This past week I finally closed on my house in DC. I listed it for sale 9 months ago, at a price more than 20% higher than what I ultimately wound up getting. So I couldn’t help but thinking “What if the agent I initially used would have priced my house more realistically?” (he priced it without taking into account the impact of rising interest rates and the changes in the tax code that penalized jurisdictions with high local taxes, like DC).

You can see above
that I just wrote “I couldn’t help but thinking…..” But in fact I could. And did. After a few relatively brief trips down Regret Road, I’m at peace with what transpired. How did I get to that place?

In retrospect I utilized a few techniques (I say “in retrospect” because I wasn’t fully, consciously aware of using them in the moment). These techniques all involve traveling down alternative “thought paths” to the Regret Road.

First is one I learned at Harvard Business School. It involves recognizing, and then catapulting over, the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”. This is the mistaken belief that it makes sense to hold on to an asset until you are able to realize a profit from its sale. Examples of this abound, not just in economics but in a wide range of life situations. Examples:

“I don’t like Law School and can’t see myself becoming a lawyer, but I’ve already invested over $100K and 2 years of my life on this path, so I’m reluctant to quit and consider career alternatives.”

“I’ve dated her for three and a half years. I can’t see marrying her but I’m reluctant to end it after all the time
and effort I’ve invested in making it work.”

I’ve studied piano for 7 years. I don’t really get much joy out of playing, but maybe if I give it just another year I’ll feel different. Just walking away now would be such a waste of all that past effort.

Second is inspired by the teachings of Byron Katie,an American speaker, author, and self-development teacher who promotes a method of self-inquiry known as The Work. She states that “Arguing with reality is guaranteed to be ineffective 100% of the time.” She preaches total acceptance of What Is. That is not to say that you shouldn’t learn from what you may feel are mistakes. Or that you shouldn’t make an effort to change the current reality. It’s just that wishing that things were different than they actually are is a very effective recipe for unhappiness.

Which leads to the third technique/thought path. It involves emotionally and cognitively investing in the state of things as they are (again, Accepting), and then optimistically projecting forward, seeking to imagine all that could go right with the situation you find yourself in.

All the things you can do with the money you made from selling the house (even though it was hundreds of thousands less than it might have been).

All the positives that could come with embarking on a different career (better work/life balance? having greater impact? being more independent? having more (or less) challenge or responsibility? earning more money?

The independence you’d feel being out of the relationship, or the excitement you’d feel embarking on a
new one.

The extra hours you’d gain from quitting piano, which you could apply to anything from working out to hanging more with friends to watching TV to reading to learning a new skill.

Regret, when properly employed, can lead to insights and growth. But far too often it leads to self-recrimination and unhappiness. Neither of which will get you very far.