But then again, too few to mention: How To Let Go Of Regrets

This is one of these posts that are more difficult to write than others.

I always thought I don’t have many regrets. I have taught myself to see potential failures of the past as opportunities to learn.

I have learnt to regard the past as illusion and the future as real. And every day is a new beginning!

In her book “The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying“, Bronnie Ware talks about five main points people regret:
1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself.
2. I wish I hadn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

None of these are points I regret, because luckily I was taught by my parents – and later learnt on my own – how to do what I think is right and not what others want me to be.

Since I took care of that one first, I avoided all other regrets.

Or at the very least, it seems easy to me to just become happy about my life, even if I am in a bad mood.

However… let’s put my feet to the fire. Are there actually points in the past I do regret?

It is not enough to just tell ourselves we are happy and then never work on moving towards our dreams and visions.

A good rule of thumb whether we are on the right track comes from Ed Latimore.

How to Let Go Of Regrets Ed Latimore
It took me a while to find this comment – glad I did.

To me, the way we overcome regrets consists of three steps:
1. Be honest and ask ourselves whether we have any regrets.
2. Is there also something positive that we can take away? What do we really regret? Reframe the regret – if possible – as demonstrated in the article about 10 Hard Gratitude Problems.
3. Device practical steps to avoid the mistake in the future.

So without further ado, I will go over 10 regrets that sometimes still come up in my mind, show how I reframe them and what I am actively doing to avoid them in the future.

#1 – That I did not first work in finance and be financially independent now.

This is maybe my biggest regret. Following your passion is great, but if you turn your passion into something you work as an employee for, the fun can evaporate.

What happened?
I was always excited for science and wanted to do nothing more in the whole world.

I knew by age 17 I wanted to be a scientist. I simply trusted that I’d be fine with whatever I eventually earnt.

I was good in science, so I knew I could succeed. And I completely ignored any other job perspective than “academic research”.

What precisely do I regret?
(a) I could have reached out to and stayed in contact with more people with a job based on finances or a job where I could actually produce something. Being a scientist in academia means that eventually not more than a handful of people understand what you are doing.

(b) I could be financially independent now and then start doing science as a hobby, as a real passion.

How can I let go of this regret?
By really thinking about the alternative universe in which I would have been working in finance.

Instead of studying biochemistry and doing my PhD in Germany, followed by postdoctoral stints in Princeton and New York City, I would have worked in a bank or insurance agency. I would: (1.) not have met one of my best friends during university; (2.) not been in the US; (3.) have been richer.

I would not have enjoyed my riches, however, because I would have had the larger regret of not following my heart. I would have forever wondered what could have been. With 40 years, I would have almost certainly not have easy access to the same labs I had when I was 25… while I can still learn to do a sales job now, if I want.

If at all, I could have decided to be a bit more proactive and finished my postdoc faster and then chose a career in industry at an earlier point. I underestimated the importance that financial independence would have for my life.

And this sounds like something I can still put into practise. If people that start at age 20 in finance become well off by age 30, I can do that with age 40 and be well off by 50.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
Always make sure that we earn enough money to pursue our dreams. If necessary, withstand the temptation to working on our passions now, if they will not be financially lucrative.
To avoid taking a job in finance and losing sight of our passion, keep them as a side project that we can later do full-time once we have financial security.

#2 – Not having a family (yet)

There wasn’t just the right opportunity yet.

What happened?
Back in 2009, I had almost married my then girlfriend. We were in the process of putting the guest list for the marriage ceremony together. Luckily (in hindsight), our relationship fell apart because of personal differences. Those only surfaced once we confronted the possibility of actually staying together.

What precisely do I regret?
I could have had a family and two or three kids by now.

How can I let go of that regret?
By realizing that it was the right decision.

Emotionally, in the moment back then? It was hard. Long-term outlook? Much better this way. The only reason to agree to go through with my marriage would have been out of scarcity. Out of the thought I would not have been able to date any other girl.

And that is a bad position to start a family. How could I even think about having a marriage based on settling?

