The Life-Thwarting Nonsense
of No Regrets
On October 24, 1960, a composer named Charles Dumont arrived at the posh Paris apartment of Edith Piaf with fear in his heart and songs in his briefcase. At the time, Piaf was perhaps the most famous entertainer in France and one of the best-known singers in the world. She was also quite frail. Although she was just forty-four years old, addiction, accidents, and hard living had ravaged her body. She weighed less than a hundred pounds. Three months earlier Piaf had been in a coma because of liver damage.
Yet despite her wispy presence, she remained notoriously mercurial and hot-tempered. She considered Dumont and his professional partner, lyricist Michel Vaucaire, who had joined him on the visit, second-rate musical talents. Earlier in the day, her secretary had left messages trying to cancel the meeting. Piaf initially refused to see the men, forcing them to wait uneasily in her living room. But just before she went to bed, she appeared, swaddled in a blue dressing gown, and relented.
She'd hear one song, she told them. That's it.
Dumont sat down at Piaf's piano. Sweaty and nervous, he began playing his music while softly speaking the lyrics Vaucaire had written.
Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
No, nothing at all.
No, I regret nothing at all.
She asked Dumont to play the song again, wondering aloud whether he'd really written it. She assembled a few friends who happened to be visiting to hear it. Then she gathered her household staff for a listen.
Hours passed. Dumont played the song over and over, more than twenty times, according to one account. Piaf telephoned the director of L'Olympia, the premier Parisian concert venue, who arrived just before dawn to hear the work.
Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
C'est payé, balayé, oublié.
Je me fous du passé.
No, nothing at all.
No, I regret nothing at all.
It's paid, swept away, forgotten.
I couldn't care less about the past.
A few weeks later, Piaf sang the two-minute, nineteen-second song on French television. In December, when she performed it as the rousing final number of a concert that helped rescue L'Olympia from financial ruin, she received twenty-two curtain calls. By the end of the following year, fans had purchased more than one million copies of her "Je ne regrette rien" record, elevating her status from chanteuse to icon.
Three years later, Piaf was dead.
One cold Sunday morning in February of 2016, Amber Chase awoke in her apartment in the western Canadian city of Calgary. Her then-boyfriend (and now-husband) was out of town, so the previous evening she had gone out with some girlfriends, a few of whom had slept over. The friends were talking and drinking mimosas when Chase, propelled by some combination of inspiration and boredom, said, “Let’s go get tattooed today!” So, they climbed into the car and rolled to Jokers Tattoo & Body Piercing on Highway 1, where the resident artist inked two words on Chase’s skin.
The tattoo Chase got that day was nearly identical to the one Mirella Battista decided on five years earlier and 2,400 miles away. Battista grew up in Brazil, and moved to Philadelphia in her early twenties to attend college. She relished her adopted city. While in school, she landed a job at a local accounting firm. She made lots of friends. She even forged a long-term romantic relationship with a Philly guy. The two seemed headed for marriage when, five years into the relationship, she and the boyfriend broke up. So, nine years after arriving in America, and looking for what she called a "reset button," she moved back to Brazil. However, weeks before returning, she had two words tattooed just behind her right ear.
Unbeknownst to Battista, her brother, Germanno Teles, had gotten a nearly identical tattoo the previous year. Teles became enamored of motorcycles as a boy, an affection his safety-conscious physician parents neither shared nor supported. But he learned everything he could about motorcycles, saved his centavos, and eventually purchased a Suzuki. He loved it. Then one afternoon while riding on the highway near his Brazilian hometown of Fortaleza, he was hit from the side by another vehicle, injuring his left leg and limiting his future riding days. A short time later, he had the image of a motorcycle tattooed just below the knee of his injured leg. Beside it were two words in script arching alongside the path of his scar.
The tattoo Teles got that day was nearly identical to the one Bruno Santos would get in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2013. Santos is a human resources executive who doesn't know Chase, Battista, or Teles. Frustrated at his job, he walked out of the office one afternoon and headed directly to a tattoo parlor. He emerged with a three-syllable phrase imprinted on his right forearm.
