TED Radio Hour: Kathryn Schulz: Why Should We Embrace Regret? We're taught to avoid doing things we'll regret for the rest of our lives, but why? Author Kathryn Schulz makes the case for cherishing our worst choices — like her tattoo.

Kathyrn Schulz: Why Should We Embrace Regret?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/151886493/151887142" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. On the show, we feature a number of TED talks where a speaker shares a powerful idea with an audience gathered at a TED conference. Today, those powerful ideas are all about happiness - how to achieve it, how to quantify it, how to define it.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Happiness: noun. 1. A state of well-being and contentment. 2. A pleasurable or satisfying experience. Antonyms: sadness. See also regret.

STEWART: We can't really have a complete discussion about finding happiness without getting at how we deal with sadness and regret, right?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: I would say that is right. I mean, I think so much of what constitutes happiness is actually freedom from certain kinds of pain and suffering and sorrow. And so, you know, they are two sides of one coin and to understand one, I think we need to delve into the other, even if our instinct is to try to avoid it.

STEWART: Let's tell our audience who you are. Who are you?

SCHULZ: My name is Kathryn Schulz. I am a journalist and author, most recently of a book called "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." So I think a lot about wrongness, I think about failure, I think about poor decisions and the regret we experience in the aftermath of them. And that's who I am for today's purposes, I think.


STEWART: Your TED talk is about regret, and it specifically starts with a personal regret you have about getting a tattoo.


SCHULZ: Like 25 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 50, I have a tattoo. I first started thinking about getting it in my mid-20s, but I deliberately waited a really long time. Because we all know people who've gotten tattoos when they were 17 or 19 or 23, and regretted it by the time they were 30. That didn't happen to me. I got my tattoo was I was 29 - and I regretted it instantly.

STEWART: We'll be hearing more from Kathryn during her TED talk. Right now, let's go back and listen.


SCHULZ: And this was all actually quite shocking to me because prior to this moment, I had prided myself on having absolutely no regrets. Now, I had made a lot of mistakes and dumb decisions, of course; I do that hourly.

But I had always felt like look - you know - I mean, I made the best choice I could make, given who I was then, given the information I had on hand. I learned a lesson from it. It somehow got me to where I am in life right now and OK, I wouldn't change it.

In other words, I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time; that we should always look forward and not backward; and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.

But if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret, but with it. So let's start out by defining some terms. What is regret? Regret is the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something different in the past.

So, in other words, regret requires two things. It requires, first of all, agency - we had to make a decision in the first place; and second of all, it requires imagination - we need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice. And then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward, and imagine how things would be playing out in our present.

And, in fact, the more we have of either of these things, the more agency and the more imagination with respect to a given regret, the more acute that regret will be.

STEWART: Kathryn Schulz is here with me in the studio. Kathryn, what are some of the examples to illustrate what you've been describing here?

SCHULZ: Well, in terms of what kinds of choices people tend to experience the most regret about, we do have some data on that, and it's quite consistent. Of all of the decisions we make, of all the regrets we have, the majority of them are actually about educational choices.

So 36 percent of cumulative regrets pertain to, you know, not getting enough education, not studying the right thing, not making enough of the education that we did get.

And then you can go on down the line. The next most regretted choices pertain to career; to relationships, as you might imagine - especially to parenting, actually, decisions people make about how to raise their children; and to what we do with our leisure time.

And then the curve falls off fairly dramatically so, you know, people think a lot in general about financial regrets, and a lot of what we know about regret comes from studying financial behavior. But it turns out in the long run, we actually don't care about it that much.

So it really covers a whole range of things. And one thing I should say is that, you know, I - in this talk, I use the example of this tattoo. Now, I'm very aware of the fact that it's a trivial regret in the scheme of things, right? There's very, very important, dire, difficult situations we face.

But the reason I use the tattoo is that I like that it, aside from the fact that, you know, TED has a massive audience and I wasn't totally prepared to disclose, you know, very significant regrets on that stage, but the - I like the way that it has a kind of metaphoric power that's very interesting to me. And the way that it's such a - almost a literal example of thinking the future is going to look different than the way it actually looks, and then having to live with it.

It's permanent, it's on your body - and I think that really does get to how regret feels. It's permanent; it's with us. Our imagination somehow failed us. We thought things were going to turn out a certain way. We mis-predicted ourself and then we're stuck with it. And that set of emotions really can pertain to almost anything.

