless since it had nothing to do with my abilities, but rather with the absence of information (i.e., The Great Recession will happen while you’re in school), diminished capacity to evaluate available information due to grueling academic schedule, and time constraint of four years.
As I looked towards the future and the daunting task of finding a job before my first loan payment would come due, it helped to see through the lens of these three variables. By April of my senior year I had three job offers lined up across finance, consulting and consumer goods industries and leveraged the same three variables to decide among them. Even though the consumer goods path was not for me, and I switched to finance three years later, I have never regretted my choice because it was the best decision with the information I had at the time.
The approach works for all types of decisions, including education, career, relationships, financial planning, etc. Let’s explore each variable in more detail so you can learn how to apply it to your own outlook.
Variable 1: Available Information
Key Lesson: Be comfortable knowing that information exists beyond your ability to have access to it. When new information becomes available, it does not mean prior decisions were inaccurate, but rather that the same decision may not be accurate today.
Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Edison, Tesla, Hawkings, Bezos, Musk… these are just a few of the brilliant minds who either redefined general knowledge or opened our minds to realities never considered. They introduced information that was previously unavailable, and doing so inherently meant that some of our prior knowledge was no longer accurate. It is important to notice that I did not refer to prior knowledge as “inaccurate”, but rather as “no longer accurate”. This distinction communicates the point that new information does not mean prior decisions were wrong, but rather that new inputs exist today which could lead to a different outcome.
This is an idea that scientists have mastered through the scientific process, and it is an approach that we can adapt for our own decision making. Scientific process entails that a hypothesis is developed, an experiment takes place, and scientists either “refute” or “fail to refute” the hypothesis. The reason scientists do not “accept” a hypothesis is because they know a new discovery may introduce information that alters the outcome of their experiment. At this point, I realize that the analogy starts to lose steam since, unlike scientific experiments, we can’t rewind our lives and repeat college applications again. However, a relevant overlap does exist since if you want to minimize regrets, the two things to remember are:
1. Turn your decision into a hypothesis that is phrased in terms of what you assume will happen if you take the particular action
2. No decision is 100% right, but rather it is accurate based on the information available at the present time
Variable 2: Mental Processing Power
Key Lesson: Even if you do have perfect access to all available information in the universe, your brain will function like a computer and its ability to effectively process information varies based on numerous factors.
Wherever you are in the world, simply looking at the night sky can remind you that there is infinitely more information available than we will be able to consume in our lifetimes. That is because our brains are like computers and all computers have a maximum efficient processing power. Before you start blaming your brain’s CPUs, remember that the supercomputers which sent Apollo 11 to the moon, a monumental achievement, had less processing power than the phones we carry around in our pockets today, which allow us to get directions while talking on the phone and playing candy crush. Therefore, processing power does not mean anything without an understanding of how it is applied.
That is why productivity should not be measured by how many things you can do simultaneously, but rather by what you actually accomplish. Unfortunately, that view is at odds with many 21st century lifestyles where multi-tasking competing tasks is perceived as a badge of honor. It’s no wonder that 55% of Americans say they experience “a lot of stress” during a day. I believe stress is an outcome of our inability to efficiently process all the inputs and stimuli we need to contend with. When we have trouble prioritizing our mental processing power, then we start to take shortcuts, grasp only as much information as we think we need, and extrapolate the rest. Even though this behavior can often be identified as the root cause of regret, it can be overcome through a combination of awareness and self-evaluation.
Try this technique:
Any time you take a decision, large or small, over the next SEVEN days, stop and ask yourself:
(1) Did I apply as much of my available mental processing power to this task/decision as possible?
(2) Did I prioritize this task/decision appropriately amidst my other considerations?
(3) Is there anything I could have done differently?
Assessing your situation before the environment changes will help you avoid becoming a “Monday morning quarterback.” In the future, you will be able to reflect on your answers to the questions and develop an actionable plan. It may appear like a cumbersome approach at first, but it will quickly become second nature — just like riding a bike.
Variable 3: Time
Key Lesson: Time is a human construct, but everything we do is bound by it. The amount of information that will be available, and the portion that we will be able to process (amidst our other time-sensitive obligations), before we take a decision will be determined by time.
Even in a world where our mental processing power could consume all available information in one hour, time will dictate if one hour falls within the time constraint. Every action is constrained by time which means that every decision comes with a trade-off, and we will never fully know what the alternative path would have resulted in. For a comical reference, anyone who has read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy remembers that the decision to destroy Earth so as to make room for a hyperspatial express route through the Galaxy came just 5 minutes before Earth (actually a supercomputer) was about to finish its 10 million years worth of calculations and provide “the ultimate question to life, the universe and everything.” But unfortunately, neither the humans nor the aliens were aware that earth was a supercomputer, and so they had no idea what they were trading-off in favor of the hyperspatial express route.
Summary & Improving Your Outlook
We make the best decisions we can with the available information our brain is able to process at that time, and the amount of time we have to make a decision.
Over the course of your life, you have made countless decisions based on the available information you had at the time, the mental processing power you allocated to the decision, and the time you had to make a decision. If you approach your decisions with an understanding that the goal is to optimize these variables for the best decision possible, rather than the right decision, then you’re one step closer to eliminating all doubt and regret.
The questions to ask yourself before taking a decision are:
(1) Did I effectively gather as much information as possible in the amount of time I had available?
(2) How much information was I able to evaluate directly vs. extrapolate based on my existing knowledge, beliefs and opinions?
(2a) If I am extrapolating, is the pre-existing information I am referencing appropriate in this situation or will it be deleterious?
(3) During the time period when I had to take a decision, what other considerations did I need to balance?
(4) Did I effectively balance competing tasks so as to apply an appropriate amount of mental capacity to the decision?
The only question to ask after taking a decision is:
(5) How similar or different is the outcome from what I hypothesized would occur?
By assessing your state of mind before you take a decision, then you will be able to learn from the process rather than from the outcome. It might sound cumbersome at first, but I guarantee that it will be easier to think methodically in this way, and over time it will become second nature.
It is an approach I have lived by for the last 8 years, and even though I have taken decisions which have led to outcomes that I did not anticipate, I continue to live without regret because I am aware of how I reach each and every decision.
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