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All About You: Have regrets? Use them to spur change


EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

“Woulda, coulda, shoulda” was one of my grandmother’s many humorous and often wise sayings.

She said it when you gave her an excuse, such as the reason why you failed to take out the trash or didn’t do your homework. (I lived with my grandmother for much of my childhood.) She also sometimes said, “Don’t regret, redo.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how insightful those words are. Regret has its value if you allow it to change your actions for the better. If all it does is make you feel bad, it’s useless.

I’d be remiss if I told you I don’t feel the sting of regret about certain things I’ve done or some of the choices I’ve made. Indeed, I’m glad about much of my life – including some decisions I’ve made that caused me to go down a path I didn’t want or expect. Still, I need to be diligent not to let regret diminish my enthusiasm for my goals and prospects.

I’ve also realized that regret can open the door to grand opportunities if you don’t let it blind you with discouragement.

Here are two personal examples. One is about how you can allow regret to bring you down. The other shows how it can give you insight and bolster your efforts to improve your performance as a safety and health professional.

When I first started working as a radiation protection technician in the nuclear industry, I was miserable. I wanted to be a rock star, not someone who smeared floors with a piece of paper looking for “contamination.”

I often regretted the decision I’d made to get a “regular job” and, to my wife’s chagrin, threatened to quit many times. But after a few years, my regret transformed into inspiration. I applied and got a position as a safety and health trainer. Quickly I realized that my theater, writing and musical skills weren’t a waste. No longer did I regret that I had chosen to work at the power plant. In fact, it morphed into the incredible privilege of speaking all over the world, being a columnist for my favorite magazine – Safety+Health – and meeting thousands of dedicated professionals.

‘Don’t regret, redo’

How do you make it work for you? The oft-expressed question, “What would you do if you could do it over?” is a fine start. If you could go back to your senior year of high school, what would you do differently that could affect what you’re doing now? Would you choose industrial hygiene as your major instead of whatever you chose then? Would you have picked a different industry to work in? In most cases, you can still pursue your “do over.” So, go for it!

One of my regrets, which I’m rectifying, is that I’ve never had a music teacher. Although I can read music, I learned on my own using method books. My sessions probably will be virtual for a bit, but I’m excited about finally having a teacher.

You can’t change the past, but you sure can learn from it if you take the time to contemplate and evaluate your past decisions and actions. Our regrets won’t give us insight about the uncertain future, but they can help us see how to proceed in better ways than we have.

I regret not enjoying simple pleasures during the first few years of my speaking career. All I cared about was getting more gigs. Even my relationships suffered because of my drive to succeed.

Now, just playfully teasing my dog before I feed her in the morning tickles my emotions in a way that would never have happened when my career encompassed my thoughts. Sure, I still have ambition, but it doesn’t overpower what matters most in life, which I believe includes relationships, helping others, kindness, gratitude and a regular awareness of the miracle of life.

So take time now and again to regret. Although I surely don’t recommend you do it often – it won’t change what you did or what happened – when done purposefully, it can influence your thoughts and behavior in ways that will make you have fewer regrets when you reminisce days and years from now.


This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps safety professionals become better leaders through his keynotes, workshops, articles and books so they can create vibrant safety cultures. His popular “Mindfully Safe” keynote teaches employees how to focus better and improve their situational awareness, a key skill to preventing incidents. To contact Richard, visit


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