I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. Every year I say to myself that this will be the last post I write about 9/11. And then every year I write another post. So, now I have a whole archive of posts about my story: I was so close to death, from suffocation, that I went through the acceptance process. Then I lived. Now I write about it.
For a while I thought the most remarkable part of my story is not that I lived, but that I walked toward the building. I had time to get away, but I wanted to see people jumping. I couldn’t believe it. So I stood, right there at the bottom, looking up to see what was going on. I talked to people next to me. I did many things that I could have regretted.
Later, though, after lots of counseling, I realized that my behavior was normal human behavior for the situation I was in. No one knew buildings would fall. And there are not many people who could look away if you were told someone was jumping from the World Trade Center.
Once I understood that my behavior was normal, it was easier to not have regrets about what I did.
1. If you like your life, you don’t regret what came before.
I would not be on a farm if I had not lived through 9/11. When I thought I was going to die, I had the privilege of understanding, at the most fundamental level, what mattered to me: And all I cared about was people in my immediate family. I did not think of anything else. Having that experience makes it much easier for me to say no to launching my fourth startup and choosing instead to homeschool my kids.
I still have nightmares about 9/11, I still have never watched the towers fall on TV. I just can’t do it. But I also know that the good things about my life today came from living through 9/11. It’s a way for me to not regret having been there.
2. Overcome new obstacles all the time.
The big regrets we have often come from big moments in our life. If you only have one big moment, and it didn’t turn out how you wanted, then you are more likely to regret it than if you have lots of big moments. It’s why people tell you that once you finish writing a novel, put it in a drawer and start writing another: that way when the first novel gets rejected, it won’t matter that much because you have another to send.
People just want more chances to get it right, really. And if you put big challenges in front of yourself you’ll get more chances throughout your life. People ask me how I can possibly homeschool and do my job. I wonder the same thing. The photo up top encapsulates the problem: The kids are so cozy but they obstruct my view nearly completely. It’s scary to commit to that. And it’s scary not to. But the best way to not regret what has happened in the past is to create more challenges for myself, and surprise myself with how well you make them turn out; the antidote for regret is gratitude.
3. Know what leads to regret for most people.
I’m a big fan of assuming that we are normal. Because the odds are that we are normal. And, also, we don’t gain anything in life from assuming we are not normal because it just undermines our ability to use the information other people have learned about life.
So, for those of you who can make that leap of faith that you are normal, Bonnie Ware, a hospice worker, wrote a book about the five most common regrets of people who are dying. The list rings true to me:
I wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself rather than the life others expected of me.
I wish I didn’t work so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish I had let myself be happier.
I am not a person who has a lot of regret. But I’m also not a person who has a lot of stability. I’m becoming convinced that regret and stability go hand in hand. Because most of the regrets come from complacency—staying on one, proscribed path and not veering from it.
For example, focusing less on work and more on friends actually feels really risky when you have kids and a job and a spouse. Revealing your feelings to other people is risky because then you have to know your feelings yourself, and once you know your feelings, you will be compelled to take action toward them, which will invariably shake things up.
So staving off regret requires creating a sense of uneasiness.
4. Take control over your life.
One thing that strikes me about that list is that the regrets are about things we can control. Which means that if we take responsibility for our lives, instead of just letting them happen how they happen, we are less likely to live with regret.
It’s not like someone regrets that they didn’t win the lottery. The lottery actually would not have helped with any of those areas of regret. So a lot of regret is about time management.
If you are tied to a daily to-do list, you lose the big-picture. Then time management becomes about menial tasks and you open yourself up to large regrets. If you do it right, time management is about values, so good time managers are able to accomplish what they believe in over the long haul.
5. Make a choice to like your life.
The last item on the list really resonates with me because it’s about happiness, and I think I write so much about that topic because I don’t want to have regrets. I see that happiness is more of a point of view than a series of events that leads to something great. I also think it’s why I write about 9/11 every year. Because I want to make sure that for me, the event is one that triggers gratitude rather than regret.
This list of regrets makes me realize that we spend most of our lives chasing something that will make us happy and then we get to the end of our life and we realize that happiness was there all along. For some of us the happiness will be from contentment and stability. For others, happiness will be from being interested and engaged. Recognizing that it’s what we picked because it’s what makes us happy is a good step to being able to say “I’m happy” right now.