I attended a small liberal arts college, full of nerds and dorks and all manner of “good kids.” Junior year, my roommates built a ten-foot long beer funnel. Although we didn’t live on a dry campus, my friends’ apparatus was an anomaly, tiny, industrial gauge beacon of state-school hedonism. Every time we had a party, at least one person threw up after chugging from the funnel. Our friend Doug drew the profile of a puking face on the funnel’s bell for each victim it claimed. We called the funnel No Regrets.
The name was clearly tongue in cheek. Ideally as you grow up, you don’t feel quite as proud of the times you’ve thrown up in bushes or barrels or hats. You don’t necessarily feel full-on shame about your youthful exploits, but there’s certainly a growing feeling of putting those days behind you. Just as often as not, you end up saying: “I wish I hadn’t funneled some of those beers.” So, in effect, No Regrets existed for the specific purpose of generating regrets.
Regrets are good! They mean you’re learning and changing. “Ugh, I shouldn’t have set that police cruiser on fire,” is a valuable insight. It means you sought out an experience, decided it wasn’t for you, and reflected upon what that means going forward. Most likely, it means you’ll do what you can to not set a motor vehicle aflame. That’s a good choice! The best one, probably, unless you can go back in time and undo your previous arson. In that case, your regret should be your stupid misuse of a time machine.
A sincere attitude of, “No regrets!” seems blatantly anti-science and anti-progress. It’s like: “Yeah, I know I screwed up! And I know exactly how! And I’d do it again!”
As in: “Yeah, bro. I got a tattoo of Paul Giamatti’s face across my entire face. He’s a great actor. No regrets.”
That is crazy. There is no legitimate reason to have a tattoo of Paul Giamatti’s face across your entire face. You should regret that. Don’t just assume that the past will stay the past. You’ve got to accept that sometimes you make bad decisions that you can’t undo, and it’s important not to replicate those choices. Otherwise, you may never learn that it would be stupid to try and drive your car off of a dirt bike ramp and into a swimming pool.
I’m not saying never to try anything fun or exciting. That’s how I live my boring life, but other people are free to do dynamic and risky things. If it weren’t for people taking risks, I imagine we wouldn’t have lots of the stuff we take for granted. Fireworks would not be as prevalent, I’m sure. We’d never have invented knife throwing. Progress necessitates risk. But here’s the thing. Thomas Edison probably doesn’t regret his myriad attempts at creating a light bulb before he figured out the proper composition. On the other hand, if Edison had tried filling a glass globe with gasoline and setting it aflame, and the resulting explosion had taken his foot and forced him to replace it with a crude, 1800s robot foot, that’s something to look back on as a mistake to avoid in the future.
Regrets aren’t just things you shouldn’t have done. They’re also things you shouldn’t have not done. (I tried to write those last two sentences the way Matthew McConaughey would have.) It’s just as important to know what to do as what to avoid. I never studied abroad while I was in college. I had some goals I wanted to accomplish on campus, and I completed them. In retrospect, though, I should have gone to a Spanish-speaking country for a semester. I regret not going. If that same opportunity presents itself in the future, I will jump on it. That’s how regrets work! They help! They make you less dumb!
I’m not suggesting everyone go around feeling awful about every bad decision they ever make. That’s not productive. All I’m proposing is that we temper our attitude of, “No regrets!” How about, “Some regrets?” “Some regrets,” seems like a pretty healthy mantra. Hold on to some of your failures as learning opportunities, but don’t sweat the small stuff. Shrug off that late night out on a work night, but remember never to play blindfolded rakefight again. Scars fade, but a newfound fear of lawn tools can last forever.
Let’s put it this way. Next time you find yourself throwing up in a potted plant, maybe don’t think of it as a valuable step on your personal journey. Instead, consider that it may have been a bad idea to drink tequila through your nose. Next time, alternate your alcoholic drinks with water. You’ll be less hungover, and you’ll be able to save up to get that Paul Giamatti face tattoo removed.