Life without regret

Forget mistakes, our biggest regrets come from not achieving our ideal self. (4 mins)

My ideal self involves having a sense of humour like Jimmy Fallon, the IQ of Elon Musk, the EQ of the Dalai Lama, the sporting skills of Lebron James, and the physique of that Australian dude who plays Thor….I’ve failed them all! Screw my life!! Sounds dramatic, but it’s failing to live up to our ideal selves that can lead us to a life of regret.



Let’s imagine it’s the end of the road and your life is reaching its final curtain. Well done for making it this far, but are you happy with how your life turned out? Research by Cornell University suggests our biggest regrets on our deathbed are less about the things we did, or tried and failed at, and more about not becoming who we could have been. This is based on the self-discrepancy theory of the three selves: the actual self, the ought self and the ideal self.

The actual self is who you believe yourself to be in terms of the characteristics and abilities you actually possess – ‘I am good at listening’. The ought self is who you think you ought to be and the abilities you ought to possess based on your obligations and responsibilities – ‘I should be a better parent, friend, lover…all of the above!’. When there is a discrepancy between the actual self and the ought self we typically take action to fix it, or we don’t and it becomes a trigger for anxiety. Making mistakes while learning to master new obligations and responsibilities feel horrible in the moment, but we usually get over them with a ‘live and learn’ mentality. Such as when you become a parent for the first time and you have no choice but to accept failures (on a daily basis!) as a natural part of the learning process.

However, the ideal self is who you’d ideally be and the abilities you’d ideally possess, if you could. Perhaps your ideal self involves being your own boss, but you’ve never followed through on your goals and ambitions because you’ve stayed in a job or career that was the safer option. According to the research, not reaching, achieving or living up to your ideal self is what will truly haunt you at the end of your days.



The advice is clear, if you want a life without regret, take action while you can to become your ideal self! This involves asking yourself –  ‘What does my ideal self look like?’. At first it might seem a little fuzzy, it may have changed or be changing over time, but you have one….look harder! The trick is to shape the vision of your ideal self into something (someone) that is realistic and achievable for you. I’m unfortunately never going to be as smart as Elon Musk, but I can focus on developing certain entrepreneurial attributes into my ideal self, and work daily on making them part of my actual self.

One of the first things I work on with my clients is what their ideal self is, because this shapes all of the important stuff like their goals, hopes, dreams and the required action inbetween. I ask them to imagine they have reached the end of their life’s journey, and describe who they are. Not what they have done with their life, but what person they have become. ‘What person will you become?’



We all have a perfect vision for ourselves, and while some things are simply unreasonable to expect of our ideal selves, taking action to become someone you are proud to be is the safest way to ensure you live a life without regret. And sooner rather than later, because you just never know when that curtain is coming down for you….


If you need help defining, implementing and achieving the life you want, including achieving your ideal self, checkout the link below to learn more about the performance coaching I provide and how to book a session with me. 



Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Journal on Emotion.

Allan, P. (2018). How To Avoid A Life Of Regret. Life Hacker.

Share This