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No More Regrets!

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Why do we have regrets—and what can we do about it?

We all want to live a life without regrets. Whenever we do something we wish we hadn’t—or don’t do something we wish we had—we vow it won’t happen again. But why do we have regrets in the first place?

Because we become prisoners of habit and circumstance, we take people in our lives for granted and fail to be true to ourselves. We stop growing and learning, become self-absorbed and judgmental, and lose touch with our innate goodness. Inspired by his final conversation with a dying friend, Marc Muchnick’s No More Regrets! is specifically designed to help you avoid these pitfalls.

Just one or two of the thirty ways to greater happiness and meaning outlined here could potentially change your life. Muchnick’s suggestions are straightforward, thoughtful, and easy to implement—often just a matter of shifting perspective and seeing the world differently. He illustrates each with a moving personal story and includes a “No More Regrets! Game Plan” tool to help you banish regret from your life forever.

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1 Stop Doing What Isn't Working

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NOT TOO LONG after we got married, my wife and I got into a rut. We were working dead-end jobs for bosses we didn’t like and were barely making enough money to pay the monthly bills. We were happy as a couple, yet we were unhappy with our professional lives. Between the two of us, we had racked up more than six figures in student loan debt. In addition, we had moved to an area of town that was more affordable and closer to our jobs, but this had taken us farther away from our friends and the coastal part of San Diego we loved most. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t see how our situation was going to change any time soon.

I started teaching at two community colleges in the evenings to supplement the income from both of our full-time jobs. We also started selling personalized gifts at the local flea market—not exactly our strong suit, but my wife had a knack for calligraphy and I was decent at sales. Every weekend we’d haul display cases, folding tables and chairs, and all of our products in the back of my tiny convertible to our even tinier booth at the swap meet. It was quite a spectacle and an exhausting process. More than anything, though, we regretted the fact that we were working so hard and had so little to show for it.

 

2 Pick a Place to Start

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EVERY JANUARY 1 we engage in the long-standing ritual of making our New Year’s resolutions. Some of us actually write them down; others just commit them to memory. In addition, some of us postpone the exercise indefinitely despite our best intentions. But all of us go through the process of at least thinking about what we should put on the list of goals we hope to accomplish in the coming year. Historical favorites include losing weight, earning more money, getting a different job, making new friends, creating greater work-life balance, putting old photos into a scrapbook, eating healthier foods, taking a longer vacation, exercising more, and procrastinating less.

The problem of course with most of our “to do” lists—whether they include our yearly resolutions, tasks at work, or things we need to get done around the house—is that we put too much on them. It’s not too long before the stark realization sets in: we may never get everything done. This can be overwhelming and ultimately lead to feelings of regret if we don’t complete the entire list or if we don’t give it our best effort because we are trying to do too many things at once. Regret may also be the result if we spend so much time overanalyzing how to get it all done that we wind up getting little or nothing done.

 

3 Make Peace with Yourself

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MY SON, BLAKE, was born in the middle of a hurricane, literally as the eye of the storm passed over the hospital where my wife was giving birth. It was a scene that can only be described as chaotic: the hospital was already on backup generators due to flooding and a power outage, and we were on the only floor that hadn’t been evacuated yet. Nurses were running around frantically as my wife begged for an epidural. Then, just as she was about to deliver, the doctor informed us that the umbilical cord was wrapped around our baby’s neck. As he tried to remedy the situation, I could see signs of panic on his face. He reassured us that everything was fine, but our son was a deep blue color upon coming out of the womb.

All I remember is pleading to God to let this baby breathe. I can say without hesitation that I have never been so happy to hear a baby cry his lungs out. At that moment, I knew my son was resilient and determined to put up a fight, though I still wondered what impact the early trauma might have had on him. Did he stop breathing for too long? Would he be “normal”? I hated to think that way, but I kept torturing myself with the unknown.

 

4 Turn Adversity into Opportunity

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SOMETIMES LIFE THROWS us challenges that test our resilience and threaten to keep us stuck in a rut of regret. Lloyd Bachrach knows this all too well: he was born with a congenital bone deficiency that made his lower limbs so unusually small that doctors told his parents he should be institutionalized. When his parents insisted that they were going to take him home, they were warned that he would never be able to have a normal life. “He’ll find his way,” his parents responded.

Lloyd’s parents encouraged him early on to figure out how to do things on his own and refused to coddle him. To the amazement of his doctors, he learned how to crawl without the use of his legs. He became progressively mobile and, despite his severe disability, attended public school when he became school age. Lloyd’s attitude from the beginning was one of no regrets for the cards he’d been dealt in life. “You can’t miss something you never had,” he’d say. Lloyd also adopted a motto that embodied his can-do approach: “It doesn’t matter what you don’t have—just use what you do have to pursue your goals.”

