I Have Some Regrets

I’m sure you’ve heard people–perhaps including yourself–say, “I have no regrets.”

Usually it’s proceeded by a big “but.” “I shouldn’t have dated her, but I have no regrets.” “I didn’t have the money to take that trip, but I have no regrets.” “I wish I had gone to a different college, but I have no regrets.”

What’s so wrong with having a few regrets?

I think we have a lot to learn from our regrets if we’re aware of them. A regret is more than just a passing disappointment or failure–it’s something we return to in our minds from time to time, even years after they happen. Regrets mean something. Why wouldn’t we want to acknowledge them, process them, and learn from them?

Recently I blogged about how I wish a virtual reality machine existed that would let you go back to pivotal (or trivial) moments in your life, make the opposite decision that you made, and relive your life along the other path. I talked about colleges in that blog entry.

One of my biggest regrets–one that I was just thinking about today–happened at the end of my junior year in college.

I spent my junior year in Kyoto, Japan. I’ve often referred to it as the best year of my life, but really, it was the best academic year of my life.

You see, when I decided to attend the expensive private school that is Washington University in St. Louis, I made an agreement with my parents to work every summer to pay for my room, board, and books (I also had a work-study job during the year). So throughout my year in Japan, I always knew that I’d return to the States in late May to start my summer job.

The summer job was working as a waiter at a restaurant in Chesterfield, Virginia. At the time, I thought I wanted to open a restaurant after college, so the job was not just for money–it was to gain the experience I needed to open my own restaurant.

This ended up being irrelevant, of course, because during that summer I learned how incredibly difficult it is to manage a restaurant, much less own one. I enjoy challenges and hard work, but you’re talking about razor-thin margins, huge amounts of risk, and 12-18 hour days 6-7 days a week.

So, rewind to the pivotal decision I could have made, the one I regret: Near the end of the school year, I was all but offered a scholarship to stay in Japan for the summer to write a mini-thesis of my choosing. It was enough money for rent, food, with some left over.

This was the summer of 2002. The summer of the World Cup. The summer that Japan was co-hosting the World Cup with Korea. A summer when hundreds of thousands of people paid huge sums of money to get to Japan, stay in hotel rooms, and watch the world’s best soccer teams clash. I would have had my own apartment in the middle of all the craziness.

And yet I chose to go back to the US to work at a seafood restaurant.

10 years later, the choice still baffles me. I was nearly fluent by then and had a really great group of Japanese friends who were just as baffled as I was when I told them that I wasn’t staying for the year, but rather the academic year. There was even a really cute girl who I had been flirting with for ages as I waited for her to stop chain-smoking so I could make out with her.

And yet I packed my bags and flew home.

I think part of it was the money I had committed to make that summer. Part of it is that I had always thought of myself as leaving Japan in late May, and I couldn’t reset the plan in my mind. Part of it may have been that I was a little Japaned-out after studying it for 9 years; I particularly missed 100% natural English conversation after that year in Japan. And maybe part of it was that I liked the structure of going to class in Japan, and I was somewhat at a lost without that structure.

Who knows, maybe if I had stayed, I would blindly continued to have the dream of opening a restaurant after college, and I would have had quite the rude awakening when I tried it. Maybe I would have been swept away in the throngs of international soccer fans. Maybe I would have ended up on a Japanese game show that involved me exchanging fingers for clues to a Hello Kitty-themed puzzle.

But whatever would have happened didn’t happen. I went home, and I regret it.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some things are meant to be regretted. It’s my job to acknowledge the regret and learn from it. I need to be able to recognize similar situations when I leave too early for the wrong reasons–whether it’s money or flexibility or uncertainty or fear.

I need to recognize the best years or months or days of my life as they’re happening and do everything possible to prevent the sun from rising.

Has this entry triggered anything in you? What’s your stance on regrets? Have you ever cut off an amazing experience for baffling reasons, and you wish you could go back and continue the journey?


11 Responses to “I Have Some Regrets”

  1. Chellykay says:

    I have a regret in my past that’s pretty similar to yours. My sophomore year of college, my Spanish teacher was setting up an internship for me to go to Spain to be an Au Pair. At the time, I was very excited because Spanish was my major. But I didn’t end up going because my boyfriend proposed to me. If I had gone to Spain, I would be fluent in Spanish by now. And maybe I would have never gotten married.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Chelly–That sounds like a pretty great arrangement. I’m sorry it didn’t work out. Is one of your life goals to make it to Spain since it didn’t work out the first time?

