Life Without Regrets

Ron Niebrugge Alaska, Photos, Travel, Wrangell-St. Elias 17 Comments

Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Last week I made a quick trip out to the the Copper River Valley, Glennallen area which is the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  I was out there to give a commencement speech at my old High School.  It was a great experience – really a lot of fun.  It appeared the whole town was in attendance supporting the 16 seniors, that is one of the great things about small towns.

A few people have asked about my speech so I thought I would share it here.  This was a draft version from a few days before – I changed a few things on the fly, but it pretty much follows what I said.  Now admittedly, if you did not grow up in interior Alaska, the first half of the speech won’t be too applicable and you may want to jump down to the second half.  Here it is:

Thank you everyone, it is such an honor to be here.  This is such a crazy time – I have a good idea as to what you are all going through – figuratively, I was sitting in your same position, in this same gym just a few short years ago.  OK, maybe it was many, many short years ago.   I always knew if enough time passed by that one day I would be “welcomed” in these halls again.   🙂

I know you are feeling a crazy range of emotions.  Thrilled to be done with high school, but sad to be leaving friends.  Proud to be graduating, but scared about the future.    Right now you are on a crazy emotional roller coaster – this is a ride that fortunately you will only experience a few times in your life.

Today, you have most of the road of life out in front of you just waiting to be explored.  What I want to share with you tonight is something that I have learned from those at the end of the road of life.  A little over a year ago I was listening to the radio when the DJ came on and shared a fun fact as they often do.  But this one really stuck with me.  This DJ shared the results of a research study in which old people in retirement homes were asked what their biggest regret in life was.  This really struck me, for one, because the results weren’t something I would have ever predicted, and secondly, because this regret was so easily avoidable.  As I prepared for this speech I have looked at other studies that have found the same theme has come up over and over.  I think you can learn a lot from people who have gone down the road of life ahead of us, so I want to share that with you, but first, I want to talk about graduating from Glennallen specifically.

I must admit, when I graduated from Glennallen, I felt like I was at a big disadvantage.  I don’t know why, but I felt like the kids in the big schools and cities were way ahead of me.  There are probably a lot of reasons for this –for one it probably comes from experiences like driving.  I loved driving to Anchorage, but used to hated driving in Anchorage.  Stop lights, multiple lane roads, all this craziness was intimidating.  And forget parallel parking – I mean in Glennallen you have to drive over a 100 miles just to find a curb to practice on!

Because of this, I used to think people in the cities were way ahead of me and had a huge advantage, but as the years went by after I graduated, I began to realize that I had some advantages as well. I was a competitive runner in college and began to notice that the worse the weather, the better I did.  What other people thought were tough or challenging conditions were like nothing.  This wasn’t just me – but I began to realize that growing up in Glenallen tended to make people mentally tougher.

I mean, let’s face it.  Most of you have worked harder and overcame more obstacles just getting to school on a winter day then a typical high school student encountered in a whole week of high school.  To start your car at 50 below, in the pitch dark, snow and wind, and then to drive to school would overwhelm most people!   Just dealing with the daily cold and darkness has made you far tougher then you realize.

There are lots of other advantages from growing up here – small classes rooms and student to teacher ratios, access to activities – I could go on and on, but I think the proof is in the results, and you know what – it seems like every person who I went to school with, either in my class, or in the classes ahead or behind me has become very successful!

If they decided to stay home and raise kids – they are like the super mom or dad.  Many stayed in the valley and have found great jobs and careers – some with the native corporations or other businesses; some even became teachers here at Glennallen.  Others have gone on to become college professors, heads of big companies – many have started their own very successful companies.    I’m hard pressed to think of a single person who I grew up with who isn’t successful.  And, I think growing up in Glennallen and going to school here had a lot to do with it, and I expect the same from you all here!  Don’t think you are at a disadvantage – really, you have a lot of advantages, and a lot to look forward to as you move forward!

A few years ago I went to a school reunion, and one thing I heard over and over was how glad people were to have gone to high school in Glennallen.  I mean, even kids who hated it here, who couldn’t wait to get away, and probably haven’t returned, still in hindsight are grateful to have grown up here.

Finally – if you don’t think you have grown up in a unique, amazing place – go home and turn on the TV and start watching National Geographic or Discovery Channel.  Those channels are full of Alaskan’s fishing, driving trucks, working as troopers, flying bush planes, doing taxidermy – probably the same things your parents are doing for a living now.  But, the rest of the world is fascinated enough to watch on TV!  I think I see more old friends on TV these days then I do in real life!

So, just know, not only are you not at a disadvantage, you actually have a big advantage!  Remind yourself of this in the years to come, when you hit hard times – you have the strength to overcome just about any challenge life could throw at you!

So, speaking of moving forward I want to go back to the biggest regret people have as they near the end of the road of life.   What is interesting – rarely, do people look back and regret something they did like some big mistake  A divorce or business failure is rarely listed as regret.  Likewise, they don’t regret not reaching some great accomplishment – maybe they had hoped to be a millionaire or a famous business person or politician – anything.  But, not obtaining some lofty goal is rarely listed as regret as well.  What people regret after living life, the number one regret is that they didn’t even try!  Not taking action, or taking a risk to obtain some desired goal is the most common regret.

