“The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing.” ~ Seth Godin
One of the nice books I came across recently was Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. In one chapter, the authors talk about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.
Before he decided to start Amazon, Bezos had a secure and well-paid position at the investment company D. E. Shaw & Co. in New York. Starting an online bookstore in Seattle was going to be a big leap — something that his boss then advised him to think about carefully.
But Bezos had made the decision. Here is his description (Source – Algorithms to Live By) of how he thought through it –
The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called — which only a nerd would call — a “regret minimization framework.” So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.”
I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.
Being a parent, here is one critical lesson I have learned seeing my kids grow. One of the first and best defenses every child learns is this – “I didn’t do anything!” She understands well that if she didn’t do anything, she won’t get in trouble.
However, as we grow into adults, it often happens that this “I didn’t do anything” becomes “I didn’t do anything when I had the opportunity,” which ultimately leads us to regrets and self-condemnation.
Of course, we can never know what our future regrets would be when we still have time to do something about them.
In this respect, I have found Bezos’s regret minimization framework – going forward, then looking backward at decisions you may regret not making – a powerful tool for making decisions under uncertainty.
A few such decisions revolve around life’s big questions like –
- Should I take this job?
- Should I quit this job?
- Should I buy this house?
- Should I start this business?
- Should I close this business?
- Should I confess my love to this person?
Now, Bezos is hardly the only successful person to use this strategy of regret minimization. In an interview, the noted American life coach Tony Robbins said that whenever he is undecided about doing something that scares him, he imagines himself at age 85, sitting in his rocking chair and looking back on his life. At that point, he asks himself, would he experience greater regret over having done the scary thing or opted out.
This mental exercise is based on the idea that we feel greater remorse over the shots we didn’t take than over those we did take and missed.
Scientific research backs Bezos and Robbins on this way of decision making. Researchers at Kellogg School of Management have found out that we tend to regret actions not taken far more than we regret failed attempts.
This is because we can quickly rationalize our actual actions, even when we went wrong. But for the action that was never taken, we end up with a lot of unanswed “What if?” questions.
So here’s my advice. If you’re facing a tough call in your life, try the Bezos Regret Minimization Framework. It’s worth giving a shot.
Of course, don’t be rash in your decision making just because you wish to avoid future regrets. But when you are convinced about something, but you fear taking the next step, use this framework.
Be bold. You may end up doing what you never thought was possible for you.
Before I close, here’s something I must share with you. In 2012, an Australian palliative nurse named Bronnie Ware published a book documenting her quest to understand the top regrets of her dying patients.
The #1 regret?
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I have nothing to add.