 

5 Avoid Victimitis

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WHEN I WAS in eighth grade I joined a youth group, and at our first event we had a speaker who introduced us to the PLUM game. PLUM stood for “Poor Little Unfortunate Me,” and the speaker’s contention was that most of us knew how to play this game all too well, especially when we were faced with tough challenges or if things didn’t go our way. He explained that when people play the PLUM game, they take little or no responsibility for their own situation. Instead they pretend to be victims when actually they’re just whining about their regrets—for example, how they don’t get what they rightfully deserve, how things never go their way, how they always get the short end of the stick, and all the other ways that life has somehow cheated them.

He called this pattern of behavior “victimitis” and was quick to make the distinction between it and being a true victim: “People with this condition actually have the ability to change their circumstances,” he said, “but somehow they convince themselves that they can’t.” Next he had us practice whining “Poor little unfortunate me!” in our most nasal voice possible. This way he could be certain we understood just how annoying people with this disease sounded. Then he gave some examples of the regrets that adolescents with victimitis whine about, most of which rang true for our group: “I got a bad grade on the test …” “I didn’t make the team …” “I didn’t get the part I wanted in the play …” “I’m not popular …” “My parents are on my case …” “I’m grounded for a week …” After each example we had to shout “Poor little unfortunate me!” The exercise was both invigorating and revealing, and it still sticks with me today.

 

6 Steer Clear of Toxic People

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SOME PEOPLE WILL squeeze the life out of you if you let them. They’re the ones who are quick to criticize us and make callous remarks behind our backs. They thrive on pointing out our inadequacies and love to remind us of our flaws. They like to prey on us when we’re most vulnerable and kick us when we’re down. In addition, they relish the moments when we are vulnerable and take every opportunity to chip away at our self-esteem. Deep down, they are insecure, unhappy folks who have discovered they feel better about themselves when others feel worse. Warning: steer clear of these toxic people—they are poster children for regret and reek of negativity.

Instead, surround yourself with positive, supportive people who will encourage you and believe in you. These are individuals who tend to smile a lot, love to laugh at life, and are always there to cheer you on. They see your potential even when you’re not showing it, and they look at every day as an opportunity for you to do something great. They are also the ones who boost your confidence when you’re up against a challenge and who lift your spirits when you’re down in the dumps or stuck in a rut. They are eternal optimists and die-hard advocates. They’ve got your back and will always be in your corner.

 

7 Live Your Life the Way You Want to Be Remembered

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WHEN I WAS first told that I had melanoma, my immediate reaction was denial—there must have been some mistake. After all, I wore sunscreen religiously, I was in reasonably good physical condition, and I definitely did not feel sick. But once the doctor repeated my diagnosis and underscored how I absolutely needed to come in for surgery the next morning at 8:00 a.m., I just stood there in shock.

Suddenly a flood of memories raced through my head as I contemplated the prospect of dying and whether or not I had lived my life thus far the way I wanted to be remembered. For instance, how many times had I promised my kids that I’d spend quality time with them only to get caught up doing something else? How many times had I forgotten to tell my wife that I love her and appreciate everything that she does? How many times had I vowed to keep in more frequent contact with my closest friends only to let life get in the way again? And how many times had I gotten so caught up in work that it began to rule my life? These regrets and others haunted me as I continued to ponder my fate.

 

8 Greet the Day

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THERE ARE TWO types of people in the world: those who greet the day and those who wake up on the wrong side of the bed. My wife is the consummate example of someone who truly wakes up every morning and says, “Hello world, it’s going to be a great day!” She’s cheery, smiley, and full of energy from the moment she rises, ready to take on whatever life throws her way. What intrigues me most, though, is that she actually expects her day to go well from the beginning. She believes with all her heart that when you greet the day, you have fewer regrets in life because you’ve already started your day off feeling happy and inspired.

Then there are those of us—like me—who are just the opposite. We’d prefer to sleep late and absolutely cringe when the alarm clock goes off (the first time). We dread getting up and when we finally do, we’re grumpy. People who know us steer clear until we’ve had our first cup of coffee. Invariably, the quest to avoid regrets is a daily battle for us since each day we tend to start things off on the wrong foot.

 

9 Stay in Touch

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AT SOME POINT in life we begin to realize that maintaining friendships gets harder and harder. Like it or not, we all get busy and sometimes just don’t have enough time to keep up with everything—and everyone—in our world. Before we know it, we may start to grow distant from people we used to be close to and eventually lose track of their lives. Without frequency of interaction, our friendships can wither and fade, and for that we may wind up having regrets.

