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TED@AllianzGI Video | November 2011

Kathryn Schulz: Don't regret regret


At the TED@AllianzGI conference at the Time Warner Center in New York author and journalist Kathryn Schulz talks about a very personal subject related to regret: her own tattoo. She discusses how we wind up making regrettable decisions in the first place and how we can think we know ourselves so thoroughly, yet nonetheless make decisions we come to regret. She talks the audience through “the arc of regret” and makes a powerful case for embracing regret.

Kathryn Schulz: Don't regret regret


TED – Ideas Worth Spreading

Kathryn Schulz:
That is Johnny Depp of course. And that is Johnny Depp’s shoulder. And that is Johnny Depp’s famous shoulder tattoo. Some of you might know that in 1990 Depp got engaged to Winona Rider and he had tattooed on his right shoulder Winona forever. And then 3 years later, which in fairness is forever in Hollywood standards they broke-up. And Johnny went and had a bit of repair work done and now his shoulder says Wino forever.

So, like Johnny Depp and like 25% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 50, I have a tattoo. I first started thinking getting it in my mid-twenties but I deliberately waited a long time, because we all know people, who have gotten tattoos when they were 17 or 19 or 23 and regretted it by the time they were 30. That didn’t happen to me. I got my tattoo when I was 29 and I regretted it instantly. And by regretted it, I mean that I stepped outside of the tattoo place, this is just a couple of miles from here on the Lower East Side and I had a massive emotional meltdown in broad daylight on the corner of East Broadway and Canal Street, which is a great place to do it because nobody cares. And then I went home that night and I had an even larger emotional meltdown, which I say more about in a minute. And this was all actually quite shocking to me, because prior to this moment I have prided myself on having absolutely no regrets.

Now, I made a lot of mistakes and dumb decisions , of course I do that hourly, but I had always felt like look, you know I mean I made the best choice I could make giving, who I was then and given the information I had on hand, I learned a lesson from it, it somehow got me to where I am in life right now, ok I would not change it. In other words I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time. You should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we could do is strive to live a life free of regrets. This idea is nicely captured by this quote: ‘Things without all remedy should be without regard’ - what’s done is done. This is like an admirable philosophy at first, something we may all agree to sign-on to. Until I tell you who said it. Lady Macbeth. So this is Lady Macbeth basically telling her husband to stop being such a wuss for feeling bad about murdering people. And as it happens Shakespeare was on to something here, as he generally was, because the inability to experience regrets is actually one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. It’s also, by the way, characteristics of certain types of brain damage so people who have damage to their orbitofrontal cortex seem to be unable to feel regret in the face of even obviously really poor decisions. So, if in fact, you want to live a life free of regret there is an option open to you, it’s called Lobotomy. But if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane I think you need to learn to live not without regret but with it. So let start by defining some terms.

What is regret? Regret is the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier, if we had done something different in the past. So in other words, regret requires two things: it requires first of all agency , we had to make a decision in the first place, and second of all it requires imagination. We need to be able to imagine going back and make a different choice and then we would need to be able to spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how things would be playing out in our present. And in fact, the more we have from either of these things, the more agency and the more imagination with respect to a given regret the more acute that regret will be.

So let’s say for instance that you are on your way to your friend’s wedding, and you are trying to get to the airport and you are stuck in terrible traffic, and you finally arrive at your gate and you have missed your flight. You are going to experience more regret in that situation if you missed your flight by three minutes than if you missed it by 20. Why? Well because if you missed your flight by three minutes it is painfully easy to imagine that you could have made different decisions that could have led to a different outcome. I should have taken the bridge and not the tunnel , I should have gone through that yellow light. These are the classic conditions that create regret. We feel regret when we think we are responsible for a decision that came out badly but almost came out well.

Now within that framework we can obviously experience regret about a lot of different things, this session today is about Behavioral Economics and most of what we know about regret comes to us out of that domain. We have a vast body of literature on consumer and financial decisions and the regrets associated with them, buyer’s remorse basically. But then finally it occurred to some researchers to step back and say overall, what do we regret most in life? Here is what the answers turn out to look like. So top 6 regrets, the things we regret most in life, number 1 by far Education, 33% of all of our regrets pertain to decisions we made about education. We wish we had gotten more of it; we wish we had taken better advantage of the education we did have; we wish we had chosen to study a different topic.

Other very high in our list of regrets include Career, Romance, Parenting, various decisions and choices about our sense of self and how we spend our leisure time. Or actually more specifically about how we fail to spend our leisure time. The remaining regrets pertain to these things, Finance, Family Issues unrelated to Romance and Parenting, Health, Friends, Spirituality and Community. So in other words, we know most of what we know about regret from the study of Finance but it turns out if you look overall about what people regret in life, our Financial Decisions don’t even rank. They account for less that 3% of our total regrets. So if you are sitting here stressing about large cap versus small cap or company A versus company B or should you by the Subaru or the Prius, you know what, let it go. You are not going to care in five years.

But for these things we do actually really care about and we do experience profound regret around, what does that experience feel like? We all know the short answer, right? It feels terrible, regret feels awful . But it turns out that regret feels awful in four very specific and consistent ways. So the first consistent component of regret is basically denial. When I went home that night after getting my tattoo, I basically stayed-up all night and for the first several hours there was exactly one thought in my head and that thought was make it go away. This is an unbelievably primitive emotional response. I mean it is right up there with ‘I want my mummy’. We are not trying to solve the problem, we are not trying to understand how the problem came about we just want it to vanish.

