How to Minimize Your Regrets in Life, According to Science

Explore-Exploit Tradeoff

There’s something called the Explore-Exploit Tradeoff. Simply put, it’s the dilemma of whether you should choose what you know (‘exploit’) or choose something you aren’t sure about and possibly learn more (‘explore’). For example, should you go to your favorite restaurant, or try a new place that may become your new favorite?

My philosophy is to aggressively explore throughout my younger years, then exploit more at an older age. As a consequence of this strategy, I expect to discover a lot of things I dislike, whether it be foods, places, hobbies or anything else – In short, trying a lot of regrettable things. At the same time, I also get a taste of things I do end up liking, and perhaps preferring over my usual routine. I don’t want to wait until I’m 50 years old to discover I love playing the guitar, even if that means regrettably spending a lot of time in my teens and 20s trying other instruments that I won’t end up having passion for.

When balancing our current favorites and discovering (potential) new ones, what matters is the interval over which we plan to enjoy them. For instance, you’re more likely to try a new restaurant when entering a city than when leaving. The value of exploration goes down over time as the remaining opportunities to exploit dwindle. Since modern humans live longer than our ancestors, I hypothesize that humans have evolved such that we “exploit” more than what is optimal for our happiness. Moreover, humans are biased towards what is known and comfortable, not what makes us happy. Besides, exploring itself can be fun. With that in mind, I plan to aggressively explore in early life. In this way, I figure out what I like early in life, such that I have a greater amount of time to enjoy them afterwards.

Regret minimization

A downside of exploration is trying things you’ll regret. This dissuades people from being spontaneous, proactive and taking “risks”. What most people fail to account for is the regrets they will have from not taking action – what is known as counterfactual regrets. Indeed inaction is just as irrevocable as action. You may regret leaving your job to start a business if it doesn’t work out. Equally, you may regret not trying something entrepreneurial sooner if it does work out. At all times, you have to balance between regrettable actions and inactions.

So what is the correct balance? In my opinion, people place far to little psychological weight on regrets of inaction. In the wise words of Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did”. In fact, science does seem to support the idea that minimizing counterfactual regrets reduces overall regrets [1].

Aggressive exploration has the benefit of minimizing counterfactual regrets, as well as overall regrets. When you’re young, especially in your teens, 20s and 30s: Live proactively, try new things and take calculated risks. Never forget about regrets of inaction.

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