STEWART: This is a good place to jump back into your TED talk.


SCHULZ: For these things that we actually do really care about, and do experience profound regret around, what does that experience feel like? We all know the short answer, right? It feels terrible. Regret feels awful. But it turns out that regret feels awful in four very specific and consistent ways.

So the first consistent component of regret is basically, denial. When I went home that night after getting my tattoo, I basically stayed up all night and for the first several hours, there was exactly one thought in my head. And the thought was: Make it go away.

This is an unbelievably primitive emotional response. I mean, it's right up there with, I want my mommy. You know, we're not trying to solve the problem, we're not trying to understand how the problem came about; we just want it to vanish.

The second characteristic component of regret is a sense of bewilderment. So the other thing I thought about there in my bedroom that night was: How could I have done that? What was I thinking? It's this real sense of alienation from the part of us that made a decision we regret. We can't identify with that part. We don't understand that part.

And we certainly don't have any empathy for that part, which explains the third consistent component of regret - which is an intense desire to punish ourselves. That's why, in the face of our regrets, the thing we consistently say is, I could have kicked myself.

The fourth component here is that regret is what psychologists call perseverative. To perseverate means to focus obsessively and repeatedly on the exact, same thing. Now, the effect of perseveration is to basically take these first three components of regret, and put them on an infinite loop.

So it's not that I sat there in my bedroom that night thinking, make it go away. It's that I sat there and I thought: Make it go away, make it go away, make it go away, make it go away.

So if you look at the psychological literature, these are the four consistent defining components of regret. This is, obviously, an incredibly painful experience and I think it's particularly painful for us now in the West, in the grips of what I sometimes think of as a control Z culture. control Z like the computer command, undo.

We're incredibly used to not having to face life's hard realities, in a certain sense. We think we can throw money at the problem, or throw technology at the problem. We can undo and un-friend and un-follow. And the problem is that there are certain things that happen in life that we desperately want to change, and we cannot.

And for those of us who are control freaks and perfectionist - and I know whereof I speak - this is really hard because we want to do everything ourselves, and we want to do it right.

Now, there is a case to be made, that control freaks and perfectionists should not get tattoos. And I'm going to return to that point in a few minutes. But first, I want to say that the intensity and persistence with which we experience these emotional components of regret is obviously going to vary, depending on the specific things that we're feeling regretful about.

You know, you can accidentally hit "reply all" to an email and torpedo a relationship, or you can just have an incredibly embarrassing day at work. Or you can have your last day at work.

And this doesn't even touch on the really profound regrets of life because, of course, sometimes we do make decisions that have irrevocable and terrible consequences, either for our own or for other people's health and happiness and livelihoods and, in the very worst-case scenario, even their lives.

Now, obviously those kinds of regrets are incredibly piercing and enduring. I mean, even the stupid "reply all" regrets can leave us in a fit of excruciating agony for days.

So how are we supposed to live with this? I want to suggest that there's three things that help us to make our peace with regret. And the first of these is to take some comfort in its universality. If you Google regret and tattoo, you will get 11.5 million hits. The FTA estimates that of all the Americans who have tattoos, 17 percent of us regret getting them. And that's just regret about tattoos. We are all in this together.

The second way that we can help make our peace with regret is to laugh at ourselves. Now, in my case, this really wasn't a problem because it's actually very easy to laugh at yourself when you're 29 years old, and you want your mommy because you don't like your new tattoo. But it might seem like a kind of cool or a glib suggestion when it comes to these more profound regrets.

I don't think that's the case, though. All of us who've experienced regret that contains real pain and real grief understand that humor, and even black humor, plays a crucial role in helping us survive. It connects the poles of our lives back together, the positive and the negative, and it sends a little current of life back into us.

The third way that I think we could help make our peace with regret is through the passage of time - which, as we know, heals all wounds except for tattoos, which are permanent.

So it's been several years since I got my own tattoo and - do you guys just want to see it?

All right.

STEWART: You were very candid in this talk, and you do something that I think is kind of intimate.

SCHULZ: Take off my clothes?


STEWART: You take off your clothes. You show people this tattoo, and I appreciated that you did it because you talk about it so much and it would have been so disappointing not to see it. But just as you're taking off your jacket in this TED talk, and you have your bare arms and you show everybody it, I thought - I don't know, brave is, you know, a little too strong a word, but brave with the littlest B.

SCHULZ: I think brave with a little B is about all I deserve for that.


