Tuesday, 30 January, 2007

Regret

One day I told my friend Dean that I regretted something I had done. He looked up from what he was doing and said, "You should only regret those things in life that you don't do."

That stopped me in my tracks. I pondered it for a minute while I stared at Dean, and finally said, "You know? You're right."

That little lesson has stuck with me ever since, and 25 years later I can remember almost everything about the conversation: where we were, what we were doing, and the way this simple statement hit me. It was like a revelation, and something I've tried to live by. Every time I talk to older people, they speak of regretting not doing things. Very seldom does somebody say, "I regret doing this." But all too often they say, "I regret not doing that."

The more interesting thing is why people end up in a position where they look back and say, "I wish had..." The most common reason is fear: fear of taking a risk and failing; fear of being seen as odd; even fear of success, oddly enough, because we don't know what we'd do if our plans succeed. Those and most other common fears can be summed up in one: fear of expanding one's comfort zone.

People build comfort zones out of necessity. We are, after all, creatures of habit. We create routines, schedules, quirky ways of doing things, frames of reference through which we filter information, and little rituals that help us operate on a day to day basis. Without those things--our comfort zones--we would be overwhelmed by everyday activities.

Even within our comfort zones, there are things that are distinctly uncomfortable, and that we avoid if at all possible. The more we avoid those uncomfortable things, the more uncomfortable they become. Something that you may have found mildly distasteful early in your life can become very frightening later in life if you spend years avoiding it. Your comfort zone shrinks, and continues to shrink as you avoid more things. The shrunken comfort zone is why so many people remain where they are, even when given the opportunity to move on to something better. Their fear of the unknown overrides their desire for a better situation.

The only way to prevent your comfort zone from shrinking is to continually work at expanding it. That's why I'm always looking for new and different things to try: learning to brew beer, bicycle touring, Toastmasters, replacing the engine in my truck, ham radio, and any of dozens more activities I've dabbled in over the years. By facing the fear and uncertainty that comes with learning new things, I expand my comfort zone and make it easier to learn the next new thing.

Unfortunately, that's not the whole answer. You see, we don't have just one comfort zone. We have many. I, for example, am very comfortable trying anything new physically, and I love learning new things. I'm game to try my hand at anything mechanical or electronic. I'm not especially good, but I can muddle through and learn a bit in the process. Give me a physical or mental challenge and I'm quite happy to attack it.

But I have my blind spots, too. I have a distaste for paperwork and bureaucratic routine that borders on the pathological. I'm perfectly willing to pay money--a lot of money--to have somebody else deal with those things. And my fear of emotional conflict quite likely is pathological. I have avoided conflict for decades. Today, even the thought of emotional conflict stirs up the "fight or flight" response in me like you wouldn't believe. The lengths to which I'll go in order to avoid conflict are astounding. When it comes to conflict, my comfort zone is very, very small. I've been working on that since I noticed a few years ago just how bad it had become, but I have a long, long way to go.

The sad thing is that I've known all of this about comfort zones for at least half my life. I've even noticed and commented to friends over the past few years that I've found it hard to face certain challenges--things that I would have had no problem with even five years ago. And yet I've let my comfort zones shrink to the point that I spent six months avoiding some opportunities that were pounding on my door. I don't know why, exactly. Fear of failure? I had nothing to lose. Fear of success? Perhaps. Fear of the unknown--of giving up my vaguely dissatisfying life and risking everything for the chance to be happy beyond all expectation? As much as I hate to admit it, that just might be the reason.

Whatever the cause, I'm going to regret not making the most of the opportunities that I've had in the last six months. But I won't dwell on the regret or on the lost opportunities. For all the things I've done wrong recently, I've managed somehow to come out feeling better about myself and my prospects for the future than I would have thought possible.  I will undoubtedly look back and wish for what might have been, but my focus is now forward, on what I can make happen.