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The Regrets of the Young

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Young people have regrets, too.

Last month, I asked 100 people aged between 25 and 35 about what they regretted most. All aspects of their early lives were fair game. Many reflected on their burgeoning careers, others lamented the relationships they had built with family and friends and a surprising number pondered the concept of time itself -- how to make best use of it, and how to not let it get too far away.

I feel privileged to have witnessed the emotional introspection that took place during those hours. For a few moments each, my peers freed themselves from the shackles of self-pride that, at various moments during the day, hold us all hostage. Handed an opportunity to be candid about their deepest failures, their answers were stirring, and for the most part, delivered with little hesitation and striking clarity. It was clear to me that although their concerns were previously unvoiced, they were long-pondered. And a most surprising statistic? Roughly three-quarters of those I spoke with mentioned one of the five regrets below. Although we're a generation striving for individuality, as a group, we're predictable as sunrise.

Here are the top five regrets of the young:

1. I wish I was doing something useful
Without a doubt, the overarching regret of the people I surveyed centered around their life's purpose. With the natural excitement of their first jobs now muted, many were staring down the barrel of a career in corporate America ("Five years down, 35 to go," one quipped) or somewhere else in business. Accordingly, many concluded that their jobs, and indeed their lives, did not serve a purpose beyond the mere superficial. When I dug deeper, "doing something useful" often meant "doing something useful for other people." This regret was so common that it seemed fundamental.

2. I wish I didn't waste so much time earlier in life
In a surprising finding, many young people desperately wanted to turn back the clock to their "even younger" years. Most referred back to their college days as time spent socializing, partying and, as one put it, "experiencing the edges of life." Looking back, many perceived this era as lost setup time. There was a feeling that, knowing what they do now, many would actually use all their college years as a platform for something other than what they were currently doing. Showered with endless free time and world-class resources around campus, this was a lost opportunity to do something, as one put it, "Zuckerberg-great."

3. I wish I had I travelled more
Having earned the disposable income to travel overseas, many recounted with delight stories of offshore adventures. Some boasted of exciting relationships forged across continents, and almost everyone wanted to rack up more mileage than they had been able to. But, with many now married or in long-term relationships, their short-term focus has turned to spending time with their spouses, with many planning for their first or second child. With those overseas adventures on the backburner for the next five to 10 years, it was obvious that some still hadn't quite shaken the travel bug.

4. I wish I was physically fit
Building solid careers and relationships takes time, and for many, physical fitness was an early casualty. Some young men and women recounted their "glory days" on the high school football field or basketball court, and those who weren't gym class heroes simply wished they had taken better care of their bodies as they rage towards the middle of their lives. Physical fitness, many argued, was all-pervasive: By maintaining it, you held the key to a better work life and a better life at home. The oft-cited enemy? "After-work drinks."

5. I wish I learned to live in the moment
Many of those in the room were taught all their lives to set goals, work hard to achieve them, only to then set a still higher bar. In the process of living a life looking forward, many felt they had lost the capacity to look down and enjoy the moments that today's life presents. Many recounted days when time seemed to move slower, "days where you could just sit in the backyard all afternoon." But those days, to many, seemed all but over after the skill of living in the moment had long left them.

This project was powerful because of the depth of what it uncovered. It's easy to ignore the concerns of the young, to demand that they suck it up and charge on with life like everyone did before them. But I find this a shame, because in dismissing the young, all of us also dismiss an opportunity to avoid similar regrets in our own lives. Young people have regrets, too, and we can all benefit from listening.

Are these valid concerns? What are your regrets?

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