4 Important Keys to Release Regret in Business & Life

By Donna West
Art Director, e-Relationship.com | Identity Branding, Inc.

You may remember these lines from the song, My Way — made famous by both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra:

“Regrets, I’ve had a few … but then again, too few to mention

I did what I had to do… and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course … each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this … I did it my way.”

Elvis and Frank had different singing styles, but shared much in common. Both men were immensely talented, with incredibly strong and unique personalities. The reason I think they both excel at this song in particular, is because it so poetically points to authenticity and individualism. It conveys the importance of being true to yourself and not wasting time on regret.

When it comes to working as a financial advisor, a manager, or a firm owner — we all know intuitively that the pangs of remorse over decisions we’ve made, to the point of overwhelming guilt at least, are a waste of our time and emotional bandwidth. Yet, it can happen to all of us. Especially when we feel that, as a leader, we should somehow “know better” or have some sixth sense when it comes to business acumen. If we are in business for a few years, we are bound to make a few displeasing decisions. But what happens when we continue to carry remorse regarding a misstep and can’t seem to let it go?

First, let’s look at why we tend to believe things would have turned out better had we made a different choice. For some things, such as starting to eat healthy at age 50 rather than age 20 – a decision can be pretty black-and-white. But even when we consider the most unforeseeable outcomes of our choices, we often say that ‘hindsight is 20/20’ — as if going back in time would allow us 100% certainty of making a perfect decision with a perfect outcome.   

It is true that mistakes can only be viewed once the story has played out, but the nature of decisions is that they must be made in the moment, with the best information we have at the time.  We can’t know what we can’t know. Yet we often beat ourselves up for making a bad decision, when the opposite decision might not have worked out as beautifully as we imagined … or created a worse outcome altogether.

Here are some tips that may help you release regret:

  1. Own it

The saying, “Put on your big girl/big boy pants and deal with it” comes to mind.

Is it undeniably regretful? Okay, accept whatever responsibility is needed and make a plan to address the situation positively. If you need help – whether in the form of a good lawyer or a great therapist — seek their assistance sooner, rather than later.

A extraordinary leader is resourceful. Feeling vulnerable takes courage and asking for support is a sign of emotional strength. Be wise enough to recognize when you need help and smart enough to ask for it quickly.

  • Forgive yourself

As of this writing, we still cannot change the past. Dwelling on “what might have been” robs us of valuable present moments. We are all human and it’s important to forgive ourselves for being just that.  Remember that you didn’t have a crystal ball when you made your decisions … your mental and emotional health are too important not to let yourself off the hook. Recognize how easy it is to allow your self-esteem and self-confidence to diminish when you fixate on a what you see as a defeat. You deserve to be free from the negative feelings enveloping you with regard to an unfortunate situation, so focus on your strengths and successes!

Case in point: Prior to this job I love, I owned a full-service advertising agency. For over 18 years, clients fortunately found me because of the automotive dealer niche I had created, so rather ironically, I rarely had to advertise my own companies’ services. In December 2008 however, the big three American auto dealers experienced a bailout. While this allowed these large auto manufacturers to re-emerge as profitable entities, the restructuring left their dealers with zero advertising support. GM and Chrysler had previously paid for half of their dealer’s co-opped advertising, but this abruptly ended altogether when the bailout took place. From December to January 2008, half of my agency’s revenue vanished. By February, revenue was down to 35% of it’s previous healthy weight.

Eventually, these dealers closed altogether … while for the 18-plus years prior, they were continuously ranked between 1-3 for sales for North and South Carolina. I kept my agency going on a shoestring budget until 2014 and was blessed to land a contract job with Identity Branding, Inc.  Once my employees found jobs of their own, I closed my company and happily accepted an Art Director position in financial advisor digital marketing here at Identity Branding. I have proudly worked at IB | e-Relationship and called this amazing group of smart, savvy, talented and caring company “family” since 2014. 

But for the years between 2009 and 2014, I asked myself why could I NOT have seen the financial upheaval coming? Why didn’t I do something different that would have changed the outcome for myself and my employees? I felt like I let them down, like I’d let myself down … My central rumination? How I should have put a variety of client-industry eggs in my agency basket. And this is true. (But that’s another blog post.) For this blog topic, it’s important to note that I continued to hold a very strong grudge against myself for what I considered my biggest failure in life. Forget the fact that I’d opened a business at 31 that had been successful for many years prior, or that I had 11+ Addy’s under my belt. Some days, I was simply more focused on my defeat than my achievement.

I finally forgave myself in 2011 when I watched the movie, Too Big to Fail. In case you haven’t seen it, the HBO Films flick chronicles the 2008 financial meltdown. I still recall how this impeccably performed picture struck me so profoundly. I clearly remember saying to myself, “Sweet Lord, Donna … if these financial geniuses didn’t see it coming, how on earth, were you supposed to know what was going to happen? There are things you could have done differently you know now — but girl, you need to let this go.”

And I did. Then and there. A huge weight was lifted and I started focusing on the future rather than the past. Today, I truly love directing my skills toward one client I hold in the highest regard. As a priceless bonus, I get to design and illustrate children’s books for a charity I deeply believe in.  Who can say for certain, but I do not believe I would be as happy if I were still worrying about agency overhead and studying media buying charts in addition to the artistic aspects of a field that truly makes my heart sing.

  • Learn from the experience

When Randy Pausch, computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon was asked to give a lecture, he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The lecture he gave, ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’, focused on overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment you have (because time is priceless and none of us know how much of it we actually have). It was the embodiment of everything Randy had come to believe. A line I find especially meaningful was, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

What lessons can you learn from what you view as your mistake? Even if the mistake was expensive, remember that seven MBA degrees couldn’t teach you as much as going through the ups and downs of growing and running a business. Take apart the situation and look at it closely … a few revelations may develop once you view the entire scenario dispassionately. When you dump out a box full of puzzle pieces, it looks like a big mess that certainly won’t amount to anything beautiful … some pieces are really jagged and ugly and seem not to fit in anywhere at all … but they do fit. It’s all part of a bigger picture you can only see in time … and if it’s really big, only when you take a step back.

  • Let it go

No, I’m not going to quote Elsa form Frozen, I’m just saying that what we pay attention to — we get more of. If this is joy, great! If this is pain — well, that’s pretty dreadful. What if we try feeling thankful for the insight a negative experience has brought us? Although I personally believe God opens and closes doors to give us insight … that obstacles can’t keep us from our purpose if we truly seek understanding — this idea of viewing our miscalculations with gratitude isn’t just mumbo-jumbo for the super-spiritual. Our everyday experiences, good and bad are just the stuff life is made of. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

We can choose to simply go through something or grow through it. It may help to bear in mind that none of us are perfect. By default, mistakes are a part of achieving greater success in life and in business. We can never know what fortuitous path opened up due to a particular fork we took in the road.  Once I accepted my own apology and set myself free, I was able to focus on the future. Doing this allowed me to unleash my creativity, productivity, passion and happiness. 

As Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee, retired American track and field Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalist put it, “It’s better to look ahead and prepare, than to look back and regret.” What a beautiful way to approach life and business!

Donna West is the Art Director at Identity Branding, Inc. |  e-Relationship.com  and Creative Director for Bikes For Kids Foundation. Donna has worked as a writer, creative director and designer of books, videos, event marketing, print, radio and tv advertising for over two decades. She’s won praise for designing financial industry classics, as well as 12 Addy Awards for Fortune 50 to small business campaigns. Donna lives in Kernersville, NC. 

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