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The trouble with regret minimization (samvitjain.com)
76 points by SamvitJ 8 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

I'm reading "Four Thousand Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman. His central thesis is that you will do almost none of the things that you might have done—you only get 4000 weeks give or take. You'll have almost none of the experiences you might have had. A human life is incredibly constrained and you just have to accept that—there's no getting around it.

Once you do accept it, regret doesn't make a lot of sense: you did this instead of that, but so what? There's an infinity of other things you didn't do and never could have done. Instead, focus on the life you have and living it as best as you possibly can. It doesn't last, and the real waste would be to spend your time regretting the past or using every moment to prepare for a future which might not come and won't be what you expected if it does (real life never matches the expectations we create in our fantasy version of the future).

I agree it's valuable not to be too picky about your life experiences, but at the same time, it's a safe bet that you're going to regret spending too many of those 4,000 weeks repeating the same low-value experiences over and over again. It's dumb to say, "I regret never jumping out of an airplane because I spent too many weekends climbing mountains or hunting moose or taking my wife on romantic getaways". It's perfectly reasonable to say, "I regret never jumping out of an airplane OR climbing a mountain OR hunting a moose because I literally spent every weekend getting drunk and playing video games in my underwear".

I made a live wallpaper for android based on this idea. It shows what percentage of your life has already gone by. Some people find this depressing, but I think it's a good reminder to think about how I spend my time.

app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.machineryc...

code: https://github.com/ethanmdavidson/DeathProgress

Thanks, I will check out the live wallpaper. There's also the Wait But Why post about this [1] with a physical calendar that they sell.

My favorite option so far, however, is the customizable printable calendar written by someone else that can be generated online [2] or run locally (Python) [3], both adapting to your date of birth for easier use, and the Python code can obviously be customized for any of your other needs by editing the script.

[1] https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/life-weeks.html

[2] https://www.ekn.io/calendar/

[3] https://github.com/eriknyquist/generate_life_calendar

> There's an infinity of other things you didn't do and never could have done. Instead, focus on the life you have and living it as best as you possibly can.

This seems tricky to reconcile. How do you focus on living the best life you possibly can while also remaining indifferent to all the things you could have done?

Kierkegaard (who had a lot to say on this topic of the self), would have observed that recognizing that it is tricky to reconcile is one very important step. Man is both finite and infinite (or as Ernest Becker put it, half animal, half symbolic) and the entire task of recognizing one's self is dealing with this paradoxical nature.

The suggestion of the top comment to 'accept it' Kierkegaard argues is no solution, it is regression into the finite, vanishing into the crowd. One might be contempt and safe, but still in despair, even without knowing it, which is the worst kind. Getting lost in the infinite, (choice despite being bound by one's finite nature) leads to the paralysis of choice and despair over options not realized.

The actual answer is, according to Kierkegaard, not to remain indifferent, but understand that exactly this struggle is what brings awareness to the self and in his religious reading, God. (which I think does not necessarily have to be taken literally if someone prefers a secular interpretation, he sometimes also spoke of 'creation' or simply, love).

"[...]Ah! So much is spoken about human need and misery and how to overcome it. So much is spoken about wasting our lives. But the only wasted life is the life of one who has so lived it, deceived by life’s pleasures or its sorrows, that that person never became decisively, eternally, conscious of him or herself as spirit, as a self. Or, if I may put it another way, such a person has never become aware — and gained in the deepest sense the impression — that there is a God and that that person, him or herself, is answerable to and exists before this God, and that this God can only be met by way of despair. Alas! so many live their lives in denial, decapitated from eternity. So many are not aware of their true destiny, defrauding themselves of this most blessed of all realities."

> (which I think does not necessarily have to be taken literally if someone prefers a secular interpretation

This would land you on one of the earlier stages on Kierkegaards path to “enlightenment”. It’s extremely hard to follow kierkegaard down the path you want without including faith.

