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Can We Overcome Career Regrets?

By Rachel Botsman Lecturer: Oxford University

Taken from “Rethink with Rachel” a biweekly blog

 

Summer is here and a lot of people are graduating. Some people are going back to their offices as restrictions are lifted. Many people are looking for new jobs. It’s a time of restlessness around all kinds of career decisions – decisions with possibilities and angst associated with them.

A third of Americans say they regret major life choices including their profession, university choice, and where they work. And that was pre-pandemic. That’s why this week I want to think differently about how we can have fewer career regrets.

Should I stay or should I go?

Sometimes the hardest career choice is deciding when to leave. To step into the unknown.

I recently got an email from a former student who was working at a well-known bank. She fought tooth and nail to get the job. In a downtrodden tone, she wrote, “The culture is awful. I’m burned out already. I’m not doing what I was hired to do. Taking this job, I now realize, was a big mistake. What do you think I’ll regret more — staying or leaving?”

Regret. It’s such a loaded word. That sinking, nagging feeling when we confront the possibility that we’ve made the wrong choice or things haven’t gone the way we hoped. Regret seems like the most common negative emotion that we talk about.

But if we can think differently about regrets, we can see choices differently.

We are told to live life without regrets. But why?

Regret is driven by fixating on “what might have been.” That awful ”if only” feeling.

According to Amy Summerville, associate professor of social psychology at Miami University and founder of the Regret Lab, it’s “the negative emotion stemming from the realization that one’s actions could have resulted in better outcomes than actually occurred.” 

The top six life regrets

Research shows that our biggest regrets in life (in order of frequency) are:

  1. Education
  2. Career
  3. Romance
  4. Parenting
  5. Self-improvement
  6. Leisure (how we spend or fail to spend our free time.)

Yes, regrets about not going to college or wishing we picked a different degree or profession rank higher than a poor relationship decision. Why?

Our deepest regrets are often when we see the largest missed opportunities; that is, the opportunity to change, learn, and grow. I know it sounds counterintuitive but when you think of it this way, you start to see why education and career decisions are the things we regret most in life.

Different types of regrets— actions and inactions.

You know that horrible feeling when you’ve said or done something you wish you’d done differently? It’s an emotion called “hot regret.” It stings at first, sometimes painfully, but cools quickly. Although it feels horrible or humiliating at the time, the discomfort is temporary. (Case in point: a careless “reply all” I accidentally sent the other day.) It’s regret that follows action.

But the deepest regrets, the negative feelings we remember for years or even a lifetime, come not from the things that we did and wish we hadn’t but from the things that we didn’t do. 

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The pain of inaction

When faced with a fork-in-the-road career decision to leave or stay in a job, there are basically four choices:

  1. Stay in the job until there is the guarantee of a new job.
  2. Stay in the job and wholeheartedly commit to staying.
  3. Choose to leave and decide to do something different.
  4. Stay in the job but constantly focus on everything that is wrong.

1, 2 and 3 are all different kinds of action, regardless of the outcome. Actively deciding not to do something can move us forward.

In contrast, how many people do you know that constantly complain about their jobs but do nothing to change their situation? We hear the same story over and over. Most of us have been there at some point. Option 4 is the “pain of inaction”.

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Using regret to push us forward 

We’re told to not waste time on rehashing things that happened in the past. That admirable philosophy of, “What’s done is done.” Urgh. We need to listen to our regrets. They’re powerful emotional signals, sometimes even red flags.

I encouraged my student to look back to think why she made the career choice to join the bank. It turns out it wasn’t the money, but the prestige. She wanted to tell her friends and family she was Vice President of whatever at this well-known and important institution. Now she needed to use the regret to push her forward. “I will not let my next job be dictated by my need for status, my ego,” she said at the end of our conversation.

Regret can be a hopeful emotion if used to give us the insight to make better choices and the agency to change things.

Warmly,

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