Focus On The Future

As human beings, we have a terrible habit of clinging to the past. We hold onto grudges, cling to bad habits, and beat ourselves up pretty good for past mistakes.

Unfortunately, our history often distorts our perception of the present and impacts our decision-making for the worst. It seems some people can never escape their pasts and spend their lifetimes wallowing in regret.

For some people, regret holds them back, but it’s a powerful agent of change for others. Brilliant Swedish inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel was one person who used regret for positive change. Had Nobel let his past define him, there would be no Nobel Prize today.

Here’s how history was changed:

One morning in April 1888, Alfred Nobel woke up in his home in Paris, opened the newspaper, and learned that he had died, but Alfred had not died. It was his brother Ludvig that had passed. The local French press mistakenly believed it was Alfred that had died and published the wrong obituary. Because of this error, Alfred got the unique opportunity to see what others thought of his legacy while he was still alive. It wasn’t pretty.

The press was not kind. One newspaper ran the headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead” above his obituary – then proceeded to condemn him for inventing dynamite and other explosives that fueled worldwide destruction and conflicts. The obituary painted him as a greedy, soulless man who accumulated his fortune at the expense of others.

Of course, Alfred was unsettled by what he was reading as the press celebrated his death. The natural reaction would have been to get angry and threaten to take legal action against these papers, but Alfred reacted unexpectedly. Instead of anger, he was overcome by another very human emotion: regret. Instead of wallowing in his regret and feeling sorry for himself, Alfred confronted his regret head-on and transformed it into fuel for change. His life was never the same after that experience.

Seven years after the false obituary, Nobel signed his last will and testament at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually.

A year later, when Alfred died, his legacy was completely different for real this time. People were no longer celebrating his death; they were celebrating his life. Rather than being remembered as a “merchant of death,” Alfred was now revered as a philanthropist who bettered mankind.

Alfred’s reaction to regret was anomalous. The most common human reaction is to spiral into self-pity, self-punishment, and a never-ending cycle of “if only’s.” “If only I had focused my life’s work on an invention other than dynamite. If only I could undo what people thought of me and the destruction my creations created,” Alfred could have continually asked himself.

Alfred realized that punishing himself was fruitless. What good would come out of his self-flagellation?

Instead, Alfred chose the path less traveled – a much more productive route. He decided to take action to make a positive impact on the world to ensure he would never have to confront regret again.

There’s a big difference between unproductive regret and productive regret. While unproductive regret paralyzes, productive regret catalyzes; your choice is entirely up to you. None of us are perfect, and we all have something in our past that we’re not proud of.

While we may regret past choices in our career, our employment, our parenting choices, where we live, our investments, and so on, we can choose to let our past define us for the worse or turn it into a positive force for change like Alfred Nobel.