It’s important to note that kierkegaard saw the Christian Church of Denmark as the biggest opponent of Christianity, however, and as such it’s entirely possible to take the lessons and direct your faith wherever you may want. Religion to kierkegaard was two things. It was organised religion and following rituals without ever questioning it. And it was self enlightenment in coming to realise that there is more to the world than you will ever understand and that God is real.

Then again, Kierkegaard also favoured monarchy above democracy, and you can certainly pick and chose, but I really don’t see how you can interpret Kierkegaards stages of life without faith considering the final answer is solely about faith.

> The suggestion of the top comment to 'accept it' Kierkegaard argues is no solution, it is regression into the finite, vanishing into the crowd.

That’s not exactly right is it? Kierkegaard very specifically commented on regret as useless and one of the most famous quotes of his is “hang yourself and you will regret it, don’t hang yourself and you’ll regret that as well. Hang or don’t hang yourself, you will regret your decision either way.”

You’re right as far as not letting regret limit you, but if not shooting for the stars is where your meaning is, then Kierkegaard is not against that as is shown in two other famous quotes. On on the fruitlessness of being busy achieving things that have no deeper meaning to you, and one on the virtue of being idle and unproductive to society but engaged within your own mind.

Yes, Kierkegaard certainly considers regret useless in that sense, but it is very easy to go from a position of not regretting things into a 'the dude' style indifference. He makes very clear that there is a difference between spiritual despair, which can exist even when mind and body are seemingly at rest, and that one need not even be aware of that despair.

It's one thing to consciously reject things that have no deeper meaning, and to engage with one's own mind, but in particular nowadays an attitude of indifference is also common. That is to say rejection of superficial things not because you're truly discovering your mind/spirit/faith etc but simply for safety and contentedness. And I don't think Kierkegaard had the intention to advocate for this kind of withdrawal.

>How do you focus on living the best life you possibly can while also remaining indifferent to all the things you could have done?

One could start by appreciating what they were did given the chance to do.

After all, they had signed no contract with the universe that they should do all things - or even that they should do anything specific.

I think you have to find a healthy balance, where you give it your best effort but also accept that it'll never be perfect.

On the other hand, you have tremendous agency in your life. Denying it is just as unhealthy as obsessing about it. As always, the most sensible approach is somewhere in between.

But if you know you will regret not doing more adventurous things then you minimize regret to correct the course.

This. Make decisions, own them, accept the consequences, live and learn.

The average middle class house has more luxury than kings of old available.

Billions of humans died before we got where we are.

I don’t really see a reason to a) push each other as hard as we do; that hard for incremental linear economic gains inequitably distributed? To gain even more minor improvement? Haha b) see the need to do perform harder as much more than a chemical delusion

Billionaires got there by gaming biology, not building the entirety of society. I’d be a billionaire if I had a network of sycophants telling everyone I’m a billionaire too.

Our culture has jumped the shark. I look forward to the bubble bursting.

Before 1880 or so, if you wanted to listen to music, you played an instrument yourself, went to a pre-arranged concert on their schedule, or were incredibly wealthy and paid musicians to give you concerts.

In the 1920s you bought a radio or phonograph.

In the 1980s you bought tapes and then CDs and could listen on the go.

Now you can pay a subscription service and a bandwidth bill and get much of human music anytime, and nearly anywhere.

Food was stuff you or your neighbors grew; then it was stuff from your area; after refrigeration it could come from anywhere.

Books and television are cheaper than they've ever been before; movies are more available.

Yet I grow food in my garden (inefficiently) and play instruments for fun (not very well), because modern life is so convenient I can do those things. I'm thanking my lucky stars and never worry about what regrets I might have in the future but also have to answer my daughters' questions whether they will have those luxuries.

At age 85 I might have regrets that I should have done more to preserve things for the next generation. Then again, we're terrible at predicting the future...

Trillions is definitely hyperbolic. Estimates I've read is ~100 billion or so humans to ever exist.

