Last week, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates admitted that if he could do one thing in his life differently, he would have made the Ctrl+Alt+Delete command a single key.
That’s it. That’s his one, single regret. Maybe it’s hard to have regrets about the life you’ve lived when you’re worth $89bn. Harder still when the charity that you and your wife established has helped saved the lives of 122 million people.
And yet, despite being one of the richest men in the world, that’s the thing that still niggles on Gates’ mind, over 20 years later.
There are, of course, different levels of regret. Small ones that niggle at you, like a mosquito buzzing around your ear at night. Regrets like Bill Gates’ or Norah Ephron’s regret that rings in my ears every summer at not appreciating her body enough: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.”
But there are bigger regrets, too. When Emma Freud put a call-out on Twitter, asking for people to share their biggest regret, most of of them were the tug-at-your-heart, life-defining sort of regrets. People regretted not picking up the phone when their dad called, not knowing that it would be the last chance they ever had to talk to him. They regretted staying in loveless marriages or, conversely, betraying the person they loved the most.
I have small regrets: not paying enough attention in French class, cutting my own fringe in a fit of adolescent idiocy, getting so drunk at my last big birthday party that I don’t remember anything post 9pm.
I don’t understand how they feel so strongly about avoiding them that they have someone literally tattoo “No regrets” on to their body in a shitty cursive font
I also have larger ones: I regret being callous with other people’s hearts and that, a few years ago, I forgot to call my dad on his birthday. I regret that I spent so many years of my life obsessed with how small my body could become, and the dinners and cakes and fun I missed out on because of it. But, mostly, I regret not being kinder. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, a distant acquaintance or a friend I’ve now lost touch with will pop into my head and I will relive a time I was unkind or, at least, not as kind as I could have been, and I will stew in my regret until I fall asleep.
I don’t understand how people go through their lives without these sort of regrets. I don’t understand how they feel so strongly about avoiding them that they have someone literally tattoo “No regrets” on to their body in a shitty cursive font. I find the way we talk about regret strange, like they are something toxic and dangerous. As if the past is best left in the past, with all our stupid mistakes and worst impulses sealed safely back in time. To admit that we have regrets, or that we’d do something differently, seems to signal to people that we’re unhappy with how our lives worked out and, in turn, that we ourselves are unhappy. Because if we really truly regret something, if we were willing to go back in time and change it, then wouldn’t everything that came after that change, too?
But I don’t see it like that. I see regret as something altogether healthier. Regrets show that you’re human, that you fucked up in myriad different ways over the course of your lifetime, that you are still here and you are still standing. We can talk for days about mindfulness and wellness and what we hope our future looks like, but there’s also value in looking at your past and taking the time to work out which parts of it embarrass or shame you. Sure, it’s painful and often hard to stomach, but often it gives you a clearer idea of what you want, moving forward.