Note: This is the TEDx talk I delivered at my high school alma mater, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in May 2015. The theme of the event was: “Prevail: How can we discover and pursue our own passions in the face of external and societal pressures?”
I’m here to issue you all a warning. A warning based on the true story of what happened to the friendliest girl of TJ’s class of 2000. A warning to be careful of the regret threat and other weapons of dream destruction, because this could happen to you.
The regret threat is the prediction of unhappiness caused by making the wrong life choice. It’s based on the perception of regret as something dangerous, and terrible, something to avoid at all costs. The regret threat is when someone tells you that you’re making a mistake, that you’ll be sorry, that you’ll wish you hadn’t made that decision. It can be direct, or it can be subtle. Regret threats can come from your family, your friends, strangers, even yourself. You can read about them in novels, in magazines, on inspirational Pins on Pinterest. You’ll hear them in motivational speeches, in conversation, and in your head.
I’ve been familiar with the regret threat for my entire adult life. You see, I’m a humanities person—yes, a humanities person, who graduated from TJ—and while at the University of Virginia, I made a choice that all college students have to make. I declared a major. This decision changed my life in many ways, and one of the most important ways it changed me was that it set the stage for my first battle with the regret threat.
Because the major I had chosen was Spanish. It wasn’t a STEM field. It wasn’t business. It was a major in the humanities, and apparently, this is something that people have a very strong opinion about.
As an educated, decisive person, I thought I was pretty well-equipped to make sound life decisions. I was so sure about my decision that I declared my Spanish major my second semester, not my second year, of college. I loved languages. I wanted to study abroad. The professors in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese actually took an interest in me, in my education and my future, and that’s no small feat at a large public university like UVA. I felt at home in that department, intellectually challenged in class, and excited about the possibilities that a Spanish concentration could afford me. When I got my first taste of teaching, I had an epiphany that the obvious career path for me was to become a Spanish teacher, so I could share my passion for Spanish with others. All of this made complete sense to me.
So imagine how unprepared I was to deal with other people’s reactions to my decision to be a Spanish major, with the goal of being a Spanish teacher.
From a fellow TJ grad and UVA classmate:
What are you going to do with that degree?
And from family friends,
That seems like such a waste of your education.
From random people,
Oh, honey, you know there’s no money in teaching, right?
The underlying threat here, of course, is that I would regret my choice to major in Spanish, and ultimately my choice to teach. I would regret it because there are no possible jobs that I could get with that degree that would be at all worthwhile, and because the career I was considering is grossly underpaid and undervalued. I would regret it because I had so much potential to do something more meaningful, more lucrative, and ultimately that was the perfect use of my talents (whatever that was). I would regret it, because I wouldn’t prevail.
I’m not sure why these people decided to chime in on my decision to major in Spanish, but they did; and people continue to comment on my life choices, and there have been plenty of other regret threats since then. I don’t believe that most people intend to be hurtful with these kinds of comments and questions; however, I do believe that this kind of threatening language used to describe success and failure can be extremely damaging. The regret threat is dangerous because it breeds other weapons of dream destruction, like doubt, cynicism, distrust, bitterness, and defensiveness. It can keep people from exploring their passions, it can stifle creativity, and it can steer people toward a path that they don’t enjoy or don’t find meaningful. It can cause a once open and trusting person to close themselves off from people who might be able to give them support. And threats of guilt, unused potential, and a penniless future undermine and devalue worthwhile careers by only focusing on the dollar amount we can ascribe to them.
In my case, the regret threats I received then, and the ones I’ve received since, made me defensive about others’ rush to judge me, hesitant to share my plans, embarrassed to seek advice, frustrated about others’ lack of empathy, angry at what I perceived to be shallow concerns, and disappointed that these people didn’t seem to trust that I could make good choices. All of this caused a lot of my openness, my optimism, my trust of others, traits that made me what people consider friendly, to fade away. People I’ve met since then would not describe me as the friendliest person in a room, let alone a group of 400 people. I’m not what you would call shy, or quiet, but I don’t seek out friendships with other people the way I used to, and to me, that’s a real loss. And that’s the true story of what happened to the friendliest girl of the class of 2000.
But now you might be wondering, how did I prevail in spite of these weapons of dream destruction?
I’ve prevailed, because I’ve learned to embrace regret itself.
You see, I have lots of regrets.
I didn’t end up regretting my decision to major in Spanish, or to teach. But, I regret graduating early from college. I regret continuing on with a PhD when I knew I didn’t want to be an academic. I regret sacrificing my hobbies and creativity to academic demands. I regret not negotiating my salary at my first real-world job.
And these are just a few examples… I’m sure I’ve made some decisions just this week that will cause me to pause later on in life, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year. Like, I’ll probably regret showing you all that 15-year-old picture of myself.
I don’t dwell on any of regrets. But they are certainly moments I wish I could do differently, given the chance. And to me, there’s nothing really scary about that. A regret is just the recognition of a mistake, and it can and should be used for good. So my regrets are not the dangerous, happiness-sucking monsters that people warned me about; they are powerful tools that inform the decisions I make every day, and the goals I have for myself.
By focusing on the positive power of regret, I can disarm the regret threat, neutralize the weapons of dream destruction, and prevail. I may not be the friendliest girl of the class anymore, but I’m also not afraid to make the decisions I need to make in order to pursue my dreams. My goal is not to have a life without regrets, but to have a life filled with regrets that signify that I wasn’t afraid to make hard choices and determine my own path
So, how can you prevail when you’re confronted with a regret threat?
My suggestion is to first defuse the threat by remembering that regrets themselves are not inherently bad, and if you allow it to be so, they have a positive power. Then, Ask for clarification. Asking directly what people mean by a certain remark or question gives them the opportunity to articulate more fully their feedback or concern in a way that can foster dialog, as opposed to seeming like a quick dismissal of your dreams and disrespect for your decision. Name the emotion you feel as a result of the regret threat: cynicism, distrust, defensiveness, anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, disdain. By naming that emotion in the moment, you’re allowing it to exist and you’re allowing yourself to experience it, instead of allowing it to simmer under the surface. Finally, remember that the decision you end up making, is yours and only yours, and the consequences are yours, and only yours, and your interpretation of what that means to you is yours, and only yours. People can give you well-meaning advice, but they’re not the ones making and living your decisions.
And to those well-meaning people who have ever issued a regret threat, and we’ve all either been there or had that opportunity… the next time someone shares their plans or their dreams with you, be mindful of how you react. That person is making their dreams incredibly vulnerable by sharing them with you, and even if you don’t realize it, your words have incredible power. The world is already such a brutal place when it comes to people’s hopes, and you have complete control over whether you end up on the hostile side of the war on dreams.
I’m not going to say that you should do all this so that you don’t end up like me, so that you don’t regret it. But in my experience, the tools I’ve mentioned have been useful in allowing me to prevail in spite of regret threats. So, I’m offering them to you as tools to disarm those weapons of dream destruction that can make even the friendliest girl in the class disappear.