Regret, I’ve discovered, has within it rumination… going over the same ground again and again, feeling badly about ourselves, without coming to a new place. Fortunately, time or other events can help us move on to a more productive stance. One where the experience becomes just one among other experiences and from which we learn.
Or perhaps someone steps in to offer us gifts that ease our regret, freeing us to move forward.
Last summer, for example, aware of a perceptual blind spot that had shaped choices I made, I experienced profound regret. I expressed that feeling to a wise friend. She listened quietly without shifting into the fix-it mode so common in our action-oriented culture.
Then she handed me a piece of paper on which she’d scribbled this quote from Maya Angelou: “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.”
I became still as I absorbed the words and their meaning. I tested for the truth in them and knew they offered permission to be human. To make bad choices, good choices, and ignorant ones. To learn. To do differently.
Just this week a beloved friend told me of her health prognosis: probable multiple sclerosis. She believed that her susceptibility to illness was entangled with another life lesson that she had only just come to understand. I listened. I heard her strength and resilience. I also heard her regret at not having understood the life lesson sooner.
“May I share a quote that someone shared with me?” I asked. As I repeated the quote, I could hear her become still. Hear her absorbing the words. And then I heard a long exhale—like the one I’d exhaled not so long ago. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
In the workplace those most in need of these gifts may be your high performers—because, as Chris Argyris pointed out in his excellent article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” (Harvard Business Review,. May-June, 1991), high performers are often unused to failure. When confronted with it, they engaged in defensive behavior that precluded them from learning.
Imagine, then, helping your high performers develop the flexibility to move from a defensive posture to one that allows them to learn. To move forward…simply because you listened, and gave them the opportunity to be human and the reminder that they can do differently.
What decisions might any of us make if we embraced that we do what we know to do, and when we know better we do better? What an invitation to be fearless!
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