Regrets? We have a few, so make them count

Edith Piaf once sang “Non, je ne regrette riens,” but in my Spoon by Spoon conversations I’m finding we all regret a bit.

I ask my interviewees, “If you could have your time over again, what would you do differently?” At least half launch into a list of things they would change: different choices, different actions, lefts they would have taken, rights they would have avoided. Like a personal Sliding Doors, if you’ve ever seen the film. That said, the other half say, “I wouldn’t change a thing. I am who I am because of the path I’ve taken.”

It’s laudable they have so much self-belief and to be honest I agree. Ruminating about the past is a waste of energy. Going over and over our mistakes and wishing we had done things differently is unhelpful at best. At worst it can be destructive. Hollowing ourselves out with a viscous internal critic will impact our mental health. Lao Tzu the ancient Chinese philosopher wrote, “If you are depressed you are living in the past.”

But I also ask a follow-on question. “What would your older self say to your younger self?” And that’s when this second group join the party. Everyone I’ve spoken to opens up at this point. They are all clear about the wisdom they have learned.

For many it is don’t wait, listen to your gut, have the courage to start earlier. No one has said, “Yes the longer I left it, the easier it was to change.” It doesn’t matter what the shift needs to be — the wrong job, a painful relationship, losing touch with who we are — focusing too much on being the employee/friend/son/mother rather than being ourselves.

I spoke to one person who had reached a senior level in his profession. He had spent years working his way towards the top. He confessed, “I have lost a lot of myself to work. I asked myself what interests do I have? What are my passions? But I don’t have any. I’ve become an empty husk of a person. I’ve lost of all of those things. So if I were to look back over my time again I’d change things earlier.”

Regret isn’t such a bad thing. In fact it can be useful in small doses. To regret means we know that things need to shift. A problem arises if we regret but do nothing. The pain of remorse is wasted if we sit on our hands. So regret away, but do something with it — move to action with that regret. The Canadian novelist Steven Erikson said, “One day, perhaps, you will see for yourself that regrets are as nothing. The value lies in how they are answered.” As they say, it isn’t what happens that is important, it’s what we do with it.

I think there is something important about noticing. It’s a theme I’ll come back to again. The sooner we become aware that something is off, the easier it is to tackle it. But our biggest problem right now is that we are too busy to notice. We have no bandwidth left to see the shift. It is more difficult at the start, when the change is small and creeping and hides in dark corners.

I come across busyness a lot in my interviews. I spoke to one woman about her children. She was concerned that their every moment was planned, fixed or filled. Back to back after-school activities interspersed with being on their phones or playing video games. There is no down time, just to be or to think. But her childhood was different. There were great stretches with nothing to do. Boredom built ingenuity. They made up stories or created games with whatever they could find.

It got me remembering too. When I was 10 my sister and I made a “telephone” using two cans and a long piece of string tied in between. I would lean out of the bedroom window whilst she was in the garden. We could hear our whispered words through the string and cans, despite being so far apart. It gave us hours of amusement made of nothing, about nothing, just silliness and self-made fun. I remember hide-and-seek when a friend fried her shoes. We searched for hours and never found her. She had squashed herself inside an airing cupboard with a book and a torch, whilst her rubber soles melted onto the hot water tank.

Time and space are both important, but we pay them scant attention. We have lost the art of both. I’ve been playing with an idea for a while. The Japanese have a word called Ma, which roughly translates as “gap”, “space”, or “pause”. The space between two parts, a silence between the notes that make the music.” This old Japanese poem illustrates it well:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub, though the space between them is the essence of the wheel; Pots are formed from clay, though the space inside them is the essence of the pot; Walls with windows and doors form the house, though the space within them is the essence of the house.

One way to understand Ma is to picture a garden. The flowers and the trees are no more important than the spaces in between. Without these the garden would be cluttered, visually awkward and restless. I call it White Space, like the blank spaces on a page. If there were no gaps between the words, no borders around the text, no spaces between paragraphs, it would be hard to read. There would be no place for the eye to rest. No time for the brain to digest. We don’t have enough White Space in our lives. We are too busy trying to cram more into less.

Last year I fell down the stairs (sober) and ripped the tendons in my ankle. I now have to do physio every day. I do this whilst brushing my teeth, but I do neither well. I forget what number I’ve got to on my heel raises. I realise I’ve brushed my bottom teeth twice. I’m as bad as everyone else. You see multi-tasking is a misnomer. Our brains cannot focus on two tasks at once. Instead we alternate rapidly, taking longer and making more mistakes. Each time our brain switches task, it has to start over again.

So back to my interviewees who are the heart of Spoon by Spoon. At the end of the interview I sometimes ask, “And is your older self taking this good advice?” I get a muted silence. It dawns on them that they are missing a trick. I sometimes get a dry laugh followed by “Yup and I’d also tell my younger self ‘do as I say, not as I do.’’ Then there’s a sigh and possibly a rolling of the eyes, but I can’t be sure as I am on the phone.

And to Edith Piaf? What would advice would she have told her younger self? She doesn’t seem the type to stop and ponder. I imagine she had little White Space or Ma. Before she regretted nothing her song was in fact called “ Je ne trouverai riens,” (I will not find anything).

Finding nothing means learning nothing. By stopping and reflecting, and sometimes regretting, we keep growing. We need to wonder what we could have done differently. Not so we can beat ourselves up, but so we can hug ourselves more. We need to regularly ask what is important? What makes me happy? Which bits aren’t quite right? How can I change them?

Have a few regrets and then make them count.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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