How could I have been a strong role model for my kids when I didn’t think high of myself to begin with?

So thinking about that – it is easy to let go.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
To always make sure the partner we are dating gets to see all sides of our personality early on.

And make sure the decision to marry is made out of abundance, not out of the thought that we may not get another opportunity.

#3 – That I haven’t deepened the connection to one of my mentors as much as I could

What happened?
One of the supervisors I worked under I did not get along too well with. As a result, we separated on good terms, but these terms could have been better.

What precisely do I regret?
I feel that it was my responsibility to deepen the relationship, and I missed this opportunity. Why? Because I let my emotions get the best of me and “pouted”. I gave up investing energy into the relationship.

How can I let go of that regret?
By realizing relationships – personal or professional – are always a two-way street. There is no point to think I alone am responsible.
The good part is that we still separated on good terms.
The part I’d like to improve is that I just let things deteriorate because I did not feel appreciated.

What can we do to avoid that such regrets in the future?
If we ever feel a relationship is in potential trouble, we should make an assessment: does it benefit us on the long run to salvage the relationship, or will it deteriorate further?

If the latter, we should gracefully plan our exit as soon as possible.

If it is worth saving, we should seek an honest discussion with the supervisor or mentor and then formulate a game plan together that lets us move forward while addressing the fundamental causes that led to the problem.

#4 – That I did not change my career path earlier.

What happened?
After my first postdoctoral position in Princeton, I decided to change my field of study from Drosophila to zebrafish – but not from academia into industry.

What precisely do I regret?
I misinterpreted my own ambition.

My impression was that doing research using Drosophila as a model organism had led me into a dead-end, so I switched to zebrafish.

I did not realize that I was not so much discontent with the field of study rather than the economic possibilities of academic research.

How can I let go of that regret?
By imagining myself in the same situation back in 2008 again.

I enthusiastically switched to zebrafish and literally kicked the “economic can” down the road.

With the mindset I had at that time, there was no way I would join industry. After all, if I had made a group leader position at a big university, I’d earn $120K/year!

So I was determined to go the academic route because there was a remote possibility that I would still make a decent salary.

So the good part of my decision was that I felt emotionally fulfilled.

The part that needs improvement is my callous disregard for economic realities.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
I think my example is not all that different from modern academia in general. I am not the only one doing two post docs.

And if we invest 10+ years of our lives being in the mindset of a student – both PhD and Postdoc time identify more as learning than working – the sunk cost fallacy prevents us from making a sound economic decision. I imagine this being similar to holding on to a losing stock.

Two ways.
(a) Diversify your income. Take a freelancer job on the side. Drive for Uber – here is an example of a physics engineer who did that – rent out a room on AirBNB, write freelance articles or reviews etc. That way, we can more easily separate ourselves from our primary job or investment when its value for us continues to decline.

(b) Think about your ideal day in the future and then develop a vision. Then, based on that vision, determine the amount of money you need. For example, if you want to drive a sports car in 10 years, you can calculate how much money you’d actually need to make it happen, then see whether the job you have now will get you there or whether you should change.

#5 – That I haven’t acted faster on publishing my latest research paper.

What happened?
We discovered the major element in the last project I was working on in the beginning of 2012. The publication took additional three years.

What precisely do I regret?
We should have streamlined the publication ahead rather than exploring different ideas, which slowed us down.

We might have been able to publish the paper in a great journal, had we been faster; instead, due to eventually upcoming competition, we had to settle for a ‘good’ journal.

How can I let go of that regret?
First of all, I learnt a lesson that I will not forget so easily – sometimes it is better to move something forward fast and leave some questions and ideas unaccounted for, even if it may feel uncomfortable.

Second, we still managed to publish in a decent journal. So there was a happy ending after all!

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
I think we need to set a reasonable deadline that constitutes a good compromise between speed and thoroughness.

A good way to do that is to ask what the core of our work is. What is the one hypothesis we have to test to make our point? What is the unique selling proposition?