To keep your relationships alive, you must take the time to stay in touch. This requires conscious effort and is not always convenient or easy. Essentially, it means either being a good communicator or learning to become one. In other words, we have to take the initiative to find out what’s going on in other people’s lives and be willing to let them in on what’s happening in our world as well. The mere fact that our lives are so overscheduled and fast paced calls for creativity in our quest to stay in touch.

Dan Vishny is someone who knows how to step outside the box when it comes to staying in touch. Vish, as he prefers to be called, is an accountant by training who also has a penchant for vegan cooking and travel. One day Vish, while living in Chicago, was experimenting with a new vegan recipe when he got a call from a friend he used to cook with back in Eugene, Oregon. Although it was great to catch up, Vish was saddened by the fact that many of his closest friends were spread out across the country and that he hardly ever talked to them anymore. In addition, due to his busy work schedule and the pressures of raising a family, it was always either the wrong time to go visit or just too expensive.

 

10 Make Every Day Count

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OUR DAYS ARE numbered. No matter how hard we try to prolong our time on earth, the reality is that we are mere mortals and will not live forever. Although we may fantasize about what it would be like to relive the past, ultimately we must figure out how to make the most of our time while we are here in the living present. Each moment we waste is a potential source of regret and literally time lost.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Are we passengers on a journey through time or are we explorers on a mission of discovery?” In the latter case, each day is an opportunity to embrace life as active participants rather than as casual observers. Instead of being aloof and detached, we must get engaged and make every day count. Likewise, as opposed to remaining ambivalent, we need to be deliberate about how we spend our time. Sitting on the sidelines and watching life from afar will only result in apathy and regret.

Several summers ago my grandmother, whom we called Gigi, passed away after a long and happy life of ninety-one years. No one knew how to make every day count like Gigi. Until the very end, she was a world traveler, a political activist, and a philanthropist. She had a true zest for life and loved to laugh. She was also the first to help extended family members in need. She was playful, funny, beautiful, thoughtful, caring, and kind. She came to every family event near or far and was the undisputed life of the party. At 6:00 a.m. each day she was singing and already on the go, prepared to leave her mark on the world. No day was finished until Gigi had fully lived it.

 

11 Freeze the Moment

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LIFE IS FULL of magical moments, not all of which can be photographed, videotaped, or digitized. One way to preserve special experiences that you’d regret forgetting is to “freeze the moment”—to take an intentional mental picture of everything you see, hear, sense, and feel at a particular juncture in time and then permanently commit it to memory. A “freezable moment” is the split second of joy, beauty, laughter, irony, celebration, mystery, intrigue, exhilaration, wonder, or grace that makes us feel at one with the universe. It’s the flash of inspiration that reassures us life is worth living if only to have been alive at that exact instant.

Some of my top freezable moments include the first time I saw the incredible Pacific sunset, the moment I met my future wife, the day I got accepted into graduate school and my grandpa told me how proud he was of me, the many times I’ve laughed so hard with my best friends that my stomach ached, and the afternoon I watched the Grateful Dead play one of the most amazing sets ever at Frost Amphitheater.

 

12 Put Your Stuff in Perspective

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IT’S AMAZING HOW attached we’ve become to our “stuff” in life. Imagine if you had to give up your cell phone or your computer or your iPod or your high-definition television. As much as we hate to admit it, our happiness is often tied to our gadgets, conveniences, and material possessions. Sometimes we get so consumed with our things that we need a wake-up call to gain perspective.

Several years ago my family was unexpectedly forced to evacuate our home at 5:30 a.m. Wildfires in the surrounding area had started burning out of control and the wind was picking up. As we raced to pack our most precious possessions, ash was pouring down from the sky and blowing all over our yard.

It quickly dawned on us that we didn’t have enough room in the car to bring everything we owned with us. In fifteen minutes or less and with limited capacity for luggage, what do you take? We scrambled to find our passports, laptops, and important house documents. Next we grabbed our wedding album, baby pictures of the kids, and some random family photos. Finally, we packed enough clothes to last a few days. That was it: the car was full and time was running out. I threw in a few bottles of water and some treats for the dog, and then we got out of there.

 

13 Live Your Vision

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IF YOU’VE EVER been on an airplane, you probably knew exactly where you were going. You didn’t just hop on board and say, “Let’s see where we wind up.” In life the mission is more ambiguous. We don’t always know which direction to head, and occasionally we may question whether or not we’re on the right course. Without a clear destination in mind, life is tough to navigate.