It's a little disturbing to me that he focuses so much on his career. I don't know what I will regret on my deathbed, but I'm pretty sure work won't be prominent on the list. It's important to be productive, sure, but let's not fool ourselves. Almost none of us will have had any sort of lasting impact. We're making Tibetan sand art. Our 'purpose' is simply to enjoy our time in the sun.

I do like his idea of maximizing gratitude though. What will I be most grateful for on my deathbed? Probably the relationships I had, and a chance to see the world as it is now, in the golden age of our civilization, before it gets wrecked by climate change.

A lot of people find meaning in creating some sort of legacy that outlasts them. Something about old men planting trees whose shade they will never sit in and whatnot. And some of those people try to do it through their career. Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively and convincingly about the futility of creating a lasting legacy--about how everyone and their deeds will inevitably be forgotten when the last person who remembers them finally dies--but his words are a little bit undermined by the sheer fact that I read them millennia after his death.

But personally, I'd rather just have kids than try and have a successful enough career that I become a historical figure.

> We're making Tibetan sand art. Our 'purpose' is simply to enjoy our time in the sun.

I like that metaphor :)

Rather than regret minimization, I prefer to focus on try maximization. IE try as many new things as you can.

Obviously there are some things that you should never try. Things that you find morally objectionable. Things that have too high a risk of death or permanent disability. Things that will keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities (wife and kids will slow you down). You have to do your own maths on those, but beyond that you should try as many new things as you can manage.

You will fail. You will fail a lot. That's part of the fun.

As a 50 year old man, with four grown kids, in the middle of a divorce after 25 years of marriage, sitting at home with a leg I broke skateboarding last month I can honestly say that I have very few regrets so far. I travelled through a lot of Europe and most of the US before marriage, I've had interesting work, and I've learned how to do a lot of things just by being willing to try.

Remember, failure is always an option and is the expected outcome at least 50% of the time. If you're not failing, then you're probably not trying anything new.

I love this mindset and it sounds like you've lived quite the life so far. It sounds like you have a lot of stories to tell, and I think story-maximization is another good life strategy.

Your thoughts on failure remind me of a twitter thread I read yesterday by a new parent watching their baby try and learn to walk. I haven't had that experience yet myself, but it sounds like you might have. Babies are extremely determined and have absolutely no fear of failure during that phase. It's too bad so many people forget that attitude later in life.

While it's incredibly difficult to predict what we might regret, we actually have easy access to that information from old people.

- https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-fiv...

The author seems quite focused on his career, but a common regret is to wish "I didn't work so hard"

I read about that before, an interesting argument is that if they didnt work as hard, they might have had a worse life because of potential financial instability.

Completely agree with the points in this piece. Regret minimisation for the perceived future regrets in a teenager's mind is going to be very different to that of someone in their mid twenties.

It needs to be calibrated with the best estimates of one's future regrets. E.g. when I am 40, I will regret not having children. Therefore I should get my life in order during my late twenties and early thirties to avoid this future regret.

Regret is like anxiety and worry: they are self generated conspiracy theories. As in other aspects of life, gossip and conspiracy are best avoided - and triple so when the conspiracy crank is yourself against yourself.

I don't think so. Regret, anxiety and worry all invoke analysis which you may not have done otherwise. Sure, too much may be detrimental but so is not enough. I don't think any of these basic common cues are optimal at zero quantity.

Love this analogy. It's so true.

It's worth considering the differences between Bezos' notion of regret minimization and the mathematical techniques of the same name.

First, Bezos' is about a once-in-a-lifetime chance, whereas the mathematical version is more about choices you repeat over and over.

Another difference, relating to the author's point

> Regret is conditioned on what happens

is that, in the mathematical version, while you do update your regret tables on the basis of what eventually happens, you make your decisions now on the basis only of what you know so far. Depending how you look at it, you might be satisfied -- "no regrets" -- so long as you perform this procedure properly, i.e., you can forgive your past self for ignorance. In this way you are attached not to the actual outcome but to your correct choice and execution. This creates a kind of "equanimity". The idea may be very vaguely Jain/Buddhist.