Four people living on three continents, each with tattoos that bear the same two words:
A Delightful but Dangerous Doctrine
Some beliefs operate quietly, like existential background music. Others become anthems for a way of living. And few credos blare more loudly than the doctrine that regret is foolish-that it wastes our time and sabotages our well-being. From every corner of the culture the message booms. Forget the past; seize the future. Bypass the bitter; savor the sweet. A good life has a singular focus (forward) and an unwavering valence (positive). Regret perturbs both. It is backward-looking and unpleasant-a toxin in the bloodstream of happiness.
Little wonder, then, that Piaf's song remains a standard across the world and a touchstone for other musicians. Artists who have recorded songs titled "No Regrets" range from jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald to British pop star Robbie Williams to the Cajun band Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys to American bluesman Tom Rush to Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Emmylou Harris to rapper Eminem. Luxury car brands, chocolate bars, and insurance companies all have championed the philosophy by using Piaf's "Je ne regrette rien" in their television ads.
And what greater commitment to a belief system than to wear it literally on your sleeve-like Bruno Santos, who had the ethic enshrined in black lowercase letters between the elbow and wrist of his right arm?
If thousands of ink-stained body parts don't convince you, listen instead to two giants of American culture who shared neither gender, religion, nor politics but who aligned on this article of faith. Leave "no room for regrets," counseled positive thinking pioneer the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who shaped twentieth-century Christianity and mentored Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. "Waste no time on . . . regret," advised Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, who practiced Judaism and achieved late-in-life goddess status among American liberals.
Or take the word of celebrities if that's your jam. "I don't believe in regrets," says Angelina Jolie. "I don't believe in regrets," says Bob Dylan. "I don't believe in regrets," says John Travolta. And transgender star Laverne Cox. And fire-coal-walking motivation maestro Tony Robbins. And headbanging Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash. And, I'd bet, roughly half the volumes in the self-help section of your local bookstore. The U.S. Library of Congress contains more than fifty books in its collection with the title No Regrets.
Embedded in songs, emblazoned on skin, and embraced by sages, the anti-regret philosophy is so self-evidently true that it's more often asserted than argued. Why invite pain when we can avoid it? Why summon rain clouds when we can bathe in the sunny rays of positivity? Why rue what we did yesterday when we can dream of the limitless possibilities of tomorrow?
This worldview makes intuitive sense. It seems right. It feels convincing. But it has one not insignificant flaw.
It is dead wrong.
What the anti-regret brigades are proposing is not a blueprint for a life well lived. What they are proposing is-forgive the terminology, but the next word is carefully chosen-bullshit.
Regret is not dangerous or abnormal, a deviation from the steady path to happiness. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. It clarifies. It instructs. Done right, it needn't drag us down; it can lift us up.
And that is not some gauzy daydream, a gooey aspiration confected to make us feel warm and cared for in a cold and callous world. That is what scientists have concluded in research that began more than a half century ago.
This is a book about regret-the stomach-churning feeling that the present would be better and the future brighter if only you hadn't chosen so poorly, decided so wrongly, or acted so stupidly in the past. Over the next thirteen chapters, I hope you'll see regret in a fresh and more accurate light, and learn to enlist its shape-shifting powers as a force for good.
We shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of people who say they have no regrets. Instead, we should think of them as actors playing a role-and playing it so often and so deeply that they begin to believe the role is real. Such psychological self-trickery is common. Sometimes it can even be healthy. But more often the performance prevents people from doing the difficult work that produces genuine contentment.
Consider Piaf, the consummate performer. She claimed-indeed, proclaimed-that she had no regrets. But a quick review of her forty-seven years on earth reveals a life awash in tragedy and troubles. She bore a child at age seventeen, whom she abandoned to the care of others and who died before turning three. Did she not feel a twinge of regret about that death? She spent one portion of her adult life addicted to alcohol and another addicted to morphine. Did she not regret the dependencies that stifled her talents? She maintained, to put it mildly, a turbulent private life, including a disastrous marriage, a dead lover, and a second husband she saddled with debt. Did she not regret at least some of her romantic choices? It's difficult to picture Piaf on her deathbed celebrating her decisions, especially when many of those decisions sent her to that deathbed decades before her time.
