“If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, ‘What will I think at that time?’ it gets you away from some of the daily pieces of confusion.” – Jeff Bezos, on his Regret Minimization Framework
Bezos recalls how he made the decision to leave his cushy hedge fund job to start Amazon. He used what he called the “Regret Minimization Framework” to think of himself at age 80 and imagine what he’d most regret doing or not doing. It was clear to him that not taking a chance on Amazon and the Internet would have caused him the most regret. “When I thought about it this way, it was an incredibly easy decision,” he said.
I’ve found myself coming back to the Regret Minimization Framework time and time again as I think about my choices in how I spend my time. While the framework in Bezos’s case was applied to a very consequential life decision, I think the framework also works well when applied to more mundane aspects of our lives, especially the ways in which we spend our time every day.
I decided to take the Regret Minimization Framework one step further and think about how my 80-year-old self would look back on the decisions I made with my time, and how I can alter my habits and activities to minimize future regret.
Here’s a visual I created to show the the framework as applied to how I spend my time:
The items in the boxes are not an exhaustive list, but going through this exercise, the themes were quickly apparent to me:
I’m fairly certain that health will be top of mind for my 80-year-old self, not only because of my age, but also because the quality of life I’ve lead up to then will be largely dependent on how well I’ve held up both physically and mentally. A later life of ailments, pain, and discomfort that could have been avoided with better diet, more exercise, and more sleep is sure to cause a great deal of regret. The thing with poor health is that there are downstream impacts on my mood, my relationships with others, and my willingness to be active in my life. Health, as they say, is wealth.
Even when I’m tired from being up early for my kids, I find myself cherishing the thought that there is no such thing as too much time spent with loved ones. I know that in a blink of an eye, my sons will be older, going to school, and a lot less available. Before long, they’ll become adults out in the world and pursuing their own lives independently. This is why my 80-year-old self will thank me for maximizing the time I spend with my family. I know the same will be the case with my wife, my parents, my sister, as well as my closest friends. The time I spend with them today is one more decision that I will not only not regret but will treasure for the rest of my days.
Beyond family and friends, the relationship theme is also present in the dealings with different people in my life. I can see that there’s no upside in holding grudges or in “hating” anyone–it’s best to keep such feelings and elements out of my life altogether. On the flip side, I know that I will never regret having helped someone. It may be a small act of kindness that I may not even remember or it may be a series of conversations where I’m a sounding board or active mentor. What matters is that rather than avoid and stay passive, I actively engaged and played a role, however small, in impacting the lives of others in a positive manner. I know for sure that my 80-year-old self will be proud of such behavior.
Internal vs. External Validation
I’ve come to believe that how we perceive the world and our place in it has great impact on our emotions and wellbeing. Our perceptions are shaped by our experiences, our interactions with others, and the way we choose to remember and internalize certain events.
When I think about minimizing regret, I found myself wanting to downplay the need for external validation. This is very difficult because things like influence, status, wealth, and connections are all things that feel very important, especially during a person’s professional prime. However, I can see the pitfalls of how these things can become obsessive pursuits where I end up sacrificing time with family or not taking care of my health in order to attain “success” – external markers usually associated with professional achievement and wealth accumulation. I’m not saying that external validation is bad or completely avoidable, but there’s a possibility that it can quickly become the focus in life.
I think activities like traveling and writing help to broaden perspective and lead to deeper self-reflection, which in turn can become a form of internal validation. The more I can understand myself, embrace myself, and forgive myself, the more at ease I can be with myself, requiring less external validation. And this level of comfort with myself is something I know my 80-year-old self will appreciate very much.
Redefining YOLO with Regret Minimization
I used to view the term YOLO (“you only live once”) as a youthful cry to push the limits, take risks, and get out of our comfort zone because life is too short to be resigned to normal and boring behavior. But as I’ve grown older, the words “you only live once” takes on a different meaning–life is short and precious, so we need to do our best to take good care of it and give it the best shot we’ve got.
The Regret Minimization Framework is a useful tool in helping to realize this latter version of YOLO. If we truly do get one shot at this life, why not continually ask ourselves if we’re living in a way that, many years from now, we’ll have few regrets and more to be proud and satisfied about?