Creating the right space to reflect

A few years back I was having a mid life/late career pause and contemplating a career change; a change that ultimately led to me founding Guberno Consulting – a strategy advisory firm focused on helping leadership teams navigate growth. This was not undertaken sitting in front of my computer contemplating where life would take me nor was it sitting in the local café watching the world pass by. Rather it was spent walking – a lot of walking – as I traversed the Camino trail across Northern Spain. The separation from my normal day-to-day life, being immersed in the incredible beauty of nature, and a meditative state associated with walking were perfect catalysts for life and career reflection. Given age and stage of life, it didn’t take long before I started contemplating my own mortality and undertaking self-enquiry around my level of comfort with it.

Associating regret as a highly negative emotion

It is during this reflective period that I started to juggle with my emotions around regret. Did I have any and if so what would I do about them?

The outcome of my extensive self-reflection was a conclusion that my regrets, of materiality, were in fact limited. During this reflection, I now realise I associated regret with being a highly negative emotion. I had also linked a lack of regret to gratitude and gratitude to contentment and happiness. This self-perception of limited regret, gratitude, contentment, and happiness were liberating as I set out on a new career pathway.

Regret is a sophisticated emotion which is different from mistakes

However, over recent weeks I have had reason to reassess the merits and conclusions of my earlier reflections about regret after reading Daniel Pink’s book, ‘The Power of Regret – how looking backwards moves us forward’. His contribution on the topic of regret challenged whether my earlier reflection had been thorough enough. He also challenged my positioning of regret as a highly negative emotion, noting strongly that regrets do not need to be negative and, equally, it is entirely plausible for gratitude and regret to co-exist.

Pink acknowledges that regret is a sophisticated emotion as it generally requires a type of mental trapeze travelling back to an earlier time, manipulating a change, before transporting back to the current day and imagining a different outcome. He also notes that regret and mistakes are different things with regret being an emotion while mistakes are an outcome from actions i.e., not all mistakes lead to regret. Pink notes the dichotomy that in our journey of life, there are many mistakes that we forget while our regrets seem to shine through with uncanny clarity despite the passage of time. While it is somewhat common to hear people lament how the lessons from their mistakes made them the person they are today, it is less common to hear people reflect on regret in the same manner. But should they?

Regrets can be categorised in four ways

The analytical foundation to Pink’s thesis on regret is an extensive survey on regret of some 19,000 participants from 109 countries. From this analytical base he was able to classify different types of regrets into one of four categories;

  • Foundational – are those regrets commonly associated with ‘if only I had done the work’ or the small incremental decisions made over time that accumulate to an outcome perceived to be less than full potential. It is commonly associated with the emotion of delayed gratification.
  • Boldness – are those regrets commonly associated with ‘if only I’d taken the chance’ and whether at critical junctures decisions are made to play it safe or extend more into the unknown. In many cases the regret is less about an alternative outcome and more about the sense of unknowing what the outcome could have been because of different decisions.
  • Moral – are those regrets commonly associated with ‘if only I’d done the right thing’ and are based on either the fortitude to take alternative actions or the impacts of inaction when action was warranted. This regret category is driven by an underlying desire to be and do good.
  • Connection – are those regrets commonly associated with ‘if only I’d maintained the relationship’ and about making decisions to reconnect, to forgive, and to reach out if relationships have gone cold.

After contemplating this more structured approach to regret, it didn’t take much further introspection before uncovering a range of personal regrets spanning across all four categories. So what are the underlying causes of our regret, what is the source of Pink’s positivity about regrets, and were my earlier conclusions around limited regret warranted?

Defining our two inherent persona’s, Adam 1 and Adam 2

Being sensitised to the topic of regret, I stumbled across another book titled the ‘Road to Character’ by a New York Times best selling writer David Brooks. The core thesis of his book draws heavily on the original ideas from a Jewish Rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik, who contends that all of us are inherently composed of two persona’s; Adam 1 and Adam 2.

Adam 1 is our outer self that is focused on conquering the world around us. It is the part of our persona with the mandate to subdue nature, transform, and conquer the world. It is the persona that seeks approval from others, seeks to achieve, and is defined by the successes it has. Brooks refers to this as our resume virtue.  Alternatively, Adam 2 is a representation of our inner self that is drawn to finding and following a calling; it is seeking a way to serve rather than be served. The value of this inner self-worth is based on how we have made people feel; with Brooks referring to this as our eulogy virtue.

Adam 1 and Adam 2 can come into conflict

These two sides of our nature, Adam 1 and 2, can at times come into conflict with each other. For example, it is not difficult to think of times when holding true to your personal integrity may be detrimental to your friendships, or your career. Brooks notes that one of the reasons our Adam 1 and 2 virtues come into conflict with each other is because they operate under quite different underlying logics.

Our Adam 1 persona is largely controlled by an economic logic that is quite sequential and direct, such as the rules of inputs driving outputs, effort leading to reward, and practice making perfect. Alternatively, our Adam 2 personal operates under a moral logic that tends to be more inverse in its logic. It is driven on the beliefs that you need to give to receive, to surrender to conquer, to fail in order to succeed, and to lose yourself in order to find yourself.

The fast and competitive world in which we live and the felt need to ‘get ahead’, ‘to progress one’s career’ or ‘to be successful’, tends to play more strongly to our Adam 1 persona. It is often the times when society’s Adam 1 incentives lead to personal choices and behaviours that are in overt conflict with our eulogy virtue that regrets tend to emerge. I now realise that my time walking the Camino was a way of creating time and space to reflect on the balance between my eulogy and resume virtues.

The power of regret

By bringing into clarity conflict between our resume and eulogy virtues, regret can be an immensely powerful and positive emotion. In a world that seems to play more strongly to the hand of Adam 1, the opportunity to find time and space along the journey of life to elevate and give greater weighting to our Adam 2 eulogy virtues is something that should be welcomed rather than feared or suppressed. This is where Pink finds immense positivity in regret – albeit with a big IF. If regret leads to early actions that bring our resume and eulogy virtues into greater balance then we don’t have to wait until we are aged and resting in our rocking chair before our eulogy virtue naturally gains more prominence.