What-If, Should-Have and Good Enough:  A Tango with Regret

We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. — The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz

Generally speaking, I don’t believe in regret.  I believe it exists as an emotion, obviously, but it’s not one I’ve traditionally spent much time on.   Like guilt, it seems a waste of energy.  I focus on making the best decision I can given the current facts, and if it turns out I was wrong — that I bet on the wrong horse, so to speak — well, I did my best.  No one can see the future, right?  So why bother with regret?

Usually, this works for me.

BLOG15regret (1024x683)But a few days in Boyaca, the region just north of Bogota, has me dancing on the edge of regret.  Boyaca is beautiful: cold and green.  Brightly-painted colonial towns nestled in craggy mountains.  Mustachioed men in heavy wool ponchos and rubber boots.  Crisp blue skies and drizzling rain.  It is the interesting parts of Europe but at half the price.  And then we went to Bogota, Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital, the third highest in the world.  Full of street art and hipsters and style.  Sharp-looking men in suits, women in heeled boots and gorgeous wraps.  There is shwarma and Thai food, for goodness’ sake, and empanadas and taxis at any time of day or night.

I’m pretty sure I had a goofy grin plastered on my face the entire time.

Because all of these things make me happy.  Green and mountains and style and food and energy.  And cold and rain.  New foods and broad vistas.  And not sweating, of course.

As we exited the plane in Santa Marta, surrounded by vacationers starting long-anticipated holidays, we alone shuddered in distaste at the hot breath of tropical air.  We were “home” and… blech.

BLOG25regret (1024x683)
This could have been our street

Everything that is wrong with our life in Santa Marta came rushing in.  The soul-crushing, brain-poaching heat.  The collegio debacle that has left my son with a debilitating fear of leaving the apartment.  The puzzling fact that, after three and half months, we don’t have a single friend in this town.  When we leave, the only people to tell are our housekeeper and the vigilantes [doormen] downstairs.  (This is deeply puzzling to all of us.  Never in the 108 years that my family has collectively spent on this planet have we gone more than a few days without making friends.  We are Those People.  Yet Santa Marta was somehow Teflon to our admittedly-paltry efforts, and then that whole collegio thing went down and our children went from friend-bait to anchors holding us alone.  But the realization that we had more meaningful connections leaving the hostel in Sagomoso after three nights has rocked my world.)

The path of regret widened into a super-highway.  What if, instead of being in a hurry to put down roots and settle, we had left ourselves more flexibility to move when it wasn’t working like we planned?  I took it further: forget Boyaca and Colombia as a whole, what if we had gone to Spain?  The photos our friends in Grenada are posting look charming.  Or what if I ditched this whole learning-Spanish ruse and just admitted that I wanted six months of hedonistic enjoyment, and we had gone to Italy, or Ireland, or even the Cape?  Somewhere green and foodie and easy and lovely.

This is the paradox of choice in a nutshell.  By having so many options — the whole world! — how can I not wonder where other paths would have led?  How can I not picture the verdantly-green grass of the path I didn’t choose?

These haunting paths-not-taken aren’t unique to traveling, of course.  Like everyone, I face dozens of opportunities for regret — for wondering if I Did the Right Thing — every day in normal life.  The angst of staying in our neighborhood school when one of San Diego’s myriad charter schools might provide a more engaging/more supportive/more challenging/better education for my children.  Second-guessing whether staying with the job I like after fourteen years (!) is the just easy choice, or authentically the right one.  Even little things: out of the seventy-five roll combinations at Sushi Deli One, would I have been happier with a different one?

It’s paralyzing, and crazy-making.  Literally.  We, as red-blooded patriotic Americans, think that more choice is always better, but science proves us wrong.  When offered a wider range of 401k investment options, for example, more people are paralyzed, foregoing investing at all, even though that they say they want to.  And people offered the opportunity to change their choice after purchase express less satisfaction in the end than those who knew that their choice was final.

But it makes sense, right?  If you’re searching for The Best — if you’re a maximizer, as psychologists call it — then more choices mean more research, more internal debates, more angst over which is the “right-est” choice, and more regret after your choice is made.  But psychologists have found that some people — satisficers — look quickly at their options and pick one that fits all their criteria; then they move on with their lives, content with “good enough.”  They can walk away from the phantom of The Best hiding out there in the mist.  What’s interesting is that maximizers in many situations end up with an objectively “better” choice — jobs with higher starting salaries, for example — but satisficers end up happier with their choices.

BLOG7regret (1024x683)Which brings me back to my non-belief in regret.  Because I know we made the best choice we could have, given what we knew.  And it met all of our (somewhat vague) criteria: Spanish-speaking, different from our normal life, affordable, safe, an adventure.  It’s been profoundly “good enough,” even if other choices, other paths, might have been even better.  And I have enough experience on this planet to recognize that a life in Boyaca would have its regrets as well.  We would be tired of cold and rain, like we’re tired of heat here.  We’d be as sick of arepas and asada as we are of pescado frito and patacon.  There’s no guarantee that Operation Make Friends would have gone differently in another region and climate.  And there is no way we could have found a place to live as excessively decadent as our beachfront apartment.

Most importantly, Santa Marta, through its provincialism and incomprehensible accent, kept me skimming atop the surface of Colombia, which gave me something else that a more tempting and engaging place wouldn’t: time.  Time to write, time to reflect, to play, to get lonely, to entertain friends from home.  Time to step away from the rush-rushing busyness of my normal life and celebrate that a trip to the market is often the biggest event of my day.  And some days I don’t even bother with that.

So sure, I can paint a vivid picture of how this six-months should have gone, where we made all the “right” decisions at the “right” times to make this experience The Best instead of merely Good Enough.  But this isn’t how life works.  There’s no rewind, no do-over, no real space for should-have.  Only actually-did.

This is the point where you want me to say that this realization has ripped out any regret at the roots, that I am now enlightened, convinced that whatever choice I made was The Right Choice.  Alas, I must disappoint you.  I have a lot more work to do before I ride off into that particular Zen-colored sunset.  But tonight, as I stood on our porch with a glass of pink wine and watched the sky turn orange and a family in formal wear take photos and yet another catch dragged in with the help of the men who play soccer under our windows every evening, I realized that this is it.  This is my chance to be content, to have what is sufficient — even if there is the phantom of something potentially better out thereand be grateful for it.  And if I can’t do it here, with all the beauty and adventure and emotional space that I currently have, then contentment will always elude me  And for a moment, this path was good enough.

Just as the hike to Ciudad Perdida led me to create a Hiker’s Manifesto outlining my criteria for all future hikes (which I am violating with the Inca Trail next week, but that’s another story), this trip to Boyaca has birthed a Traveler’s Manifesto.  You know, on the off chance that I ever, ever, ever leave San Diego again after our return, which at this point feels exceedingly unlikely.  While not as formal as the Hiker’s Manifesto, it includes a number of strict guidelines tied to weather (no sweating unless exercise is involved, evenings cool enough for sweaters and blankets, sun strength compatible with my complexion), ecology (green, with trees and shade and flowers), and culinary priorities (bread and cheese; wine preferred; fruit optional).

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