“It is never too late to become what you might have been.” ~ George Eliot
I recently arrived at the half-way point in the human lifespan. While reaching this milestone hasn’t given me the desire to go buy a red sports car or have a lurid extra-marital affair, it has prompted a significant amount of thought and reflection.
A “Mid-life Review,” if you will.
I’m not obsessing about it, but I think it’s healthy to stop and consider the state of your life. Are you where you’d hoped you be by now? What have you done? What have you left undone? These are healthy questions to ask. They help you evaluate and make course corrections as needed.
As I go through this process, the word regret seems to cross my mind a lot. Regret is one of those words that’s considered bad, that to regret anything is bad. People like to say, “I have no regrets. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” When I hear that, another word crossed my mind: Bullshit.
People say things like this because they think that if they express regret about anything, about not pursuing dancing or taking that job they didn’t really want or not getting that college degree, they will somehow undo all the good things that their lives have produced, many of which were a result of the things they regret.
That too is bullshit.
The fact is that everyone regrets something. Very few of us make it through our lives without compromising on things that we really wanted for ourselves in order to serve an immediate need. You can compromise for all the right reasons, and still regret that you did, or rather that you had to.
Here are some of my regrets:
- Changing My Major Freshman Year In College. I entered school as a music major. After a semester, I switched majors because I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician. I saw people who were much better than me and I thought I’d never be as good as them. I was immature and stupid and I never should have given up on that.
- Not Going After My Doctorate. I got married after getting my M.A. in Renaissance Literature. We actually moved to Champaign-Urbana so I could do post-graduate work with the goal of living the quiet life of a professor. I didn’t do this, opting instead to pursue a job in the business world. The money has been good, but I often wonder what might have been.
- Losing Touch With Writing and Music. In the years after I got married, my core focus was building a career and bringing home the bacon. I was very successful at this, but lost track of two passions that drove me during my adolescence: Writing and music. I’ve made huge strides in reconnecting with both in recent years, but I hate that I was so inactive during my twenties and most of my thirties.
- Borrowing Money From a Relative to Start a Business. In the late nineties, my wife and I borrowed a lot money from her father to start a business. We had some success, but when the tech bubble burst, we had to shut it down. Her father got stuck holding the bag and I was never able to really even make a dent in the debt. It got taken care of eventually, but he’s behind because of some bad decisions we made.
There are more, but I don’t want to get too detailed. You get the idea.
The conventional response to these would be that, if I’d done anything different, taken any other path, I wouldn’t have all the good things in my life. I never would have met my wife and had my wonderful children. I wouldn’t have travelled to the places I’ve travelled, seen the things I’ve seen or enjoy the friendships I’ve made. It’s the “Everything happens for a reason” consolation.
Of course, no one can say with certainty that had I studied music through all fours years of college that I wouldn’t have met my wife in 1993 and spent the next eighteen years deliriously happy. Maybe I could have done all these things and ended up with roughly the same life I have today. Maybe even better. Then I would have been writing this saying, “I regret not pursuing a career in business. Who knows what a captain of industry I might have been?”
There’s no point denying that we regret decisions we’ve made and not made because, regardless, we’re going to have them. No matter what.
So as I sit her at my Mid-life Review, I’m wondering what to do with all this. I have left things undone. I have left certain paths that looked dangerous unexplored and taken the easier way. I’ve made bad decisions as well as good ones that didn’t work out the way I planned.
I think the only thing to do is to take a close look at these things I regret, decide which are really important and then do something about those. I’ll use them to chart my course from here forward and try to gain a little wisdom along the way. It feels like I may be a little too late for some of them, but as the saying goes, every day on this side of the dirt is a good day.
“Regret” is not a four letter word. “Quit” is.