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Contemplating Regret With Carl Bell

Founding member of the band Fuel talks about coping with fear of uncertainty.

Key points

  • People are often torn between living in safety and comfort and following their dreams.
  • Fear of regret can be a major driver in their decision-making.
  • Carl Bell, the founder of the rock band Fuel, explains how he coped with fear of regret in his own career.

Regret can be understood as a disappointment over a past loss or missed opportunity. The implication is that upon looking back at our life, we can clearly identify a point in time when we feel that we made the wrong choice—we went right when we should have gone left. We then see the real-life consequences of our decision and lament our choices.

In some cases, regret can haunt us—perhaps for our entire lives—as we consider what could have been. Any aspect of our life is fair game as a target of regret—our choice of friends and romantic relationships, how we handled family interactions, educational or professional decisions, and how we took care of our physical and mental health. Nothing is immune from potential regret over the decisions we’ve made.

 Matt Smith, used with permission
The band Fuel.
Source: Matt Smith, used with permission

Understanding the fear of regret

Our fear of potential regret can be overwhelming and paralyzing. One common situation that causes regret is when we have taken a “safe” rather than a bold, more daring path in our life. We can see the regret on both sides.

If we choose the safe path, we are more likely going to have a comfortable life. But we might feel that we were not being true to ourselves and regret not honoring our dreams and going for the “big win.” On the other hand, if we throw caution to the wind and pursue our dreams, we are perhaps being more true to ourselves but regret that we have put ourselves at risk for instability and financial insecurity. Oftentimes, we become so consumed with fear that we find ourselves in something of an emotional purgatory—too afraid to pursue our dreams and yet not satisfied with the safe path.

In order to gauge our choices and face potential regret, we often look to others for guidance and proof of what could be. As an example, when considering a decision to “go for it” and try to live out our dreams, we look to people who have followed the same path and have been successful, such as popular musicians, actors, or entrepreneurs. And while holding successful people as models for our own hopes and dreams can be motivating, we often don’t consider their process—their thoughts, behaviors, and the choices they’ve made before they achieved success.

In particular, we don’t understand how they faced the fear of regret. We assume they were the people who lived without fear and boldly forged their authentic path in life. But in fact, those same people who are successful now were probably just as afraid as we were and are now. And understanding how they coped with fear can help us face frightening and intimidating choices as we make our life decisions.

How to cope with it

Which brings me to my conversation with Carl Bell—the founding member, musician, and songwriter for the rock band Fuel. Bell founded Fuel in 1989. And over the course of more than 30 years, Bell and Fuel have led a successful career with hit songs like “Hemorrhage (In My Hands),” “Shimmer,” and “Bad Day.” The enduring power of Fuel is marked by their newly released album Anomaly (2021), which includes the single “I’m Gone.” In talking with Bell, I wanted to try and understand how he was able to face the fear of regret early in his career and yet still move forward and achieve his dream of becoming a musician and rock star. And there were a few takeaways from our conversation that might help others face their fears and potential regrets as they pursue their life path.

First, the best way to face the fear of regret is to paradoxically accept that feeling regret is almost inevitable in one’s life. And this is because we will not know the results of our choices perhaps until the end of our lives. Bell recounted a story in which a friend of his aspired to live a life with “no regrets.” Bell described being both puzzled by and impressed with this aspiration. “A friend of mine said, ‘I want to live a life with no regrets.’ That’s the end game for them, and I had to ponder that for a second… that’s a tough one,” Bell told me. “If you can go through your entire life and not regret anything you did? I don’t know. You’re living in a vacuum.”

Second, we must remember that living authentically is its own reward. If we try to connect with who we are and what we love, we will be “winning” along the way regardless of the tangible outcomes. Before Bell even contemplated the possibility of being a professional musician, he started out simply as a kid who loved listening to music. Bell recounted how television was not allowed in his house growing up. But his brother was a music fan and introduced Bell to a wide range of music, including The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, and Led Zeppelin. Soon he was immersed in listening to music.

“So, people, you know, go home and watch Gilligan’s Island in the afternoon. I would go home, put on a Stones record—literally that’s what would happen—or Alice Cooper or whatever. That was huge for me,” Bell recalled. “That just gave me an encyclopedia of—an accidental internship… I wasn’t aware I was learning all of this music.”

Soon Bell found that he loved playing music as well—and it served as its own reward. “I just pulled this guitar out and started messing around with it… I had to. I’d sit in school all day just going, come on, come on, get me out of school so I can go play guitar. That’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “You get the fever for it… One of the things about an instrument is as you learn it... it’s rewarding. And when you play it right, your brain goes, ‘Ooh, I like that.’ And you want to play it again.”

Next, Bell found that when he started playing as a member of a band, he kept his gratitude high and his expectations low. This included a sober recognition of how difficult it is to “make it” in a professional band. He likened the chance of being a professional musician to being a successful gambler—the odds are clearly against it. “People say you go to Vegas, and you gamble in Vegas. And I always laugh and go, ‘I’m in the music industry—my life was a gamble,’” Bell explained. “I play guitar. I can’t transfer this skill set into anything else, basically, other than music. And if this doesn’t work, it’s tough sledding.”

Further, when Bell faced the possibility of regret, he accepted rather than ignored the possibility that his dreams may not come true. Fuel did not release its first full-length debut album Sunburn until 1998—almost 10 years after the band was formed. As he got older, he saw friends of his establishing themselves in more conventional and perhaps safer careers.

“When you’re younger, you’re seeing people’s career path that they’re choosing, and they’re making choices. Regrettable or unregrettable, as we might say. And, you know, I’m seeing myself still playing guitar, and these guys are now advancing in their career,” Bell recalled. “You’re seeing people climbing the ladder, and… you’re struggling, trying to make it go. And you start wondering, ‘Am I going to regret this decision to be in a band?’”

By accepting that there was the possibility that he would not become a professional musician, Bell considered other options, like medical school as well as becoming a teacher. But just because he was considering other options or had a moment of doubt did not mean he was not still committed to being a musician. “We didn’t get signed until I was around, you know, 28 or 30... and actually, I went back to college just before we got signed because frankly, I was looking for a parachute... I was doing music and still playing; at night, I was studying in the backseat of a car. We’d be going to the gig, and I would have a flashlight literally reading my stuff for tomorrow that I had for whatever test. It was grueling.”

Ultimately, one of the biggest buffers to regret Bell had was a commitment to keep working at his music, regardless of where it took him. “Music was my whole connection to everything. I mean, that was my life. I lived for music… And music still is everything,” Bell said. “I think having some success at it obviously, certainly helps. You know, it’d be nice to have some success at it. But you know, you still see the guys playing clubs, playing bars, just love music, just love it. And they’re doing it completely from their heart.”