It was late spring in Boston when I stepped out of the conference center for a walk. It was day three of a conference that was cramming information in my brain, and I needed a chance to get some fresh air. I walked down a block, lost in my own thoughts as I looked across the river to Cambridge and MIT, when I was stopped by a young woman in her late teens or early twenties holding a clipboard and asking if I’d take a survey. Lost in thought, I expected that she was a college student trying to complete a project for a class, so I agreed, and she walked me half a block back the way I had come to The Church of Scientology building. I took their standardized test by filling in bubbles on an answer sheet. Then I waited in a small room where someone came to read the results.
One of the first questions was whether I had any regrets. In a moment of unusual clarity, I answered no – and then went on to explain, “I like who I am, and I need every experience to be the person I am today. I can’t have regrets if I like who I am.” It would be years before I realized the power of these simple remarks and how they helped me to become more resistant to burnout.
The Power of Regret
Regret is a powerful emotion that robs our accomplishments of their worth. Our ability to get things done – and therefore our immunity to burnout – relies on the simple premise that the work we’re doing is good. When we regret, we take the awareness of our potential and question whether we’re doing the right things even if we’re able to do them.
Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, but it’s inefficacy that’s at the core. If we feel ineffective, we’ll become exhausted and cynical. When we feel regret, we may feel as if we’re somewhat effective, but we question whether the effects we’re having are right or enough.
There’s a degree of acceptance that we need to grant ourselves but don’t always. This is particularly true of the actions we don’t take that we feel as if we should have. It seems we’re more attuned to regret the things we didn’t do than the things we did. As a result, we often find ourselves wondering if we’re doing enough – or, more dramatically, if we are enough. “Enough for what?” is the question, but it’s the one that rarely gets asked.
Through acceptance of who we are, we can accept that we’re enough for where we are – even if we’re not exactly where we’d like to be at this moment.
A Little Bit of Wrong
Somewhere along the way, many of us have failed to learn an important lesson – that failure is okay as long as it’s not fatal. We’ve failed to learn that we can – and will – get things wrong if we’re willing to try. The more we try, the more we’ll be wrong – but more importantly the more we’ll be right.
If we allow our regrets to paralyze us and prevent us from doing the things we know are right and we can do, then we’ll eventually fall into the pit of burnout through our quite realistic lack of efficacy. Learning to accept ourselves for who we are – both the good and the bad – may be one of the best ways to neutralize regret and protect ourselves from burnout.