A big part of where you end up in life depends on a few key decisions that you make along the way. Where you live, which career you work in, who you marry, and others that have substantial long-term implications. The effects of these decisions on your life are more pronounced than the little day-to-day things because they lead you down a completely different path.
The question is: how can one learn to make those important decisions when there's so much on the line? Making a mistake with one job isn't a big deal, but committing yourself to the wrong career path can be extremely costly. Likewise, a couple of bad dates aren't the end of the world, but marrying the wrong person can be acutely painful.
Ideally, we should have a framework for being able to consistently make those big decisions correctly. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, had such a framework that he calls the "Regret Minimization Framework."
Regret Minimization Framework
Before Bezos founded Amazon in 1994, he was working at a hedge fund called D.E. Shaw; it was an incredibly lucrative and cushy job. While there, he came across a statistic that the internet had been growing by more than 2300% per year! Although his day job was nice, this was a revolutionary time in the history of technology that he wanted to be involved in.
Before jumping ship, Bezos spoke to the company owner, David Shaw, about his idea (for Amazon) and the possibility of him leaving to start an online business. Shaw was against the idea, telling Bezos that such a business was for those "who didn't already have a good job." It was a compelling argument to be true.
That's when Bezos turned to his Regret Minimization Framework to make his choice. He tells the story in his book Invent and Wander:
"I wanted to have minimized the number of regrets I have. I knew that when I was eighty, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed, I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day."
– Jeff Bezos
Regret is such a painful feeling. It forces you to remember your past, what could have been, but it's all torture because you know that you can never change it.
That's why you should aim to minimize regret. You want to be able to look back at your past and be satisfied with the decisions you made. This is especially important for decisions that are irreversible, or very hard or expensive to correct, because they're the ones that have the potential to cause the most pain if missed, and the most joy if chosen well.
The Regret Minimization Framework puts you in the mindset of thinking long-term. In that mindset, you effectively make decisions that ensure you don't miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime shots. For Bezos, he could always go back to a regular job. But missing out on something as big as the internet was a lot more serious; such opportunities might only come by once every decade.
Applying the Framework
The Regret Minimization Framework will serve you well in making big decisions. It puts you in the right mindset for thinking holistically and for the long term.
To apply the framework, simply ask yourself:
"Will I regret doing or not doing this when I'm 80 years old?"
That simple, powerful question will put everything into perspective. You imagine yourself laying in your bed, looking back on your younger years and the many decisions that you made. If you made any decisions you regret, they'll strike deep. You'll really feel it when you're imagining it because the effects of that pain will be magnified by the years that past since the decision.
Now you understand it all clearly. You know the long-term value of your decisions as you see the effects of them over all those years. The smaller things become less important: losing a bit of money short term, being thought of as weird, or having self-doubt. Those are all tiny in comparison to the long-term effect and regret of missing out on something that you feel is right.
A powerful quote from the film Braveheart captures this well:
"Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... Our freedom!"
Your happiness in life is directly proportional to how much energy you put into it. The Regret Minimization Framework encourages you to give life your all, to take action, be involved, and explore all that the world has to offer. Then, you will minimize regret and maximize your happiness.