Too many people tend to look back and wonder; how did it get to this?  They feel they missed great opportunities and made mistakes in their judgment.  They regret that things could have turned out better if only a different decision had been made. They live with regrets over past negative events ( “I should have spent more time with my family”, “I should have paid keen attention to the executive decision that I made”, and so on.)

Through experience I know that regret is a tough emotion to live you down. It haunts you in ways that will sap your strength and inspiration to go on to better things. It puts you in a state of uncertainty that immmobilises you. Infact William Bridges calls this state (stage), “ The Neutal Zone”, Scott Peak calls it, “Tunnel of chaos” and Janet Hagberg calls it, “ Stage 4-power by reflection”. Whatever its name, it is a zone created by regrets that must be traversed and used for personal growth in achieving goals that people have set.

All I am saying is that regret need not bring you down emotionally.  Instead, it can be something to value and use. According to a recent study, it revealed that most people hold regret in high regard. Of all the negative emotions, regret was identified as the most valued because it helped people make sense of life events and remedy what went wrong. I read a book on neuroscience (Psycho-cybernetics) written by Maxwell Maltz and learnt that, learning from past event probably works best when there is an intense emotional component to it, so it could be that regret enhances our capacity to learn from experiences.

The American Central Intelligence Agency mooted a plan to use Cuban exiles for an invasion of their homeland. But it became a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba. After President John F. Kennedy and a group of his close advisors had blundered in the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion, he later asked. “How could we have been so stupid?”  Although the group who made the decision was one of the greatest collections of intellectual talent in the history of American government, the President regretted over this decision.  He noted that he sought too much concurrence from these great men and didn’t realize that concurrence seeking sometimes derives out the realistic appraisal of alternatives.

Kennedy learnt his lesson.  The missile crisis was handled differently with a more diffuse group, more outside ideas, more testing of alternatives and more sensitivity to collecting data.  From the experience of President Kennedy, I can probably infer that regret bolsters our ability to learn from experience.

A colleague of mine recalls how the home nurses he had hired to take care of his father regretted after the death of his father.  The father was suffering from some terminal disease and was not eating previously.  When he suddenly developed appetite to eat, the nurses overfed him and died soon after.  The nurses regret to date for not feeding him with small quantities on periodic basis.  I told him to tell them that it doesn’t help much to dwell on those things they did or didn’t do in the past.  At the time, they did the very best they could, given their knowledge and experience.  They did not intentionally do anything to harm his father.  In other words they should not blame themselves for good intentions that might have been applied improperly.

This case of ‘good intentions that might have been applied improperly’ reminds me of the story of Sergio Zyman – the mastermind behind the new coke which has been described as the greatest product failure of all time.  In fact the move to introduce this new product was an abysmal failure that lasted seventy nine days in 1985 and cost the Company an equivalent of Ksh. 8.5 billion at the current exchange rate.  It is interesting to note that Roberto Coizuelta, the latter chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company rehired Zyman in 1993 and when he was questioned he said “You can only stumble if you are moving”.  He further said that Zyman was never a failure and continued to say that “We get paid to produce results and we don’t get paid to be right”.

I am not saying that Zyman was proud of all he did.  All I am advancing is that he regretted the mistakes and wished he would have done it differently.  The key here is to keep these things in perspective and accept them as an inevitable part of growth.  In other words what one should have done always seems clearer in retrospect than it was at the time.  As the Danish philosopher Seren Kierkegord put it “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forward”.  Do not be so hard on yourself when you make unintentional mistakes.  Every event whether good or bad is one small step in the process of living.  Tom peters says “If silly things were not done, intelligent things would never happen”.  If you have done mistakes, remember that they are not permanent markers.  In other words Sam Irvin puts it clearly by saying “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.”

Therefore, how can people or leaders use regret as a tool of growth?

The first thing in my view is to use regret to improve decision making and clarify values.  Instead of ruminating over what might have been, let what happened point the way.  The regret you may feel from a honest re-appraisal of your decision making need not undermine your self-confidence.  Rather it might help you prioritize your investments, service to your customers, security surveillance (if you have a challenges in this area) as well as help you set reasonable goals and how to achieve them. In other words reflect intently on where you went wrong and do not count yourself as a loser. One day I was watching a TV program called “Tusker Project Fame.” I looked across the tensed faces of the finalists in this program and wondered who would be chosen the next winner. The next day the newspapers carried the news of the winner to the whole country. The nation would remember the winner, but what about the losers. They had come so far but only one would stand the winners circle. The next winner is the one who regrets and say, “The winner would wear the crown for a year and then pass it on to someone else- and that someone is me.”

The second thing is to think clearly so that you do not repeat the mistakes.  Clear thinking means that you define what you are thinking about and focus your attention to it.  You should refuse to get caught up in actions without thinking.  You should keep your mind open. There was a time a hotel known as El Cortez in San Diego couldn’t handle the human traffic. The experts, engineers and architects, were called in. They concluded that they could put another elevator in the basement. The plans were drawn up. As they were discussing it, the janitor heard them and said, “If I was the one doing it, I would build the elevator on the outside.” The architect and engineer looked at each other. They finally built the elevator on the outside, and this became the first time in history of architecture an elevator was built outside a building

All this was as a result of clear thinking.

The third issued is to balance regret and risk.  Instead of choosing a less risky option that you are least likely to regret, choose the one that will maximize your chance of reaching realistic goals.  In fact, past experiences of regret may have given you a better appreciation of risk and what is worth risking which is a sign of growth.

The fourth issue is that you should not worry alone especially if you are drowning in regret.  It is good to know that you are not the only “failure” in the neighbourhood.  On some level, we are all failures.  The most successful people are those who have been resolute in the face of failure.  When Thomas Edison’s factory burned to the ground, he lost over an equivalent of Ksh. 8.5 million.  As he stood there with great regrets watching the factory go up in flames, his son Charlie asked him; “Dad what do we do now?”  Thomas Edison said, “Charlie there is one good thing about disaster, it always burns up your mistakes”.  Within three months, he was able to invent the phonography.  It is evident that after great regrets and reflection, his best days lay after the fire.

There is an old saying that goes, “It doesn’t matter how much milk you spill as long as you don’t lose your cow”.  The problems come when you see only the spilled milk and not the bigger picture.  Regrets will enable you see the bigger picture clearly. There was a group composed of divorced women who were once married to famous men. They regretted what happened to them and decided to form an organization called “LADIES”, which stands for “Life After Divorce Is Eventually Sane.” They lived happily thereafter.

From all what I have stated in the foregoing, it is evident that there is always an upside about regrets and therefore go ahead and have regrets. They are good for your growth!