Doing Too Much Or Too Little
September 13, 2023
Banana leaf lunch


In Born A Crime, Trevor Noah’s moving memoir about his early years growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, I came across this quote

“Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have an answer to. “What if…,” “If only…,” “I wonder what would have…”. You will never, never know and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

I have pondered on this conundrum often.

What would you choose?

Action in the present or regret in the future for actions not taken?

A life of constant motion

The past few weeks have been busy, which is typically the case for me. I have what would be called by social scientists (I think) ‘bias towards action’.  

As a child, my most frequently uttered phrase was “I’m bored”. The easiest way to avoid the tyranny of boredom was to read – Phantom comics, Tinkle and other film and sports magazines, Reader’s Digest, and whatever pieces of paper I could lay my hands on, including old newspapers used to wrap things (in the good old days when sustainability was a way of life, not just a buzzword).

As an adult I moved to more sophisticated activities – yoga classes, library subscriptions, music lessons, writing workshops, walking groups etc. And now in the age of the internet, I watch Youtube tutorials for everything from cooking recipes and pilates workouts to crochet patterns.

What all of these add up to is the illusion of constant movement as I buzz around like a busy bee tasting each flower; lingering in places, fleeing from others. 

The upside of this life is one of constant learning, enthusiasm for novel experiences, a constant state of excitement. The downside is the tendency to take on too much, overcommitment, and sometimes, burnout. 

Are there any alternatives?

“Why don’t you slow down?”

My family and friends, well wishers and sometimes, total strangers, ask. I offer a different short answer each time, trying to find out for myself why I load up so much on my plate (or banana leaf, like the tasty Onam sadya I enjoyed last week at a friend’s home depicted in the picture).

Perhaps I am still that child who is bored and is on the lookout for something new.

Or I am the middle-aged person who finds the world full of things to try, to taste, to savour, and doesn’t want to waste any more moments wondering.

Should I or should I not? 

Will I regret starting something new now or will I later regret letting things slide?

In his super interesting book, “The Power of Regret – How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward“, author Daniel Pink noted that the vast majority of people regret things they did not do, over things they did, particularly as they age. 

The reason is that for the things we did, we know how it turned out but for the fork in the road that we did not take, there is always a question of ‘what-if’, as Trevor Noah observed in his own life. Regrets don’t have to lead to debilitating feelings but they certainly can sting. 

And so I decided early on that I would venture in the direction of action that catches my fancy. I don’t have to become an expert or master a particular skill. I would rather have fun trying and doing things that appeal to me at any particular moment. 

This approach fills up my hours and it does get tiring sometimes but most often it makes me feel alive. As a lifelong learner, I venture towards new things with enthusiasm. Most times I learn something new and if not, I still make new friends. My social circle grows and is nicely cross-pollinated with interesting people who are very different from each other.

A garden with varied foliage is much more interesting than one that is completely homogeneous. 

What others say and what you do

A few days ago I was part of a group where we were asked “What is the one thing you have learned about yourself in the past three months?”

For me the answer was easy. I became comfortable with myself and my choices.

I had been wrestling with my natural inclination to try new things versus the recommendation of others to slow down. Of course, I was taking cues from my body and building in gaps in ym day to just chill on the couch. But I felt like I was being pulled by two opposing forces – to stay put (take a break) or to move towards whatever was calling to me (starting a new book club, learning reiki etc).

While I do like to go away on short breaks where I am happy to sit in a hammock and watch waves on the beach, simply sitting idle for long periods of time at home does not agree with me. 

What I learned about myself was that I need to trust myself more and go ahead with those things that truly resonate with me because that is who I am. My baseline for activity is much higher than many of my peers. 

I keep a list of things that I would like to try – some are written down, some are wispy thoughts that come up repeatedly. But I don’t act on all of them at once. I allow the list to steep. There is no urgency because none of it is life-threatening nor does it require immediate attention. They are all “nice to do”. 

To my delight, I have found that most things on such lists do manifest in real life at some point in a roundabout way. And when it does, the timing is right, my mood and energy are conducive and the outcome is satisfying. What’s not to like about this approach?

I’m not sure if this is the recipe to a life of fewer regrets, but it certainly is a way to reflect and choose, again and again, the things that make life meaningful.

Do you agree?

Photo credit: Sadya spread by Janaki

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