Decision-Making 101: How to Be Productive About Regret
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Entrepreneurs are commonly advised to regret nothing, as regretting is perceived to inhibit growth and entrepreneurialism. But regrets are completely natural and unavoidable. We cannot simply wish them away.
We cannot, for example, avoid regretting losing out on opportunities that were almost in our grasp. Recall gymnast McKayla Maroney's crestfallen face at the London Olympics after winning a silver medal -- an image that went so viral, it inspired President Obama to tweet a picture with her in the same "I am not impressed" pose. Why did Maroney feel so bad? Research shows that for silver medalists, it is a case of "too close, yet too far." What is true for athletes is true for entrepreneurs -- especially those who were locked in close finishes or were working on opportunities that became big. For them, regrets are not only unavoidable -- they are expected.
In a study at Syracuse University that was recently published in Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice, my co-authors and I examined these issues at some length. Several entrepreneurs in our study reported regrets along the lines of: "I failed to launch an idea due to a personal setback. Now I get emotional when I see so many players in my space." Can we really avoid regretting missed opportunities? And is it even necessary?
Regrets do not necessarily stop us from acting. Quite the opposite. Regretting smartly prepares us for the future. How many times has someone told you: "I wish I had not wasted my time on X" or "I should have done Y more wisely"? These regretful thoughts could potentially be used to deconstruct failures into meaningful scenarios for learning and growth.
Many people also use regrets to feel better about their situation by imagining how it could have been even worse. Imagine if you were speeding in your car to deliver your bid for a contract and got into an accident. You might find yourself saying, "Thank God I am alive," and, yet, of course, you would still regret the lost opportunity. That is exactly how many cancer survivors find solace, according to research. Sometimes, it is comforting just to have an opportunity to start all over again.
The question then is not whether entrepreneurs should regret or not, but rather how they should be productive about such feelings. If you are going to be an entrepreneur, you better have loads of self-confidence. In the aforementioned study, we found entrepreneurs with high self-esteem learned from regretful thoughts and were more likely to retry and be successful, while those with low self-esteem tended to feel inhibited.
The road to entrepreneurial success is paved with failures, and there will be plenty of them all along the way. Most people do not succeed on their first or even second attempts, and even successful ventures emerge from a recurring cycle of mistakes and rejection.
One effective way to deal with regrets is to break problems into bite-sized chunks. For example, instead of berating yourself with blanket statements like "I am no good," try generating specific alternative scenarios detailing what could have gone wrong. Perhaps, it was as simple as not knowing how to manage cash flows. This approach will help you learn and grow, rather than dwelling on what went wrong.
Use your good days to build a reservoir of self-belief and determination despite the obstacles of the inevitable bad days. The simplest way to do this is to remind yourself of past successes anytime you think of a failure. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down your top five successes. Search your email for kind notes from customers praising your work. Seek out mentors or friends who believe in you and can remind you why you got involved in the business in the first place. Look back only to learn what you must to move forward. And remember, in the end, as Henry Ford said: "Whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you are right."