I should have, I could have. This phrase, which became a meme after Hillary Rodham Clinton uttered it in the mid-1990s, is also a common refrain for many people when considering career choices.
“I should have looked for a better job six months ago, when employers were scrambling to find people and paying more.”
“I could have managed the hours of this position. Now I’m stuck in this lower level role.
“I would have done well if only I had been given the chance.”
As we have all seen, brooding over what might have been does not allow us to remake the past. But it can certainly make us feel bad about the present and not notice and appreciate all that is working well. Wallowing in regret saps energy and diminishes stamina, which we need to stay focused and excited, and seize the opportunities we want.
Another problem with regret is that it is often based on false assumptions. As a 2022 study published in Psychological Science shows, people tend to overestimate the beauty of the path not taken and focus too much on the downsides of their current reality. As the researchers found, with no real details on a route we rejected, we fill in the blanks with all of our favorite things.
In other words, since we really knowing what a job would have been like at that other company unless we had good information – say from a colleague working there in the exact role we might have had – we assume the job would have been rewarding, colleagues great deals, fast-paced promotions, and office space filled with foosball tables and gourmet snacks. In fact, none of this may be true.
On the other hand, some assumptions are natural, and we want to take stock of current choices to help guide future ones. And feelings of regret can provide information we need. As author Daniel Pink says in his recent book, The Power of Regret, “It’s wholesome and universal, an integral part of being human. Regret is also valuable. He clarifies. He educates. Done well, this need not drag us down; it can elevate us.
So how, exactly, do you avoid endless negative obsession with your choices, while harnessing the power of regret to work for you? Try these three steps:
1.Remember that the road is long
A problem with a habit of regret is that it assumes that any choice closes all others. In fact, our careers are very long. While some professions, like being a professional ballet dancer, have to be started young, in most careers you can pivot throughout your life, bringing your experience with you. For the first 10 or 15 years, at least, any experience gained is useful. And with today’s increasingly longer working lives, people are retraining and re-creating into their 40s and beyond. All this to say that if you regret where your choices have gotten you, it’s probably not too late to take stock and reorient yourself.
Rather than regretting past actions and viewing them as tied to current disappointments, take the frustration you feel and use it to help you focus on what you can do. now to get where you want to go. Remember to acknowledge your strengths and successes when trying to plan a path forward. Positive emotions help you stay creative and energetic, traits you’ll need to come up with a good plan.
In addition, opportunities often return. A great job you didn’t get last year might just be perfect for you now that you’ve accumulated more experience. A job you looked for this year and didn’t get could become yours in the future.
2. Take action to generate more action
Another good reason to focus on the future is that action begets action. Making a choice and going for it generates energy and helps you see new opportunities when they arise. Constantly guessing, or sitting on the couch in a torpor of regret and binge-watching Netflix, usually only breeds the need for salty snacks and maybe ice cream.
Endless questioning gives too much power to every choice, suggesting that you can only thrive if every aspect of your life falls into place (which is rarely the case). Generally, many different paths can be rewarding and fulfilling; there is no perfect route. Moreover, you really cannot foresee the future by limitless contemplation; it is far better to make a choice and commit to it than to experience ‘analysis paralysis’. Commitment creates energy, which helps you do your job well and succeed. In the technology industry, the product imperative is “test and iterate”. This approach can also be applied to jobs. Make a choice. Jump into it. Then adjust as needed.
3. Make professional meetings
Still not convinced that something better doesn’t exist? Go there and see. While people in unhappy marriages don’t usually date in search of a better spouse, if you’re frustrated at your job, you should definitely go on “work dates,” such as meetings with people. other companies. Job dating is a great way to express regret, as it gives you insight into the reality of opportunities and your attractiveness to other companies.
How can you set up work “dates”? You can respond to recruiters, search for opportunities on LinkedIn and career sites, check out your university’s alumni association, attend networking events, view job postings from companies that interest you, and connect with people you you know. Also talk to friends who are happy with their work. Who feels valued at work and well paid? Could you evolve in this field or find a job in this company?
The job dating process requires you to update your LinkedIn profile and resume, which can help ease regrets by reminding you of everything you’ve done. It might cheer you up enough to improve your view of your current position. Or, it could reaffirm your commitment to move on. If you decide it’s time to revamp your career, fire up Beyonce’s new Great Resignation anthem, “Break My Soul,” and get to work finding a new opportunity you love.