Regret has an undeservedly bad reputation. Sure, regret can be malignant sometimes, but in its more benign forms, it’s a sign that you know more now than you once did. All grown-ups have regrets as they look back and see the follies of their youth. If someone tells you he has no regrets, steer clear because, inside, he’s still nineteen.
I have regrets, but I’m at peace with them. See, one advantage of middle age is having the perspective to see where things went wrong. Along with some grey hair and joints that ache more than they once did, I have enough experience to take stock of the first half of my life to see where I messed up. Here are a couple. My hope is that you’ll learn from my mistakes as you seek to make your own approximate home in the world.
MISTAKE NUMBER ONE: PAYING MORE ATTENTION TO MY FEELINGS THAN TO MY MISSION
Somewhere around my senior year in high school I got nervous and stayed that way for a decade. Throughout college and the years following, I would often be wracked with anxiety so badly I’d double over with the pain of the tension in my stomach. I escaped by watching movies, seeking isolation in the woods, and napping. I spent half of those years in bed with the covers of my head.
The causes for this were many, but there was only one cure. I decided that I would focus on my mission and do the scary things pursuing it entailed even if I died from sheer terror. I got out of bed and onto a plane. I moved a thousand miles from the home I had always known and really started my life at age 29.
Don’t follow my example. Figure out your mission early. You don’t have to nail down every detail, just a general idea. Even if the only mission you can articulate is that you want to be financially stable and get married, go after those goals. Learn to put your feelings on the shelf, to tolerate discomfort. Even when it’s intense, press on. Eventually, you’ll notice something amazing: pursuing your mission makes you feel good and the grip of fear lightens with each new challenge you accept.
MISTAKE NUMBER TWO: SEEKING TO PUNISH THE WORLD BY WITHDRAWING FROM IT
I remember a moment in high school when Herr K—-, my German teacher whom I knew well and liked very much approached me about taking some responsibility for a club he sponsored. I refused. I’m sure my anxiety had something to do with my decision, but I wasn’t afraid to say yes. I wasn’t angry at my teacher in particular.
Instead, I was seeking to punish the world by refusing to participate in it. My teacher and the club just happened to be in the way.
I don’t know where I got the idea that the world would suffer if I refused to offer it whatever talents and skills I possess. Somehow in my youth, I had absorbed the idea that it was better to be the misunderstood, frustrated soul who shunned society because of its failures than to put myself out there and take my chances. We’d just see what would happen when I didn’t step up to rescue the world.
Unsurprisingly, what happened is that the world never noticed. The world went right on as if it didn’t even know it needed rescuing. In the meantime, I grew bitter as people who were taking chances, putting themselves and their work on the line, got rewarded for the value they created.
Just like it didn’t care if I showed up or not, the world isn’t going to care if you don’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. The fact is that I could have helped a lot of people during those years I was holed up nursing my bevy of grudges. You can help people too. All you’ve got to do is show up.
My goal with this series of posts is to spare you similar regrets. I hope by sharing my failures, you’ll be able to avoid these particular pitfalls. Of course, even if you do, you’ll still have regrets someday, if you’re lucky enough to really grow up. When you do, let them be a source of wisdom you pass on to others, because if you don’t, that’s something you’ll definitely regret.
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