That was the way my wife and I felt when our first child was born. We were so excited to become parents, but we had no idea how to make everything work in terms of maintaining our careers, taking care of our newborn, and still having quality time together. My wife put her fulltime job on hold to stay home with our daughter while I continued traveling for business and basically living out of a suitcase most of the week. When I got back from a trip, I just wanted to decompress and have quality family time before jetting off again. My wife, on the other hand, was totally exhausted from being up every night with the baby and just wanted to sleep or have a minute to herself. She loved being a mom but felt like she was doing it all alone and in the process losing her husband and professional identity. I loved being a dad and enjoyed my job but felt like I had become an absentee father. This was not the life we had envisioned.

 

14 Listen to Your Heart

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PART OF HUMAN nature is trying to make sense of the world. To do this, we apply mathematical properties, the principles of cause and effect, deductive reasoning, scientific inquiry, the laws of physics, and other time-tested tools to provide insight into how and why things happen. Yet there is still a lot that we don’t understand and can’t easily reduce to logic or linear equations. For example, why do coincidences happen? What is luck? Does karma really exist?

When we can’t explain something through science or logic, we instinctively call it a mystery, an anomaly, a miracle, magic, or fate. In essence, we are inclined to find a reason for everything that happens to us in life, even in the absence of rational explanation. This quest for meaning leads us not only to contemplate the random occurrences in our life but to consider acting on them as well. In other words, we must be open to listening to our heart and taking an unforeseen path in life when the opportunity presents itself—even though we have no guarantees about where that path will lead. This, of course, has implications for regrets: if taking this path does not work out the way I had hoped, will I regret it? Or alternatively, if I don’t take this path, will I regret not knowing where it would have led and possibly miss a life-changing opportunity?

 

15 Find Your Own Voice

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SOCIAL PRESSURE IS an inescapable reality for all of us, regardless of whether we are teenagers or adults. It’s the reason why we may feel compelled to wear a particular brand of clothing, use the latest buzzwords, or act a certain way to fit in. It also may be why we think it’s important to live in a particular neighborhood, drive a specific kind of car, or be politically correct. Left unchecked, our efforts to conform can consume our lives and leave us with regrets.

What makes us so obsessed with blending in? What is the allure of being just like everyone else? When our goal in life is simply to gain the approval of others, we lose clarity on what we bring to the table as individuals. That was me in the seventh grade. I was young, impressionable, and lost. Everything that mattered to me had to do with hanging with the “in” crowd and trying to win their acceptance. I did what they did, said what they said, and adopted their interests as my own. The last thing I wanted to be seen as was different.

 

16 Speak Your Mind

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WHEN MY DAUGHTER, Jessica, entered kindergarten, we found out the school had a “Books and Beyond” program where students received a special T-shirt and got to shake hands with the principal at the end of the year if they read a specified number of books. Since Jessica was a voracious reader, she was elated. Every night when we’d read books aloud before bedtime, she would ask, “Daddy, do you know what’s going to happen in June?” Without waiting for an answer she’d exclaim, “Principal Stevens is going to shake my hand! He’s really going to shake my hand, Daddy.” She’d repeat this last line several times with great enthusiasm. By March, Jessica had already surpassed the program goal and was eagerly awaiting the end-of-year award ceremony.

On the day of the big event, Jessica insisted on wearing her party dress and fanciest shoes. She was so excited! My wife and I went early with her to find a good seat in the auditorium and had our cameras ready for the long-awaited handshake. Soon the assistant principal got up on stage and thanked all of the students for a job well done. Then she informed everyone that, unfortunately, Principal Stevens had a last-minute schedule conflict and that she would be shaking the award winners’ hands in his place. The room grew silent and my daughter started crying. When her name was called, she wouldn’t even look up as she walked over to the handshake line. It was a major letdown.

 

17 Be True to What You Value Most

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WE JUGGLE A lot of balls in life. But when we have too many balls in the air, some of them are bound to drop. For example, a few years ago I missed my son and daughter’s first day of school because I was out of town on business. Up until that point, I had been there every year for our family’s first-day-of-school tradition of getting up early with the kids, cooking a big breakfast for them, and then taking their pictures outside in the front yard. I had always put this date on my calendar way in advance, but this time I had to attend a client event that couldn’t be rescheduled.

If you’re a working parent, it’s unrealistic to think that you will be present for every special moment in your child’s life. However, one specific commitment I made to myself was that I’d always be there for my kids’ first day of school. Telling them that I wasn’t going to make it this time was heartbreaking for me. While I knew I had let them down, more than anything I was upset because I had let myself down.

No matter how many balls you have in the air, you have to put what’s most important first if you want to live your life with no more regrets. This experience was a pointed reminder for me, and as a result, I made a personal commitment to focus more on prioritizing my family, my marriage, and my quality of life. While it is certainly difficult at times, thus far I’ve curtailed my work with clients that requires frequent travel and have been transforming my business to one that is primarily done electronically, locally, and remotely.

 

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