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Blog

Living a Regret-Free Life

Ken Budd

Imagine that you’re dying. Cheery thought, right? Ask yourself this: Looking back at your life, what would be your biggest regret?

Travel tops most bucket lists and Alaska is a much-desired destination (I shot this near Eagle River).

Travel tops most bucket lists and Alaska is a much-desired destination (I shot this near Eagle River).

Bronnie Ware, a longtime palliative care nurse in Australia, found that as patients confronted death, their chief regret was living the life that was expected of them, not the life they wanted. They died regretting their unfulfilled dreams, “knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made,” wrote Ware in a post on patients’ five most common regrets. Research from Cornell University in 2018 found similar results. For most participants, their biggest regret was not living up to their ideal selves—they had passed on opportunities or failed to pursue their passions.

Why talk about regrets? Because visualizing regrets can help us rethink our lives. A few months ago, I wrote a piece on Warren Stortroen, 86, a former insurance agent in Minnesota. Warren wanted to see the world and since retiring in 1996 he has volunteered 100+ times on scientific projects with Earthwatch, from Norway to Nicaragua. Another example is Robert Field, who traded a career in big business to become a fisherman. “I didn’t want to spend my life chasing money, building a bank account so I can be happy when I’m 65,” he said in a recent Men’s Health profile. “I’d rather be broke and wake up every day stoked about what I’m about to do.”

Warren Stortroen became an environmental superstar at age 86.

Warren Stortroen became an environmental superstar at age 86.

Regrets aren’t just about adventures. Lydia Sohn, a minister in San Diego, interviewed people age 90-99 and found that their biggest regret involved relationships. They wished they had bonded more with their kids and spent more time with people they loved. 

“It’s not the things we do in life that we regret on our deathbed. It is the things we do not,” said computer science professor Randy Pausch, whose “last lecture” while dying of pancreatic cancer led to a bestselling book and a viral YouTube video. But as Warren shows, it’s never too late. His advice for life? Be a doer, not a watcher. Which is also a good way to avoid regrets. —Ken Budd

This piece appeared in the July 2019 issue of the 650,000 Hours monthly newsletter. Sign up here!