Regret is interesting to me because I don't really know what to do with it but I'm mostly convinced that all the primitive emotions have a use and a non-zero optimal quantity. I'd be interested to hear from those with nuanced thoughts on this topic.

Regret is probably there to get you to relive a past event where you made a wrong choice, while feeling bad about it, so that you learn not to make that mistake again.

As a consequence, if you think you might make the same bad decision again, reminiscing and feeling regret might continue to be helpful. Maybe there was a nuance to the situation that made it unclear whether it was a bad decision. Once you know the decision was bad, and know you wouldn't make the same bad decision again, regret is unnecessary; from then on if you catch yourself in it, you should redirect your attention to something productive.

>I'm mostly convinced that all the primitive emotions have a use and a non-zero optimal quantity

Sure, it's learning negative reinforcement.

Eat poisonous fruit that made your belly ache? It sticks in your mind, you remember it (as regret) and you wont do that again.

I think what makes regret a bit different is that its malleable (you can change the function) and theory laden (it evaluates differently based on what you know).

In this context I can recommend the book https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25666050-algorithms-to-l... . Basing decisions solely on regret minimization is certainly not a good idea. You need to spend some time also on exploration. E.g. you do something where you do not really know what the value is. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-armed_bandit problem

An old (abusive) boss of mine coined the term "regret activity". I think "technical debt" was flavour of the month at the time and and maybe that's where it stemmed from.

I thought this was going to be about online convex optimization lol

My framework is nobody knows shit so do what you can as much as you can. Bounce, flow. Universe is way too large to know what will be. Seriously too large, even your own body can derail in ways hard to understand.

Schopenhauer said, "do it; don't do it; you'll regret both."

I find that comforting and a great help in the face of option paralysis.

> According to regret minimization, we should project ourselves into the future and consider which path we would regret not taking more. Will I regret not moving for that job opportunity I once had? Will I always regret that I didn’t get a PhD?

That's not regret minimization, really it's the opposite. Regret minimization does not compare two options, it is a threshold that any option either passes or does not. The whole point is that in general there are many possibile courses of action, and it is often impossible to determine the optimal route, but so long as you pick one of the options you won't regret, you're good, even if it was suboptimal. In Bezos' quote, he's not saying he knew all along that the internet would lead to amazing success and the best of all possible futures, but rather that it was good enough that no matter what happened, he'd be okay with it. Regret minimization is a method to beat analysis paralysis, not produce it.

So in the author's example of deciding whether or not to get a PhD, there isn't a right answer, but someone doing regret minimization might say "I'd be proud of getting my PhD even if it doesn't ultimately put me in a better position than spending that time working" and thus getting the PhD would be the regret-minimizing course of action. Or equally possible, one might say "I'd rather try and fail at doing something in the real world than spend all those extra years in academia" and thus not going for the PhD would be the regret minimizing strategy.

Now it's true that it can be difficult to predict what you'll regret and no one can know all the consequences of their decisions, but that's just life. Regret is not an unhealthy and unnatural state that you should convince yourself to ignore, regret is the means by which we recognize and learn from bad decisions. You will invariably make decisions over the course of your life which will put your future self in undesirable circumstances, but that you may sometimes fail to make the right decision doesn't mean you should never try. To pretend that all choices are equally valid and to tell ourselves that we'd probably regret the alternatives just as much is to deny that we ever made a mistake in the first place, which may feel good in the moment but leads to much worse future pain as no lesson is learned from the experience and the mistake is repeated. Or worse, without proper introspection it is possible to take away the wrong lessons from a mistake - legitimate concerns become irrational fears, caution becomes anxiety, problems are avoided instead of solved, and we endure terrible pain making a life in which we can pretend to be happy.

Regrets are like scars - you shouldn't be trying to get them, but if in your old age you find yourself with a lot, you must have lived a pretty interesting life.

No regrets, they don't work No regrets now, they only hurt

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