SCHULZ: It seemed, you know, it seemed only fair to share this tattoo that I had been talking about and, you know, I also felt like - the thing that I go on to say, you know, the fact of the matter is - and, you know, again, your radio audience deserves to know this as well - it is not hideous. You know, it's not like a just sort of really horrific thing that everybody would look at and say like, oh my gosh, what was that woman thinking?

And one of the things I wanted to convey was, look on some level of regret - like all emotional experiences - it is subjective, it is in the eye of the beholder. And there are ways to make your peace and get over it. As I say in the talk, you know, your own regrets also might not be as ugly as you think that they are.

And so, yeah, it felt important in that sense, and it also felt important in that, you know, I believe in emotional vulnerability and I think one of the lessons of regret is we are emotionally vulnerable. We aren't kind of omniscient even about our own lives, our own emotions, and our own future. And you have to be willing to live with that and sit with that, and kind of face the pain and discomfort of not being in total control of your life.

And the more that I think you can do that kind of openly and honestly, the more you can share it with other people, I actually think the more - kind of comfort and healing you're going to have through a process like that.

STEWART: I need you to describe your tattoo.

SCHULZ: Sure. As I said, it's hopefully non-hideous, although it falls short of what I was looking for. It is, as I said, on my upper left shoulder. And it is a tattoo of a compass rose, like the kind that you might find on, you know, an old nautical map or some such.


SCHULZ: I got this tattoo because I spent most of my 20s living outside of the country and traveling, and when I came and settled in New York afterwards, I was worried that I would forget some of the most important lessons that I learned during that time.

Specifically, the two things I learned about myself that I most didn't want to forget, was how important it felt to keep exploring; and simultaneously, how important it is to somehow keep an eye on your own true north. And I thought it might serve as a kind of permanent pneumonic device.

Well, it did. But it turns out it doesn't remind me of the thing I thought it would. It reminds me constantly of something else instead. It actually reminds me of the most important lesson regret can teach us, which is also one of the most important lessons life teaches us. And ironically, I think it's probably the single most important thing I possibly could have tattooed onto my body - partly as a writer, but also just as a human being.

Here's the thing. If we have goals and dreams and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don't want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things goes wrong. The point isn't to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.

The lesson that I ultimately learned from my tattoo, and that I want to leave you with today, is this: We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we could do better. Thank you.

STEWART: We're here with Kathryn Schulz, discussing her 2011 TED talk. Kathryn, one of the byproducts of regret is sadness.


STEWART: Is there a way that someone can think about regret that doesn't immediately lead to sadness?

SCHULZ: I think so. I think probably not in the moment, right? Regret is a very, very powerful emotion when we're in its grips. And I think - and I wouldn't actually encourage anyone to rush away from it, or to rush away from the sadness. I think it's important to live our emotions as we're experiencing them.

I think both regret and sadness, you know, they exist for reasons. They're reactions to things that have really happened in the world. And as I say in the talk, you know, if we're trying to do our best, if we love other people and don't want to hurt them, yeah, you know what? We should feel sad when those things go wrong. We should feel regret, we should feel pain. I have no problem with that.

In fact, if anything, what I'm arguing against is the instinct to run away from those things - like, how can we just alleviate all this pain from our lives? And I think for me, you know, one of the real - you know, the great mystery of regret is that we somehow got ourselves wrong, right? We made a choice, or we committed to a course of action, that we thought was going to be right and great for us. And then down the line, it just wasn't at all. And so somehow there was this like, major failure of self-knowledge and major failure of imagination.

And to me, if there's a - if there's something to alleviate the sadness in there, it's that, you know, that's kind of great, right? Like, it's - failures of self-knowledge are so important. You know, if we had a perfect internal map of ourselves, if the picture was totally complete, it would also be totally static. You know, there's - a picture that's complete is, by definition, done. I don't know about you, but I don't really want to be done.

And I feel like these gaps in our self-knowledge are what enable us ultimately to learn, and to change - and to actually become new people, to have new self-knowledge available to us. And to me, that is a very deep kind of happiness. It's not the happiness of watching a fun movie or going out dancing, but it's a deep happiness - to feel like, all right, you know? Like, I have a self that I can explore and get to know. And it can change and grow up as I move through life.

STEWART: Kathryn Schulz, thanks for joining us.

SCHULZ: My pleasure. Thank you.

STEWART: Kathryn Schulz is the author of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." You can watch her TED talk, and dozens of others. Go to ted.npr.org.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.