What to do if you're regretting your career path, according to an expert
No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.
I wish I had picked a different job. I wish I had asked for more money. I wish I had taken more chances. I wish I had focused more. I wish I had asked for a mentor. I wish I had quit that job sooner. I just wish I had done things… differently.
If any of this sounds familiar, know you’re not alone. While career regrets are incredibly common, the onslaught of coronavirus (COVID-19) layoffs has made folks even more likely to beat themselves up for not doing things differently when it comes to their professions. According to Forbes, a new study from the journal Emotion shows that humans are most inclined to regret things associated with opportunities. The greater we regard the opportunity, the more likely we are to experience regret. And since many of us have experienced dramatic career shifts in the last few weeks, it’s easy to ruminate and create fantasies about what we “should” have done in order to have more opportunities in this trying time—even when something is totally out of our control.
If this resonates, take a deep breath. None of us could have prepared for a national pandemic, and you likely were doing the best you could when you made the decisions that you did. (Even Michelin-star chefs are unemployed right now!) Now that you’ve forgiven your past self, let’s turn to the future. Because here’s the good news: Many of our so-called “mistakes” don’t need to become regrets. In fact, those mistakes can actually lead to valuable insights on our desires and ambitions.
We spoke to career strategist and leadership coach Emily Eliza Moyer about career regrets, why we have them, and what we can learn from them—even in the time of COVID-19.
HelloGiggles (HG): What would you say are the most common career regrets you’ve witnessed?
Emily Eliza Moyer (EEM): The most common career regrets include wishing you had followed a career dream earlier in life, choosing the wrong career path, not being authentic at work, or feeling like you generally made the wrong decision about something.
HG: What are some reasons one might experience professional regrets?
(EEM): Most people’s reasons for experiencing professional regrets are making decisions based on gaining someone else’s approval, not listening or trusting your own intuition, or taking on personal responsibility for someone else’s emotions.
HG: We live in a world that leaves a lot of room for comparison. I think it can be hard for folks to see their friends doing XYZ, compare, and worry that they “did things wrong.” What would you advise someone with this mindset?
(EEM): The common assumption is that comparison is the thief of all joy. I certainly believe this, but it’s only natural as humans for us to observe each others’ lives and compare them to our own. The problem arises when you live in the space of focusing on what someone else has that you don’t have.
When jealousy arises, or when you see someone who has something else that you want and it makes you feel something negative, bring awareness to those thoughts. Notice if you’re dwelling in the negative emotions associated with comparison. Instead, choose to see comparison differently. Allow yourself to step out of the negative emotions and ask: Is what they have really something that I want? If the answer is a resounding yes, then ask: what would I need to do to achieve that? What mindsets might I need to shift? What decisions might I need to make differently? Let comparison, instead, be an expansion of what’s possible for you too.
HG: I also think people can easily slide into “it’s too late” thinking because they didn’t do XYZ in their undergrad, twenties, and beyond. Is it ever “too late” and if not, how can we challenge this attitude?
(EEM): It is absolutely never too late to make a change in our lives. As humans, we’re wired to continuously grow, learn and evolve. We’re never starting over because even if you are transitioning into something new and you’re a beginner, you’re carrying all of your previous skills, experience, and knowledge with you. In every industry, we can see examples of people who became successful much later in life. It’s a societal assumption that it’s “harder” to pivot after a certain age. But, who says that’s true? Consider this: The older you are, the more experience you have and the more connections you can lean on. You know how you learn, you’re less afraid of failure, you care less about what others think and you know what’s right for you. Could it be possible that following dreams later in life is actually much easier and could even mean you’re much more likely to succeed?
HG: Is there a positive way that we can look at career regrets? What can we learn from them?
(EEM): Regrets are the feeling of looking back on decisions that you made and wishing you’d done something different. The feeling of regret is just that—a feeling. Feelings are information; they tell us stuff. They point out something that needs to be processed or something that needs to be looked at more deeply. Regrets are signals; they’re your intuition speaking to you, telling you that you have an option to do something different. Regret in itself can be the opportunity to make a new choice. Many times people interpret regret as a permanent state, a given that will just live with you. But feelings are by nature, fleeting. Let the temporary feeling of regret be an opportunity to tune into yourself and ask, what do I really want?
Like everything in life, every mistake, every challenge, every regret is an opportunity to learn.
HG: What actionable steps would you give to someone in order to move past their regrets?
(EEM): Bring awareness to your feeling of regret. When does it come up for you? What does it feel like in your body? What other emotions is it associated with? Then, carve out some time for yourself to journal on this feeling. What is it bringing up for you? Why are these regrets? What is the feeling actually trying to tell me?
You might find that your feeling of regret appears when you’re comparing yourself to someone else, but with further investigation, you don’t actually want what they have. Maybe you made a tough career decision and your feeling of regret is a signal that you still haven’t forgiven yourself for it. Or possibly, your regret is showing you that someone else followed their dream, and now it’s actually time for you to go follow yours.