Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.
Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves–regret for the past and fear of the future.
The drive from Wilmington, N.C., to Chapel Hill is about 2-1/2 hours. I used to make the drive pretty regularly when I was auditioning for film and TV projects. The drive back from Wilmington seemed especially long when I would think about the things I should have done in the audition I’d just completed.
I could always think of better choices in retrospect, a gnawing feeling most actors know too well. Indeed most of us know it from the broader spheres of work interviews, social interactions, dating, and the like. Of course I realized I couldn’t change what had already happened in those auditions. But was there a way I could adapt to future situations so that I could avoid regret later?
I resolved to avoid regret after auditions by making stronger choices during them. No longer would I feel I hadn’t given the casting people a good sense of what I could do. Perhaps I would make the wrong choice, perhaps they wouldn’t like what they saw, but at least I’d know they had actually seen me.
Honestly, I’m not certain that this change in approach made me better in auditions. I think it did. I felt more confident in making stronger choices. I am certain, however, that I felt happier after making my no-regret resolution. I could drive home from the audition knowing I had left it all on the table and left nothing in reserve. I had done my best and that was all I could ask of myself and all I could do to get the gig.
The most frustrating thing to hear as an improv director is that a player held back because s/he was unsure of where things were going. Why? In improv you’re not supposed to know where you’re going. The strong choices you make in the moment dictate the direction of the scene and the entire performance.
By making strong choices despite uncertainty, an improviser moves toward greater certainty. It might not work out great but at least it’ll be energetic, at worst an interesting bang rather than a boring whimper. Moreover, the improviser avoids having that horrible feeling after a show of knowing s/he could have done better.
I saw this point illustrated in another very different arena. In one of the early stages of the 2007 Tour de France, Australian Robbie McEwen crashed 12 km from the finish. He was hurt and things looked very desperate for him. His teammates gathered around and led him toward the finish line, just trying to catch the pack for a respectable time.
McEwen and his team kept coming even if it was too little too late. At the finish the announcers excitedly described the mad sprint over the course of the last kilometer. First, it looked like one rider had it, then another, and then, out of nowhere… McEwen! He had worked his way through the 170-rider peloton and won by a nose. He was going so fast at the end that he looked like a motorcyclist among bicyclists.
Later, the battered and exhausted McEwen told the press that he focused on not panicking after his wreck. He simply tried to get into a good cadence and make the best time he could with the help of his teammates. He took it moment to moment, trying not to focus on the past disaster but with no guarantee and little hope of a happy ending.
McEwen said he knew he could be satisfied if he knew he had done his best. That he wound up winning the stage, he added, was something a sweet bonus.
In other words, McEwen took an improviser’s approach to this race. He made a strong choice toward a positive outcome, focused on the moment and not on the past mistake or the uncertain future, and created the triumph he could have hardly dared hope for. And I believe McEwen when he said he would have been satisfied with his effort even if he hadn’t won.
You will inevitably encounter failure in your life and you will make mistakes. You won’t get the job you want. You’ll put your foot in your mouth. Someone you like won’t like you. Regret, knowing you could have done more or better, will make those disappointments much more difficult to accept.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.”
I believe that failures can be successes if you remove the component of regret. You can feel good about your effort and you can learn from it. Or maybe, just maybe, by making and committing to strong choices, you will create the success you seek.