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Why "living a life with no regrets" is bad advice

Ash and I recently had our second child, a beautiful baby girl called Sage Hunter Paddock. She was born on the 28th of June, and I took off two weeks to be at home with her, Ash and our (nearly) two-year old boy, Gray.

While I was on paternity leave, in between running around at a thousand kilometres an hour doing who knows what, I took a gap to cut Gray's hair for the first time. It's been really busy, so I quickly set things up for the haircut, sat him in his high chair and started hacking away on autopilot. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I burst into tears.

At the precise moment that I trimmed back the curly mullet locks at the back of his hair, it struck me how quickly he is growing up, and that I will never get these moments back. He'll never be a toddler again, he'll never have a first haircut again, he'll never say words like "giffraffe" instead of “giraffe" again. Time is flying by so quickly, and I had a moment of major regret for not being home for all of it. To be present and witness every precious moment of this impossible miracle of life.

We often hear that we should live a life with no regrets. It seems like wise counsel, and yet, the more I've sat with the idea after Gray's haircut, the more I've come to believe that it's poor advice.

Every moment we choose to do one thing, we are actively choosing not to do another thing. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but it's real. It's called the opportunity cost of our time, and it's a permanent feature of our reality.

  • Would I like to be home all the time and never miss a moment with my wife and kids? Yes. Will I regret not doing more of it? Yes.

  • Would I like to work harder than I am now, and do more to try and achieve our mission sooner? Yes. Will I regret not doing so? Yes.

  • Would I like to spend more time getting fit and tackling awesome endurance races? Yes. Will I regret not doing so? Yes.

  • Would I like to spend more time meditating, cooking great food, and catching up with friends? Yes, yes and yes. Will I regret not doing more of it? Yes.

The idea that we can live a life with no regrets is completely unrealistic advice, and in my opinion, will set every one of us up for failure. When we choose to do one thing, we are actively choosing not to do another thing.

Increasingly, I'm convinced that the opportunity for every one of us is to actively choose our regrets, not to live a life without regrets.

I know that I will regret not being home all the time, and I know that I will miss precious moments of my kids' lives, but I also know that I love my work, and I need to contribute to playing a part in solving the big challenges facing education in our country. If I was at home full-time, I would regret not doing my work. So I choose to straddle both worlds, and do my best to balance the scale - to choose my tolerable level of regret in each domain.

If the opportunity cost of our time is real, and we will always have some level of regret about the things that we can't or didn't do, then how should we think about making decisions? In a recent episode, Chris Williamson from the Modern Wisdom podcast put it beautifully:

What level of regret can you not tolerate?

I think this is a beautiful guiding compass for where we choose to spend our time. I know that I cannot live with the level of regret I would feel if I wasn't home for food and bath time with my kids every day, and if I didn't spend the majority of the weekends with them. By contrast, I know that I can live with the level of regret I have about not being as fit as I'd like to be in this phase of life right now.

It's empowering decision making. Rather than trying to run away from the idea of regret, you actively take the bull by the horns and wrestle with it every day. Whilst I know I will have regrets, these are the regrets I've chosen, and I know I can tolerate them.

Rather ironically, once you choose your regrets, you are no longer a victim. It's my choice, and the charge of the regret dissipates immensely.

What regrets do you choose?


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