For many workers, the end of the year serves as a prime time to think about their career. Annual performance reviews encourage reflection, and announcements about promotions and raises (or the lack of them) stir emotions.
Such scenarios also can bring up career regret. Feelings that maybe you should have accepted that out-of-state job or listened to your parents and chosen a more “practical” major come to the surface. And even though we all know pondering “what if?” is part of human nature, experiencing career regret still feels lousy.
Ready to grapple with career regret rather than let it weigh you down? Here’s a look at moving forward when you have career regret:
Identify the feeling
Don’t chastise yourself for what you feel. Yes, job security, a roof over your head, and the ability to provide for your family are great things for which you certainly should be thankful. But thinking about how things might have been different if you went to medical school or wishing you would have pursued your idea for a startup does not make you ungrateful—it makes you normal.
“We’ve all felt regret (or at least wondered what would have happened if we had made a different decision) in our careers and lives,” says career coach Kristen Zavo, author of Job Joy: Your Guide to Success, Happiness, and Meaning in Your Career. “When my clients experience this, I encourage them to fully feel it, rather than put on a mask of positivity—and only then look forward and take steps that are aligned with their current vision.”
Evaluating the intensity of your feelings helps determine next steps. A fleeting curiosity about the road not traveled is one thing, nagging dissatisfaction quite another. The latter definitely shouldn’t be ignored.
“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 says.
Actions big and small depend on you. Maybe what you need is greater flexibility to achieve a better work-life balance. Or perhaps you can reinvigorate your current position by taking on new challenges. Maybe it’s time to enroll in some classes you’ve always wanted to explore. Or perhaps it’s time to admit that you truly aren’t in the right industry and must get out.
Lastly, look at your past as valuable knowledge and experience that paves the way for what’s ahead.
“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,” Zavo says. “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. As Steve Jobs said in his well-known commencement speech, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’”