Talking regret with Daniel Pink
To regret deeply is to live afresh.
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I felt that. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome my whole life. So many jobs began with a fear of being found out: instantly uncovered as a fraud, rumbled within days, pulled out of my Aeron Chair, marched to HR, and forced to turn in my laptop and security card, like a loose cannon cop disobeying his superiors for the last time.
When I started a job at a top digital agency in London in my mid-20s I was petrified—my recruiter congratulated me on acing the interview, informing me this team of “digital planners” were the best of the best, some of the smartest advertising minds in the country. The need to “not fuck things up” hit hard. I devoured the right books, discovering how the latest research in social psychology and behavioural economics could be applied in the world of advertising—reading Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational and Nudge, to name a few—in an attempt to convince my new colleagues into thinking I was up to the job. Of that period, it was Daniel Pink’s Drive, and its framework for understanding the motivations of the modern worker—their need for Drive, Autonomy and Purpose—that stayed with me the longest, a pivotal part of the blueprint on my approach to work ever since.
In what is fast becoming a pattern for this newsletter, I got in touch with a writer I admire and asked if they’d be interested in talking about their work, how fatherhood contributed to their creative output, and how they’ve applied their learnings to their own parenting experience. And Daniel Pink kindly told me ... “No.” To be fair, he told me he was “turning down everything else, however modest and worthy, for the rest of the year so I can maintain my focus on putting the finishing touches on a new book.” He did, helpfully, suggest getting back in touch in the new year if "your readers might be interested in the power of regret.”
Six months later and there we were. Talking about where parenting and regret overlapped, how this emotion became so misunderstood, and its potential to become a superpower—if only we could harness it.
“Regret is not dangerous or abnormal, a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.”
— The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink
The Power of Regret kicks off exploring society’s erroneous celebration of the absence of regret. We are taught to avoid its hostile embrace: we must carpe diem, seize all of the days, as we walk through the streets looking only forward, Airpods blasting Edith Piaf crooning the anthem of the forward-thinker, banishing regret into a locked box, shoved into the back of an emotional cupboard, never to be opened. But throughout the book Pink argues (convincingly, IMO) that if we’re able to welcome this sentiment—applying a framework to understand it, and work with it, rather than fear it—we can move forward with purpose and have our past failures inform our future successes. “Our goal should not be to always minimise regret,” Pink writes. “Our goal should be to optimise it. If we look backwards with the specific intent of moving forward, we can convert our regrets into fuel for progress. They can propel us toward smarter choices, higher performance, and greater meaning.”
There’s just one problem with this approach, I confessed to him on a call last month. As someone who—before this book—spent a life worshipping at the church of no regrets, there’s a clear connection between a potentially useful emotion and the disastrous negative cycle of rumination. Whilst a sense of acceptance can help us see each “mistake” as a step closer to the life you end up living, it’s easy to fall down the sheer face and fixate on the bad times where life didn’t go to plan. I suggest that the path of regret should be signposted “here be dragons”, warning travellers of the fine line that could lead them into the abyss of rumination.
“There's definitely a line there,” offers Pink. “But no one's ever taught us how to deal with negative emotions. No one's ever taught us how to arrest that march toward the line. The line is clear. It's just that our footing isn’t sound, so we end up slipping forward.”
When researching the book, Pink called for willing participants to share their greatest regrets in the World Regret Survey, with 20,000 submissions pouring in from 109 countries. I wanted to understand the regrets reported by parents. The primary revelations, Pink shares, were of “beliefs around instilling prudence and conscientiousness in their kids.” Some parents regretted being too hands-off, resulting in kids running wild. Others were at the opposite end of the scale, worried that they’d passed on a burden of caution that distorted the way their children perceived the world. He has some good news for either end of the argument: “The idea that a parent alone shapes the child is overstated.”
In an avalanche of entries, Pink wrote that “fewer than twenty participants” regretted having children:
“We know from other research that when we’re raising kids the first 20 years actually reduces our day-to-day hedonic satisfaction and wellbeing. Yet very few people regret it. It means parenting offers something beyond pleasure-driven satisfaction, it's delivering something more important—meaning, purpose, and love. Even if changing diapers is a pain in the butt.”
— The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink
Did parents’ regrets change when their children became adults? “The most poignant parenting regrets were from those who had drifted apart from their kids later in life,” Pink shared. “Every once in a while through some kind of dramatic route. But in most cases, in a much slower, less dramatic way.”
Pink believed so many were driven to confess their deepest feelings to his survey because “emotions are abstract. That’s what makes positive emotions feel good and what makes negative emotions feel bad. They're amorphous. But when you write about negative emotions, you transmute them in a way. You convert this abstraction into concrete words, which are inherently less fearsome. It's unburdening and sensemaking.”
His own life as a father wasn’t free from regret: “I might have tried to do more than one short stint overseas as a family. I might have said, ‘Let's do it. Let's take a couple of years out of the United States.’ I think I would have done that.”
