WHY YOU REALLY CAN’T SAY, “I SHOULD HAVE OR COULD HAVE…”
It is tempting and all-too-common to look back and say “I should have done this” or “I could have done that,” imagining other choices that would have led to better outcomes. But it is not an accurate representation of what was possible at the time. Most of us carry around regret for failures and bad choices that we’ve come to recognize as such much farther down the road. Yet when we look back, we do so through a lens of maturity that distorts and misrepresents our younger capabilities. In fact, the real failure is not so much our earlier choices—however imperfect they were—but our inability to accept that we did the best we could at the time.
People often balk at this idea, and regret and shame are pervasive. Candy Chang, an internationally acclaimed artist and activist, explores the process of regret in a participatory installation called “Confessions.” Chang invites individuals to step into a private booth and write a confession on a wooden plaque. Then she displays them, anonymously, 1500 confessions at a time. The confessions range from I eat too much cheese to I gave my friend heroin and it ruined his life. Participants laugh or cry and take solace in knowing that they are not alone—that making mistakes and regretting them is merely a part of what makes us human. Chang’s art provides a ritual for catharsis, intimacy, and consolation. More important, it grants permission to make mistakes and move on.
The failures that bring about regret are often the result of choices between doing what was hard or what was easy at the time. From a linguistic perspective, hard and easy are not descriptors of activity. Rather, they describe the actor’s competence. Juggling five balls, for example, may look hard if one doesn’t have that particular skill, but it’s easy for someone who’s learned how. We make choices based on our competence to act. And we take only those actions of which we are capable.
Moreover, when we talk or think about our competence, we are generally vague. “I know this,” or “I’m pretty good at that.” But it turns out that acknowledging the extent of our competence helps us make better decisions. According to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, introduced at the University of California, Berkeley in 1980, there are five stages of competence that are applicable in every domain of life:
1) novice (or beginner) – someone who is just learning prescribed actions
2) advanced beginner (or minimally competent) – someone who is capable of taking basic actions, unsupervised without getting him/herself into trouble
3) competent – someone who can deal with multiple activities, make plans and develop routines
4) proficient – someone who perceives deviations from the normal pattern, employs maxims for guidance
5) expert – someone who transcends reliance on the rules, has intuitive grasp on situations, and has a vision of what is possible
Patricia Benner of the University of California, San Francisco applied the Dreyfus model in three studies of nurses with a range of experiences and skillfulness over a 21-year period. She determined that the development of moral agency is linked with the development of expertise. Her studies show that the more competent you are, (competent in the sense of capacity to take action rather than simply having information), the better your decision-making. Seems obvious, so what is new here?
As we develop competence and begin to learn from our mistakes, we stand in the present with new moral agency and look back at the past with the belief that we could have operated more competently. But, in fact, it probably wasn’t possible. We did the only thing we could do with the competence we had at the time.
The key to shifting out of regret and shame is embracing failure as part of life’s ever-present demand for learning. Salvation lies not in judging oneself as a good or bad person because of certain character flaws but in becoming a learner who can rigorously assess his or her competence and determine where to commit to building it. No one gets to be an expert in the totality of one’s life. Someone may be an expert chef and, at the same time, a beginner at tennis, or public speaking, or parenting.
Accepting that learners make mistakes means attributing failure to incompetence rather than insufficiency. We can then apologize with dignity, commit to not repeating our damaging behavior, ask forgiveness, and move on without shame or regret. Even if we don’t receive forgiveness from others, we can forgive ourselves and generate compassion for the beginners we (and others) are. And that generosity and understanding has the power to make a difference in all of our relationships.
So with a serious commitment to learning from mistakes, when “I should have…” crosses our mind or our lips, we might say instead, “Alas, I wish I could have, but I was foolish then and have since learned a thing or two.”