You know how sometimes, something that was not at all clear to you suddenly makes sense, and you wonder how in the world you missed it for so long?
That just happened. And I think I’ve figured something out.
But I have to start by telling you about purpose.
Have you ever thought about your ultimate purpose, the reason you do everything you do?
If you’ve encountered a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done or the work of Stephen Covey, chances are you have.
Do you answer the “What’s your ultimate purpose?” question when you come to it?
I don’t. I skip it. Geez, what a hard thing to figure out, much less put into words. There are more pressing things to think about. Besides, I have a vague sense that something or other does, in fact, keep me going. Isn’t that enough?
In the not-so-distant past, though, I was listening to The Power of Story by Jim Loehr. It’s geared toward corporate executives, so parts of it were more miss than hit. But Loehr is extremely persistent about the ultimate purpose thing. He brings it up incessantly, reiterating over and over that it is the key to the puzzle. He gives examples. He urges you to figure out your own. He warns that people rarely get it right on the first try and insists that you keep digging.
I did my usual eye-rolling and half tuned him out. And then I got curious. Ok, really, what could be driving me to make all the decisions I make, to act the way I act, to make the choices I do? Could I really have a clear force running in the background, pushing me forward — one I could actually name?
I flipped through a few generic options in my head, trying each one on for size. Be the best person I can be? No. Uplift others? Sounds noble, but also no. Realize my full potential? Meh.
It came to me, with a jolt of startled recognition I couldn’t deny:
The thing I want most is to have no regrets.
I never want to look back at my life and wish I’d done something I hadn’t. I never want to realize after the fact that I’ve missed a precious moment or chosen the easy way out because of fear. It might be a cliché. It might be ultimately unattainable. But it’s also my truth.
I stood there stunned for a moment. There was a pang of guilty disappointment that my inner driving force wasn’t something loftier, more beneficent, less self-centered, more original. Then the maniacal internal laughter erupted. Full-out gales of cackling, ironic hilarity.
The way I’ve been living and acting and deciding run one hundred percent counter to this driving purpose.
I base my choices on what’s easy most of the time. I let myself off the hook. I pretend I don’t really want the things I do if I think I might not be able to get them. I procrastinate. I drag my feet. I hide. I apologize for who I am and what I want.
I am a walking ball of potential regrets.
Now, having no regrets may not be your driving purpose. (Heck, maybe it isn’t even mine. I’m not sure we can ever know for sure. We just have to go with what motivates us at the time.) But I’ll bet you, too, would rather avoid amassing a giant pile of regrets.
This is where FOMO comes in.
When people talk about FOMO, it’s often in the context of social media and comparison.
We’re always on our phones because we might be missing something cooler than what we’re doing in real life. We look at all the perfect photos on Instagram, all the gleeful status updates on Facebook, and we feel like what we have doesn’t measure up. We worry that someone, somewhere, is having more fun or success or happiness than we are. And I think part of us starts to believe that if only we could have what they’re having, we’d be similarly improved.
I’ve been living with a deeper kind of FOMO. Maybe you have, too.
I don’t want to miss out. I live in fear that choosing, committing, will slam every other door in my face.
I don’t like to burn bridges. I don’t like to say no. I don’t like to pass when an opportunity comes along. I keep lists all over the place of things I might like to do someday and articles I intend to read eventually and all kinds of other stuff. I like to keep as many plates spinning and balls in the air and doors open as I possibly can because that way I have all the options available to me, always. I never have to worry that I’ve missed out on what I really want because I said no, turned down an opportunity, didn’t attend an event.
The problem is, it’s really hard to keep so many options open. Boundaries can’t survive in the face of such a ceaseless onslaught. I’m constantly holding myself at the ready, spread too thin, living in a state of eternal overcommitment. Something I’ve never even been interested in comes along and I say, “Sure! I’m in!” Because what if that turns out to be the thing I’m going to end up loving more than all the other things? What if there’s something amazing out there that I just haven’t found yet, something even better than what I’m doing now?
It’s also hard to make progress on any one thing when you have twenty other things in the works. Procrastination manifests as excessive busyness that’s forever getting in the way.
And then there’s this element of paralysis, of not being able to make a choice for fear of closing a door, of dragging my feet because to choose is to turn away from at least one other option.
Does your head hurt yet? Because mine is starting to.
That is how I’ve been subconsciously attempting to achieve a regret-free existence. If as many options as possible are wide open, then I can’t miss out on something I’ll later come to regret.
Clearly, I am going about this no-regrets thing bass-ackwards.
Do you see how silly this approach is? It took me a minute, but now I get it. It’s backwards. It stems from a lack of two vital components: trust and clarity.
I’ve been pursuing my regret-free end by keeping every door open so I don’t miss out. A more effective approach would be to figure out what I really want and trust myself to make decisions based on that so that my life takes the path I truly want it to take.
The real way to avoid regrets is to know what you want, trust yourself, and then act on that.
To live with no regrets, the first thing you have to do is figure out what you want. Or if you can’t know one hundred percent, then at least have a fairly good sense of where you want to go, at least for the time being. Then, once you think you know, you have to trust yourself. You have to give yourself the benefit of the doubt and go with what you’re feeling.
No dithering around trying to keep every single option open. No fearing what you’ve chosen isn’t the best. No wondering if The Thing You’re Meant to Do is out there somewhere, waiting for you to find it.
The truth is that none of that stuff matters if you’re on the path you want to be on. Why would you regret missing out on something you didn’t really care about in the first place? You may experience a pang of FOMO in the moment, but when you look back on your life, I really doubt that momentary twinge will even register. The highlights reel will be too full of all the things you truly wanted to do — and did.
(I say all that as though it’s second nature to me. It’s not. But I suspect it to be true, and I intend to prove it so, long and hard though the journey to do so may be.)
Consider your options. Make the best choice you can. And then stand behind it. Guard it. Trust it.
If you’re out to dinner with your significant other or your best friend, put your phone away and let yourself stop freaking out about the networking event you’re missing and live the moment in front of you.
If you’ve set aside a few months to write a book, it should be easy to turn down the speaking engagement or conference that comes up and enjoy your writing time.
If you’ve promised yourself a month of German practice in your after-work free time to prepare for an upcoming trip, set the other interesting topics that come your way aside for the time being and give German your all.
Choose what’s best for you, what you feel drawn to do, what you truly want. Accept that. Trust it. There will, in the vast majority of cases, be other such opportunities when the timing is better. The things you were meant to do will come back around when you’re ready. And when they do, maybe then you’ll be ready to give them the full attention and energy and commitment they’ll deserve.
Another true cliché: The minutes slipping by are all we get.
This life you’re living is yours. Concentrate your focus, distill your desire, ferret out the path that feels true to you. Stand firm in the belief that you know what’s best for you. Then bring those precious resources to bear in service of building your magnificent life.
That’s how you live with no regrets.
This post is part of the Bravery Blogging Project organized by Illana Burk of Makeness Media. The goal is to write “real, original, difficult content” every week for six weeks. Last week’s contribution on Remade By Hand was: “How to Use (and Abuse) Labels.“
Read other participants’ posts or learn how to join the project here. You can also follow and use the hashtag #braveblogging.