Have you thought about your career regrets?

Daniel Gulati has written an interesting article on the Harvard Business Review blog about the top five career regrets. Examples of career regrets are putting money first (taking a job because it pays well), not acting on career hunches, not quitting earlier (sticking with a job beyond its use-by date).

Reflecting on what we regret about our career can be useful as part of seeking to clarify a career direction. If life is moving on and you are thinking that you don’t want to ‘get to your grave with your song unsung’, you might want to think about paths avoided, choices that turned out to be unhelpful, behaviours that haven’t served you well, such as staying in a job too long. Understanding why you made those choices can help inform present behaviour. Are you by nature cautious, reckless, inflexible, adaptable?

Gulati links to a valuable article by Isabelle Bauer on Coping with life regrets across the adult lifespan. Regret comes from comparing ‘what is’ with ‘what could have been’. What if I had made a different career choice? What if I had applied for the job I didn’t think I could get? What if I had moved to that other place when I had the chance? To experience regret we imagine alternative realities that do not currently exist and make comparisons between these alternative possibilities and what is happening now.

People can have regrets about things they have done (commission) or left undone (omission). Regrets can arise from small and large decisions. Plus they can have mild, temporary effects as well as affecting the course of one’s life.

Bauer reviews much of the regret literature and summarises the findings. People’s top regrets cluster in domains related to education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure. These are central and critical domains of decision making. Regrets in the domains of family and relationships are more frequent among women than among men. Young adults are more likely to have regrets in the domains of leisure and relationship. Middle aged and older adults list regrets related to work and family.

Given the potential for negative consequences of regret on quality of life, research has focused on uncovering strategies people use to mitigate its adverse consequences across the life span. How people think about their regrets may be key to preventing downstream impacts on quality of life.

People have a wide repertoire of psychological defence mechanisms that can be used in response to negative life events. People may try to actively undo or reverse the decision or action that contributed to the regret in the first place, attempt to justify their choice or course of action, deny personal responsibility for the behaviour or decision, deny or suppress regret experiences.

These strategies can be distinguished as primary and secondary control strategies. Primary control processes are aimed at undoing the regret via active attempts at reversing the decision or by enacting corrective actions to remove the source of the regret. Examples are changing our  career path, and learning new skills. Removing the source of one’s regret may not always be feasible, however. Limiting personal and external factors, for example a person’s financial situation, may prevent taking such actions.

Secondary control processes involve such behaviours as reappraising the regretted event’s meaning and significance, downplaying its impact on our lives, blaming the regretted situation on external factors that were beyond our control, rather than taking personal responsibility, focusing on the things we can still attain as a way to compensate for regret, and thinking about how other people are worse off than we are. By changing how we think about our regret, we may render it more trivial, manageable, and bearable.

Which we use depends on the availability of opportunities to overcome difficult life events . If opportunities are plentiful, primary control processes aimed at goal attainment and persistence with regret-related goal pursuits should help. If opportunities are dismal, investing effort in undoing regretted circumstances could be misguided. In this case, we would be wise to use secondary control processes such as goal adjustment and self protection.

Bauer concludes that: ‘Given opportunities to undo regretted events may decline over time, primary control strategies may be well-suited to help young adults take action to eliminate the source of their regrets while secondary control processes could buffer older adults.  There is also evidence to suggest that individual differences in perceived opportunities, rather than chronological age, could be a key determinant of the adaptive value of self-protective processes.’

If you are assessing your career and thinking about past career regrets, consider whether it is possible, with current opportunities, to do much about those regrets. If opportunities are limited then you may wish to try out some of the secondary control processes, such as:

  • Thinking about other people’s regrets that may be more severe than your own.
  • Bringing to mind factors beyond your control and that contributed to the regretted event.
  • Adjusting your goals, and even abandoning regretted pursuits.
    Identifying new goals that are linked to important, current personal values.
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.