Reversing counter factuals

The easiest way to stimulate regret about situations that haven’t worked out as per plan (as yet) is to ask counter factual questions like – “What if I’d done x instead of y?”

As such questions are a guaranteed way to drive us crazy, a simple principle that I’ve found helpful is – for every such counter factual question about a situation that didn’t work out, examine a situation that did.

So, if we want to ask ourselves – “What if I’d been better at keeping my mouth shut at that meeting?” or “What if I’d bought Bitcoin in 2014?” :-) – we also ought to analyze their positive equivalents. When was a time we spoke up and made a really positive contribution? When was a time we made a good investment decision?

Applying this principle does three things at once. First, we get to learn from situations which worked in addition to situations that didn’t work. Second, we begin to appreciate the many times things have worked out well.

And, finally, we come to accept the fact that we did the best we could with what we knew. Now that we’ve learnt from it and know better, we can do better.

Roads not taken

Our ability to reflect and see ourselves from an outside point of view is a big part of what makes us human. A side-effect of that ability is to dwell on roads not taken. We could spend days wondering about “what if I had..”

I’ve noticed two patterns whenever I think of roads not taken. First, I only consider the best outcomes from that road I didn’t take. If I’m thinking about an opportunity, I focus on the best case situation if I’d taken the opportunity and ignore any negative scenarios. Second, I neglect all the thought I’d put into making the decision.

Hindsight is always 20:20, of course. There is definitely a lot to be learnt from observing our past behavior. But, we must only move to correct something if we see a distinct pattern. For example, if we find ourselves repeatedly over-weighting risk in our decisions, there’s good reason to be mindful of that the next time we find ourselves making an important decision.

Beyond that, fantasizing about roads not taken is a pointless exercise. We must learn to build a solid decision making process and then trust that process. To do otherwise is just to invite unhappiness. Besides, it is worth remembering that our current state is a result of the best decisions we could have taken given what we knew. So, in theory, we did our best with the cards we were dealt. That’s all we can do.

We just have to keep the faith that we’ll push ourselves to learn from what is happening to us and, over time, to know better. And, when we know better, we will do better.