The 2nd characteristic component of regret is a sense of bewilderment. The other thing I thought about in my bedroom that night was how could I have done that what was I thinking? This real sense of alienation from the part of us that made the decision we regret. We can’t identify with that part, we can’t understand that part. And we certainly don’t have any empathy with that part which explains the 3rd component of regret which is an intense desire to punish ourselves. That’s why in the face of regret the thing we consistently say is I could have kicked myself.

The 4th component here is that regret is what psychologist call perseverative. To perseverate means to focus obsessively and repeatedly on the exact same thing. The effect of perseveration is to basically take these first three components of regret and put them on an infinite loop. It is not that I sat there in my bedroom thinking make it go away, it’s that I sat there and I thought make it go away, make it go away, make it go away, make it go away…So if you look at the psychological literature, these are the four consistent defining components of regret but I want to suggest that there is also a 5th one, and I think of this as a kind of existential wake-up call.

That night in my apartment, after I got done kicking myself and so forth, I laid in bed for a long time and I thought about skin grafts. And then I thought about how much as travel insurance doesn’t cover acts of god, probably my health insurance doesn’t cover acts of idiocy. And point of fact is that no insurance policy cover acts of idiocy, the whole point of acts of idiocy is that they leave you completely uninsured; they leave you exposed to the world and exposed to your own vulnerability and fallibility in face of frankly a fairly indifferent universe. This is obviously an incredibly painful experience. And I think it is particularly painful for us now in the West in the grips of what I sometimes think of the control z culture, control z like the computer command, undo. We are incredibly used to not having to face life’s hard reality in a certain sense, we think we can throw money on the problem, or throw technology at the problem, and we tend to undo or unfriend or un-follow and the problem is that there are certain things that happen in life that we desperately want to change and we cannot. Sometime instead of control z we actually have zero control. And for those of us who are control freaks, and perfectionist, and I know where I speak this is really hard, because we want to do everything ourselves and we want to do it right. Now there is a case to be made that control freaks and perfectionists should not get tattoos and I am going to return to that point in a few minutes, but first I want to say that the intensity and the persistence with which we experience these emotional components of regret is obviously getting very dependent on the specific thing we are feeling regret about.

So, for an instance, here is one of my favorite automatic generators of regret in modern life: ‘Reply to all’. And the amusing thing about this really insidious technological innovation is that even just with this one thing we can experience huge range of regrets. You know you can accidentally hit ‘Reply all’ to an email and torpedo a relationship. Or you can just have an incredibly embarrassing day at work. Or you can have your last day at work. And this does not even touch on the really profound regrets of life. Because sometimes we do make decisions that irrevocable and terrible consequences either for our own or for other people’s health and happiness and livelihoods and in the very worst case scenario even their lives. Now obviously those kind of regrets are incredibly piercing and enduring, I mean even the stupid ‘Reply all’ regrets can leave us in the fit of excruciating agony for days.

So how are we supposed to live with this? I want to suggest that there are three things that help us make peace with regret and the first of these is to take some comfort with its universality. If you google regret and tattoo, you look at 11.5 million hits. The FDA estimates for all the Americans who have tattoos, 17% of us regret getting them. That is Johnny Depp and me and our 7 million friends. And that is just regret about tattoos. We are all in this together.

The 2nd way that we can help make our peace with regret is to laugh at ourselves. In my case this really wasn’t a problem because it is actually easy to laugh at yourself when you are 29 years old and you want your mummy because you don’t like your new tattoo. But it might seem like a kind of cruel or glib suggestion when it comes to these more profound regrets. I don’t think that is the case though. All of us who’ve experienced regrets that contains real pain and real grief understand that humor and even black humor plays a crucial role in helping us survive. It connect the poles of our lives back together, the positive and the negative and it sends a little current of live back to us.

The 3rd way that I think we could help make our peace with regret is through the passage of time which we know heals all wounds except for tattoos which are permanent, so it’s been several years since I got my own tattoo and – do you guys want to see it? Actually I should warn you, you are going to be disappointed because it is actually not that hideous, it is not Marilyn Manson’s face on some indiscreet parts of myself or something,. When other people see my tattoo for the most part they like how it looks. It is just that I don’t like how it looks. And as I said earlier, I am a perfectionist. But I will let you see it anyway.

This is my tattoo. I can guess what some of you are thinking. So let me reassure you about something. Some of your own regrets are also not as ugly as you think they are. I got this tattoo, because I spent most of my twenties living outside of the country and traveling and when I came and settled in New York afterwards I was worried that I would forget some of the most important lessons that I learned during that time, specifically the two things that I learned about myself that I most didn’t want to forget was how important it felt to keep exploring and simultaneously how important it is to somehow keep an eye on your own true north. And what I loved about this image of the compass was that I felt it would encapsulated both of these ideas in one simple image. And I thought it might serve as a kind of permanent nomadic one device. Well it did. But it turns out it doesn’t remind me of the things I thought it would. It reminds me constantly of something else instead. It actually reminds me of the most important lesson regret can teach us, which is also one of the most important lessons life teaches us and, ironically, I think it is probably the single most important thing I possibly could have tattooed on my body, partly as a writer but also just as a human being. Here is the thing, if we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best and if we love people and we don’t want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong.

The point isn’t to live without any regrets, the point is to not hate ourselves for having them. The lesson that I ultimately learned from my tattoo and I want to leave you with today is this, we need to learn to love the flawed imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly, it reminds us that we know we could do better.

Thank you.
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