Then, we focus on that core point. Once we have that item established, the supporting evidence will fall into place more or less quickly.

#6 – That I haven’t been courageous enough to push side projects

What happened?
Over the years, I had several ideas for scientific hypotheses that I did not test because my group leaders did not enthusiastically back them. And we were in the middle of other projects.

What precisely do I regret?
I let so many ideas in my mind go by, only to find that about 10 – 20% of them were put into motion by other groups.

How can I let go of that regret?
(a) There were also a lot of ideas that I did follow up on. Those are not on my “radar of sunken dreams” anymore. Maybe the ones I did not follow up on seemed to be more promising than they were practical.

(b) Other labs put “my” ideas in motion because they had the infrastructure to do that. It was practical for them, but for us, there were other things we did that others could not do.

(c) If I had been truly convinced those projects were good and practical, I would not have given up on them so easily.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
I think if we have an idea, we should try it out as soon as possible.

Some ideas turn out to be true pipe dreams, others are promising, but may need some additional thoughts. We have to also take practicality into account. Can we put an idea in motion, or not?

Because if not, we should file that idea away for a later time.

That way, we will never regret leaving ideas on the table – if we always tried to put then into motion.

#7 – That I somehow disappointed colleagues by thinking about leaving academia.

What happened?
After 20 years of academic research in biology and biochemistry and a successful career, I am not taking the next step to becoming a group leader myself, but think about alternative career options.

What precisely do I regret?
I regret that I did not stick to my original goal. I also feel that I disappointed my former mentors and colleagues, who took time out to teach me.

How can I let go of that regret?
By recognizing that I already “paid my dues” by publishing good papers. Since starting my PhD in 2001, I have published and co-authored 12 papers, reviews and book chapters.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
By realizing that we only owe loyalty to ourselves.

A career is rarely a straight path where we give back precisely what others gave us.

While I agree that it is often prudent to leave our ego out the door and just do the work we signed up for – if we are really unhappy with our field of work, then it’s better to look for a career change.

#8 – I regret not having taken faster action on the Green Card.

How to Let go of Regrets Green Card
Got it!

What happened?
It took me long until I had my Green Card.

What precisely do I regret?
I regret not having acted much faster and thus gained more flexibility in my choice of jobs.

How can I let go of that regret?
Realizing that I do have my Green Card now. That’s all that counts.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
I think with administrative issues – which getting the Green Card largely consisted of – we can only schedule the work and get it done as fast as possible.

#9 – I regret not always keeping in touch as well as I want to.

What happened?
Sometimes I forget contacting people.

What precisely do I regret?
I regret that I may not have deepened some great connections.

How can I let go of that regret?
I can let go because I do keep investing into friendships that are 5 – 10 years old.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
Keeping contact to people is a matter of organization. One way to do that is to write down when you last contacted someone from your calendar and then set a reminder for a week later to follow up.

#10 – Having broken the continuous writing chain in the past year.

What happened?
I have written 609 days in total on 750words.com, and only 283 are contiguous (longest streak).

What precisely do I regret?
I regret being undisciplined.

How can I let go of that regret?
I can let go because it teaches me a lesson. It’s better to break a chain of daily writing and to reestablish it (as I did) than breaking a chain of living healthy every day or doing good work etc.

What can we do to avoid such regrets in the future?
If we feel we do not have enough energy to stay consistently on our goal – e.g. if we think about quitting our daily gym visit – we should just resolve to do an easier version.

For example, if we “don’t feel” like lifting weights, we can resolve just to stop by in the gym and do a bit cardio, Once inside, we are often much more motivated to go at it after all.

The classic:

I liked that version, although it is probably better known sung by Frank Sinatra. The original is actually by Paul Anka!

If you want to check out “Become an Idea Machine”, you can do so here.

Yesterday’s challenge: Click me!

What is this challenge about? This link will teach you more.

And to get back to the main page, you can click here.

Do you have a few regrets?

Or too few to mention?

Thanks for reading and let us know in the comments below!