Last weekend I laid back on the couch and fell into the multi-layered world of Inception. It’s been a while since I spent time in Christopher Nolan’s mind meld, and it was the first rewatch since having kids of my own. I had been writing this essay the previous few days, which offered an opportunity to see anew the thread of regret woven through the movie. Dom Cobb—Leonardo Di Caprio’s totem-spinning lead—is submerged deep in the clutches of rumination: the guilt he feels over the death of his wife, abandoning of their children during a life-defining moment, and the pain of being unable to return home and see their faces once again. Edith Piaf pops up in a recurring cameo, “Non, je ne regrette rien” waking various characters from their slumber, Piaf’s trombone slowed and transmuted into Hans Zimmer’s iconic booming foghorn, ratcheting up the tension and filling the viewer with dread. Cobb descends into a pit of despair, an elevator of his own making, constructed to house his deepest pain and lock them away in an attempt to escape becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”
My own feelings toward regret have shifted since reading Pink’s book. It’s no longer an emotion I’ll instantly reject, but more one to cautiously handle and use as a personal development tool. The book has also changed how I’ll talk about regret with my children, a belief that he shares: “A lot of our kids—not little kids like yours, but adolescents, teenagers, young men and women in their early 20s—are being brought down by negative emotions. They're slipping over the edge. And it's not because they're inherently flawed. It's because they haven't been taught that these emotions—fear, regret, envy—are part of life. And there are systematic ways to respond to them, without them overwhelming you.”
At our core, human beings are little more than sense-making machines. We perceieve the world around us, hoping to use the signals we see to make our life simpler, happier, more productive1. Understanding our regrets enables us to wire them into back into self-narrative positively, reconfiguring our story as the shockwaves pass through the past, present and future, becoming waypoints for the burdens that didn’t kill us but made us stronger. Pink’s book implores us to see regret not solely as the wrong things we did, but also on what he calls “inaction regrets,” those that litter the path not taken:
“Twenty-year-olds had equal numbers of action and inaction regrets. But as people grew older, inaction regrets began to dominate. By age fifty, inaction regrets were twice as common as action regrets.”
— The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink
Many of us have contemplated significant changes in our lives over the last few years—the work we do, the place we live, the company we keep. The book permits—no, compels—us to make that leap into the unknown, as the research shows we’re far more likely to regret not doing something. Like the famous US journalist Sydney J. Harris once wrote, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”
Pink signs off with advice for those of us considering a seismic shift: “We should all have a slight bias for action. The 2:1 ratio teaches us something. It teaches us that we should try more stuff. It gives parents guidance to go do that thing, go on that trip with your kids. You are not going to regret it in 20 or 30 years. You're truly going to treasure that.”
3 things to read this week
“Returning to the office is causing The Great Reckoning” by Ed Zitron in Where’s Your Ed At. Ed Zitron is an ex-games journalist and currently publishing the most insightful writing on the future of the work. In this recent essay he unpacks the layers of bullshit densely packed into the “returning to the office” argument, on Google and Apple building tools to allow anyone to work anywhere then refusing to let their employees do the same, and how “white-collar workers are realizing that a lot of corporations are full of shit.”
“What I learned about masculinity and fatherhood from ‘The Simpsons” by Luke Sharrett in The Washington Post. You’ll undoubtedly have spotted a Simpsons reference here and there in TNF. I’ve been noodling on an essay about the difficult fatherhood roles portrayed in the show, but now I can rest easy because someone else did it for me. “The more I think about show’s lack of male role models, the more I think that having a vision of masculinity to run from can be just as helpful as having one to aim toward.”
“Dead Fathers Club” by Jake Morley. Last month I read this short essay from Jake, and it’s vulnerability and pathos shone through, whilst still managing to eek out a few laughs on a difficult subject. Jake writes about his father, a man “kind, intelligent, loving, fiercely principled, ahead of his time, a little awkward, always thinking and always searching.”
Hey dads! Come talk about work and creativity
Last month’s thread on work was one of the busiest we’ve had in a while. It was great to hear from so many of you and your thoughts on work, life, and trying to manage it all. We’re going to follow it up with a live chat next week—Tuesday 24th May at 10am EST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CEST. Details on how to join are here.
A few of us are also working our way through The Artist’s Way—Julia Cameron’s tome on relieving creative blocks and silencing your inner critic. It’s been fascinating to work through the book as a small group, sharing observations, noting the overlap and distinctions of struggles, and supporting each other on the way. We started two weeks ago, but people are on different parts of the journey, so latecomers would be more than welcome.
If either of these sounds like your bag, come along and chat.
One thing to watch with the kids this week
This video on the “Warka Tower” shows how they’ve used local materials and indigenous techniques to catch moisture in the air, providing drinking water for off-the-grid communities in Africa and beyond. Very cool.
A bonus bit of Pink
Before I leave you, at least until tomorrow—where I’ll be asking biggest regrets in the open thread, so get thinking—I asked Daniel Pink if any books influenced his approach to parenting. He was quick to offer one: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the 2007 book by Carol Dweck. “You can come into learning with a fixed mindset of a growth mindset,” he told me. “The Growth mindset says this: My ability is malleable. It can grow. It can expand so every challenge is actually a way to grow. And that's a big idea in parenting.”
Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson. Having to draw regret was a tough brief but he nailed it. Good luck next time with “dignity” (yet another Simpsons reference, for those at the back taking notes.) Subscribe to support The New Fatherhood and join a community of like-minded folks all helping each other become the best dads we can be. If you want a subscription, but truly can't afford it, reply to this email and I will give you one, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.