If hope is the thing with feathers, regret is the thing with a ball and chain. Regret can trap you in the past and paralyze you from moving forward—especially when it comes to your career. One survey found that two of the top five most common life regrets were tied to careers—from not pursuing one's passion to working too hard. Another recent poll found that 23 percent of workers regretted switching jobs. While some regrets are linked to significant career decisions, others revolve around smaller moments, like not speaking up in a meeting or not challenging a superior. But when it comes down to it, there are two kinds of regrets: one is based on our actions, and the other on our inaction. And it's the latter that really drags us down.
"Research shows that we regret more in the face of opportunity," writes Forbes' Caroline Beaton, who notes that millennials are particularly prone to career regrets. "Regrets of inaction are more prevalent, last longer and feel worse than action regrets in part because we associate them with greater (missed) opportunity. While regretting a specific action means just one alternative — not doing it — inaction signifies infinite possibility ("I could have done this, or this, or this")."
Here's where things get really sticky: the more we regret, the more likely we are to resort to inaction. It's that fear of regret that "makes us stick with the status quo even if our reasoning or intuition says we shouldn't," writes Eyal Winter, Professor of Behavioral/Industrial Economics at Lancaster University, on The Conversation. "That makes people who are more prone to feel regret less likely to take risks."
That means the fewer risks we take when it comes to our career choices—from using our vacation days to pursuing our dream jobs—the more regrets we're likely accrue. So how do we stop this crazy-making cycle and move forward? The answers involve a little self-examination and some expert advice.
Rationalize Your Mistakes
Everyone make mistakes, it's how we choose to see them that determines whether they'll hold us back or propel us forward in the right direction. "Although it can be tough to hear it in the moment, more times than not, our career 'mistakes' end up being the best things for us," career coach Kristen Zavo tells FlexJobs. "They show us what we want—and don't want. They allow us to learn lessons, encounter challenges, and work with people that we might not have otherwise."
But how do you look at your own mistakes without kicking yourself? The best approach to examining past mistakes is through kindness and understanding. Beaton suggests rationalizing why you made the choice you did at the time—taking into account that you didn't have the hindsight you have now. Maybe you took a job you regret because you needed the money, or perhaps you felt stuck in other aspects of your life and needed a change. "Rationalization doesn't mean shirking responsibility or refusing to learn from your mistakes," explains Beaton. "It means closure." Once you forgive yourself, you can start seeing what influenced you in the past that you may want to avoid in the future. Moreover, you can be grateful that those old mistakes are now guiding you in a new direction.
Ask Yourself Two Key Questions
Another way to diminish your career regrets is through a simple system of self-examination. After researching the science behind regret, Eric Barker of The Week came upon two questions that can make all the difference: "What can I learn from this?" and "How could things have been worse?" The first question doesn't just allow you learn from your mistake, it gives you a sense of control so that the next time you're faced with a similar decision, you'll know how best to handle it. The second question reframes the thing you regret. Maybe you actually dodged a bullet or maybe what you thought was a mistake was actually a defensive move that deserve some credit.
Define Your Goals
Just because you've made peace with your past, that doesn't guarantee satisfaction with your current job situation. If you've been harping on career regrets, chances are it's because you're unhappy with where you're at and don't know how to change it. It's time to stop looking back and instead start examining the present and the future.
"To be more satisfied in their careers now, I encourage clients to focus on both (a) the short-term: what can they do now both at, and outside of, work to be happier and (b) long-term: getting clear on their career vision, building a plan, and taking steps each day, each week, to make it a reality," Zavo tells Flexjobs.
One way to sharpen your focus for your future is to define it in real terms—whether that means writing down your goals, identifying a person whose career you admire, or creating a mood board of what your dream career looks like.
"You can't revisit the past, but you can turn your attention to something you want," writes Psychology Today's Beverly Flaxington. "So this career isn't the best one; how do you paint a picture of something you do want? Paint a picture in as much detail as you can about where you'd like to head. This will start turning your attention away from the rear-view mirror and to the windshield looking forward."
It's time to stop beating yourself up over your past. We all make mistakes. The less we dwell on them and the more we learn from them, the better our careers—and our lives—will be.