  2. T-Mac says:

    I have plenty of regrets! As I noted on the previous college regrets post, I do wish I’d gone to a different college. I deeply regret not studying abroad as well. I regret that I stopped playing soccer at the end of high school because I felt burnt out instead of playing my senior year. I could probably go on with this list for awhile. Thankfully, the list of things I’m glad I did is definitely much longer, and to me, that’s more important.

    Also, the word “regrets” always makes me think of this picture (https://icanhascheezburger.com/2008/12/16/funny-pictures-gras-kitty-has-regrets/), which looks disturbingly like Biddy. Biddy didn’t dance for tips for a living before coming to live with you, did he?

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Trev–Thanks for your thoughts. That’s a good point that while it’s okay to acknowledge regrets, focusing on the choices and accomplishments you’re happy with is a better attitude than dwelling on those regrets. That ties into what Emma says below. I definitely agree that a major part of how we view our life–past and present–is based on the lens we decide to use.

      That photo is awesome. Mardi Gras kitty certainly does have regrets. I checked with Biddy, and he pointed out that the cat doesn’t have white claws, so it’s not him. Biddy does love Mardi Gras beads, though.

  3. Emma says:

    I used to be in the camp of not believing in regrets, but I think it’s moreso semantics (such is everything in my life). I do not like the idea of categorizing and carrying around regrets and labeling them as things you feel you messed up or failed at, etc. I have plenty of things that I wouldn’t repeat, or even think were bad choices, but I don’t like to label them as regrets because I accept that I did them, accept what I’ve learned from them, and those actions and the consequent lessons are part of who I am.

    I don’t think it’s bad to regret things (everyone does), I just don’t like the idea of making a list/pile of negative things to focus on, and I think that’s often how people view the word “regrets”. Does that make any sense?

  4. Katy says:

    People who say they don’t have regrets are probably just lying to themselves about it.

    I know I have plenty of regrets, some of them actions/events and some based on how I acted/what I said in a certain situation.

    One of my biggest regrets is not accepting a second internship after college that would have sent me back to Florida (and Disney). I’ve often wondered how different my life would have turned out if I had taken that chance. At the time, my only thought was that another internship would just be a waste of my time and I needed to start focusing in my career–but almost 6 years have passed since graduating college and I’m still at the same company where I worked while in school. By not going I ended up having several experiences that were other “once in a lifetime” ones, but I have no way of knowing which ones were the “better” experience.

    Instead of focusing on the bad decisions and missed opportunities that I regret, I try to use those events as a learning experience and an opportunity where I can myself in the future.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Katy–You make a good point that we rarely know in the moment which decision is better. We make the most informed choice possible and go with it, and maybe in hindsight we learn from it. I think what I try to do (and get better about doing) is figure out the flaws in logic from past decisions I’ve made and overcome those flaws for future decisions. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to make decisions out of fear. Then we look back and wonder, “What in the world was I afraid of?”

  5. Ansley says:

    My biggest regret is staying in a bad relationship on and off for 3 years. I loved him. I truly did. However, looking back I can see how my friends were baffled by my decision to return to a man who consistently ditched me and returned when it was convenient for him. In my mind, I was being loyal and living out real love. In reality, I was fooling myself into believing that I could love him enough to make up for the fact that he didn’t truly love me.

    I regret that. I learned from that. I am a better woman because of that.

  6. Tracy says:

    Mine isn’t a life-altering decision, but it’s something that has bothered me for 10 years. My grandfather passed away suddenly in 2002. He was notorious for calling our house once a week to shoot the breeze with all of us. We’d pass the phone around to each other, giving a little eye-roll and smile knowing he was probably just bored and looking to chat. One night, I was running out the door to meet a friend, and it was my turn. I gave my brother a signal to tell him that I was already gone, and that I’d talk to him later. He died the next morning of a massive heart attack. I didn’t get that last phone call that everyone else did, and I don’t remember the last thing we talked about. His death was very hard on us, being so sudden and the first person so close to us to die. We didn’t have any closure. Most of all, I didn’t have any closure.

    I regret not talking to him that night, and I think I always will. 🙁

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thanks for sharing, Tracy. I really appreciate hearing that story–it’s a great reminder to me to cherish those little phone calls with my parents and Grandma.

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