The Power of Regret: How Looking Backwards Moves Us Forward

By Daniel Pink

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

Like most of us, accomplished author Daniel Pink has regrets, including his choice early in life to attend law school. Studying law was not a good fit, but during this time he also met the woman who would become his wife. In his bestselling book “The Power of Regret,” Pink presents his case for regrets being more than a negative experiences to flee. Instead, regret is something to embrace, reflect and learn from.

He begins by taking head on the well-worn “No regrets” mantra that permeates our society. We see it on everything from tattoos to t-shirts. It turns out that those who claim to have no regrets are likely running from something they could benefit from. Pink writes, “Regret is not dangerous or abnormal, a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn’t drag us down; it can lift us up.”

In 2020, Pink’s interest in how people experience regret led him to start the American Regret Project that surveyed 4,489 people across the U.S. about their regret attitudes. He later started a World Regret Survey website that so far has gathered more than 16,000 regrets from people in 105 countries. When this accumulated information was analyzed, Pink came up with four core regret areas that we experience throughout our lives. Understanding these areas helps to move us forward with perspective rather than lingering angst.

Foundation regrets, for example, come “…from our failures of foresight and conscientiousness” or short-term gains that sacrifice long-term benefits. Think of spending too much while you’re younger and not saving enough for retirement. This type of regret many times sounds like: “If only I’d done the work.”

Boldness regrets relate to passive inaction that let some opportunities pass one by. This has to do with “What if I had…” scenarios best demonstrated by long held regrets many people have for crushes they have held for several decades. Pink believes the lesson to take going forward is to make that first step and “…experience more than an ordinary life.” Regrets in this core area can begin with: “If only I had taken the risk.”

Moral regrets, the smallest of the core group, are also the most varied. These are centered on the phrase: “If only I’d done the right thing.” This includes the regrets that hurt the most and last the longest. Pink describes: “…at a pivotal moment, we choose what our conscience says is the wrong path.” Moral regrets include harm, cheating, disloyalty, subversion, and desecration.

Connection regrets, the largest category, result from undone or incomplete relationships. They are best summarized by: “If only I’d reached out.” Pink describes several situations where close friends lost touch and years go by without communication. Instead of reaching out, the uncertainty and regret gnaw away, when a simple letter or phone call could rekindle the relationship.

After breaking down the core classes of regret, Pink offers an easy to follow, science-based process that shifts regrets into useful tools that can improve our personal and professional lives. He describes the process of writing, talking, and reliving festering regrets as ways to analyze and learn from unpleasant emotions. Many of Pink’s solutions depend on the regret being the result of incorrect “action” or passive “inaction.”

The overall advice of “The Power of Regret” is to embrace regrets by holding them close rather than batting them away. Each of the book’s chapters include revealing participant quotes from Pink’s World Regret Survey. These become moving vignettes within the book, intended to make readers reflect on the impact that long-held regrets have on all of us. Like his previous six books, Pink includes interesting stories, humor and anecdotes, making “The Power of Regret” both relatable and enjoyable to its readers.

Chris Wendel works for Northern Initiatives, a mission-based lender located in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses and organizations throughout Michigan and the United States. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City.