The specific lack of action usually falls into a few categories.  Education is a big one – people regret not having gone on to learn a skill or obtain a college degree.  Sometimes it is as little as learning to play an instrument or to speak a foreign language.

Other regrets have to do with relationships – not pursuing that person they might have had a crush on in school, or somewhere along the way in life – you know, like in letting the ”one” get away.

And finally, a popular regret has to do with career.  They wanted to start their own business but never did, or wanted to be a welder or a doctor, but regret not following through on the dream.

You know what I find fascinating is that no one regrets trying and failing, they regret not trying.  I’m sure plenty of people at the end of life had careers or business fail, maybe they dropped out of school, or had a relationship that didn’t succeed, but they never mention theses as regrets, in fact people often reflect back on these failures as valuable life lessons.  I mean, even Bill Gates dropped out of college, and I don’t know how many successful businessmen and world leaders failed at their first attempts at business or politics, but people rarely list such a thing as a regret.

In other-words, it is far better to have tried and failed then to have never tried at all – and that is the crazy thing – you have nothing to lose by trying!  If you try something, take a risk and succeed – that is awesome.  But, even if you don’t succeed, over time, you won’t regret that either.  The only way you can really lose, is to not try at all!

Look at education.  You might be scared to head off to college or a trade school – well, in fact you should be nervous, it is a scary proposition.  But if you are thinking of doing it and are not sure, well you gotta do it!  If you succeed, you will have a valuable skills and knowledge that can help you for the rest of your life.  Chances are, even if you failed, you will be glad you tried – but if you don’t try, you may live to regret it.

Growing up here you have so many opportunities – you might be thinking of trying to get a job on a fishing boat, start a gold mine, run a trap line, work in the family business – these can all be scary proposition, and it could be easy to talk yourself out of trying.

I know for myself, my wife and I had wonderful jobs with great employers, and I could have stayed there for the rest of my life, but I had a burning desire to be a photographer.  I remember reading that it was easier to make a living as a professional athlete or a rock star then as a free-lance outdoor photographer based on the fact that far more people make their living those ways.  It would have been easy to play it safe, and not take that risk, but I’m so grateful that I did.  Now I’m able to make a living traveling the world taking pictures!  But, even if I had failed – at least I wouldn’t have had a lifelong regret, wondering if I could have made.

So, as you go through life, remember it is better to have tried and failed, then to have never tried at all.  I want to leave you with a wonderful, simple quote by the famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky.  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”  So move forward with confidence from growing up in such and unique and amazing place, get out and take those shots, and live a life without regret!

Comments 17

  1. Hey Ron,

    Nice one, man. I’m sure the students appreciate your insights.

    And a killer photo of Kennicott Glacier, too.



  2. Ron,
    I missed graduation, but enjoyed your post. I have heard from several that did attend, and they said it was the nicest graduation speech in years. That is a compliment for sure! I’m sure the kids understood the message; as sometimes it is too boring or above them at the time to stay interested in. Great a homegrown kid came back to deliver a very important message to the grads.

  3. Great advice for all of us Ron…thanks for sharing!

    It’s funny, I read this post and your post a few days ago about the Erie Mine and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and it reminded me that my one regret from my one visit to Alaska 6 years ago was that we went to Copper Center, stayed at Princess’ Copper River Lodge and did some exploring in the area but decided not to do the trip into the park and to the mine. The next time I’m in Alaska I’m going there, and I may give you (and/or Carl) a call!

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    Thanks Carl!

    Thanks Neal!

    Hi Stanna – that is great to hear – thanks! Sounds like I just missed you out there.

    Thanks Tom! I spent a lot of time admiring that view from the Princess Lodge – before it was there. Sounds like you need to come back! Carl is your guy for the Wrangell back-country backpacking – he spends a lot of time out there.

  5. Many years ago I read that the two saddest words in the English language are “if only”.

    Just in case that’s a downer I’ve also read the two happiest words in the English language are “summer afternoon”.

    Great speech, Ron.

  6. Brilliant speech, Ron. A great message of encouragement for those starting out, and one it is good to hear again and again through life…before it IS too late!

  7. Loved the speech. Believe it or not, I had that basic conversation just this morning with a co-worker. We are both here in Alaska for the summer working as tour directors. We both mentioned that we don’t want to regret NOT doing something, and we also discussed the “what if” scenerio. Your timing of this post was fantasic (and amazing). Thanks for bringing us all back to a little reality! PS….. I’m based out of Anchorage this summer, instead of Seward……just so that I could do a little more of that “doing it all with no regrets” thing!

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    Thanks everyone!

    @ Kathleen – that is so true about “if only”.

    @ Terry – that is great! You should have another great summer!


  9. Hi Ron:

    I live in Australia and have just found your blog. Your photo is really good – very different to the scenery I’ve seen here in Australia! I found your speech to be really good, as well, and I’m sure you would have inspired the students to take a chance and go for what they really want to do. Although I’m MUCH older than a student (I turn 50 at the end of this year), I believe it is never too late for that good advice and reminder.


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  11. great job on your speech Ron, and yes I feel the same way these days. we are very fortunate to have grown up in little old Glennallen. I sure didn’t think so back in 1982.LOL

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  13. Great speech Ron, thank you for sharing it. I might add that it seems like an applicable one no matter where you are in your life.

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