Or take our far-flung tattooed tribe. Talk with them just a little and it's clear that the outer expression of "No regrets"-the performance-and the inner experience diverge. For example, Mirella Battista devoted many years to a serious relationship. When it collapsed, she felt awful. And if she had a chance for a do-over, she likely would have made different choices. That's regret. But she also acknowledged her suboptimal choices and learned from them. "Every single decision brought me to where I am right now and made me who I am," she told me. That's the upside of regret. It's not as if Battista erased regret from her life. (After all, the word is permanently marked on her body.) Nor did she necessarily minimize it. Instead, she optimized it.
Amber Chase, who was thirty-five when we talked over Zoom one evening, told me, "There's so many wrong turns you can take in life." One of hers was her first marriage. At age twenty-five, she married a man who, it turned out, "had a lot of issues." The union was often unhappy, occasionally tumultuous. One day, with zero notice, her husband disappeared. "He got on a plane and left . . . and I didn't know where he was for two weeks." When he finally called, he told her, "I don't love you anymore. I'm not coming home." In a blink, the marriage was over. If she had to do it over again, would Chase have married the guy? No way. But that unfortunate move propelled her journey to the happy marriage she has today.
Chase's tattoo even winks at the flimsiness of the philosophy it claims to endorse. Hers doesn't say "No Regrets." It says "No Ragrets"-with the second word intentionally misspelled. The choice was an homage to the movie We're the Millers, an otherwise forgettable 2013 comedy in which Jason Sudeikis plays David Clark, a small-time marijuana dealer forced to assemble a fake family (a wife and two teenage kids) to work off a debt to a big-time dealer. In one scene, David meets Scottie P., a sketchy young fellow who's arrived on a motorcycle to take David's "daughter" on a date.
Scottie P. wears a cruddy white tank top that reveals several tattoos, including one that runs along his collarbone and reads, in blocky letters, No Ragrets David sits him down for a quick talk, which begins with a tour of Scottie P.'s tattoos and leads to this exchange:
(pointing to the "No Ragrets" tattoo)
What is the one right there?
Oh, this? That's my credo. No regrets.
(his expression skeptical)
How about that. You have no regrets?
Nope . . .
Like . . . not even a single letter?
No, I can't think of one.
If Scottie P. ever does muster second thoughts about the words encircling his neck, he wouldn't be alone. About one of every five people who get tattoos (presumably including people whose tattoos read "No Regrets") eventually regret their decision, which is why the tattoo removal business is a $100 million-a-year industry in the United States alone. Chase, though, doesn't regret her tattoo, perhaps because most people will never see it. On that cold Calgary Sunday in 2016, she chose to locate her tattoo on her rear end.
The Positive Power of
In the early 1950s, a University of Chicago economics graduate student named Harry Markowitz conceived an idea so elementary it now seems obvious-yet so revolutionary it earned him a Nobel Prize. Markowitz's big idea came to be known as "modern portfolio theory." What he figured out-if I may oversimplify in the service of getting on with the story-were the mathematics that underlie the adage "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
Before Markowitz came along, many investors believed the route to riches was to invest in one or two high-potential stocks. After all, a few stocks often produced humongous returns. Choose those winners and you'd make a fortune. Under this strategy, you'd end up picking lots of duds. But, hey, that's just the way investing worked. It's risky. Markowitz showed that instead of following this recipe, investors could reduce their risk, and still produce healthy gains, by diversifying. Invest in a basket of stocks, not just one. Broaden the bets across a variety of industries. Investors wouldn't win big on every pick, but over time they'd make a lot more money with a lot less risk. If you happen to have any savings parked in index funds or ETFs, modern portfolio theory is the reason why.