Big career regret? Not playing the game

Last updated 07:00 16/08/2014

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"Regrets, I've had a few," swooned Frank Sinatra. Adding 'career' as a prefix to those lyrics would make it career regrets, of which many of us have had more than just a few.

This past month has been punctuated by them.

Former columnist Mike Carlton regretted the way he responded to readers. A flight attendant was reprimanded for suggesting passengers should discard their drugs. And Joe Hockey, too, surely regrets his comments about poor people and their appetite for driving.

For the rest of us, though, our career regrets are mercifully left to languish in relative anonymity, saving us the torture of public humiliation. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're any less real.

The first and, from what I can tell, only empirical research on career regrets was published in the Journal of Management Psychology back in 2007.

Career regrets have been neglected by scholars, who have chosen instead to focus overwhelmingly on career success. But knowing what to do is irrelevant if you keep screwing it up, which is why this particular study is so interesting.

The researchers surveyed 1480 people, and they discovered a common source of regret is that many workers feel they haven't played the political game well enough, with men and young employees the most likely to report such sentiments. 

For younger workers to feel that way is especially surprising since you'd assume they've got plenty of time to make up for it. The researchers explain this could be because older employees have developed better coping mechanisms over the decades, and can therefore handle any self-inflicted disappointments.

(Warning: if you have kids or lack tertiary education, the next two paragraphs might be painful. Because those two factors were additional career regrets highlighted in the study, although we can only speculate as to the reasons why.)

Let's look at education first. People who hadn't embarked on tertiary studies reported a greater tendency for regret, perhaps because they wondered how much more fulfilling their careers might have been had they just stayed at school. They worried, for example, that they'd missed out on valuable opportunities and were being held back by the limited number of careers available to them.

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And now for the kids thing. It's not at all that people regret having kids (or is it?). It's more so that many feel their careers have been somewhat constrained as a result of having them. The challenge of balancing work and life means that, sometimes, one of the two has to be sacrificed. For many employees, it's career progression, which generates regret and, potentially, resentment.    

So, besides political game playing, schooling and reproduction, what other career regrets do people posses or, rather, are possessed by? A non-scientific analysis published in the Harvard Business Review came up with five of the most prevalent:

  • "I wish I hadn't taken the job for more money."
  • "I wish I had quit earlier."
  • "I wish I had the confidence to start my own business."
  • "I wish I had used my time at school more productively."
  • "I wish I had acted on my career hunches."

It seems regret falls into two categories. There are the things you did (such as the angry email you sent, the premature resignation, or the petty conflict). And then there are the things you didn't do (such as the post-grad degree, the job change, or the interstate move.)

Either way, both types of regret, by definition, focus inordinately on the past, which can't be altogether that healthy. It brings to mind a piece of writing by American journalist Jan Glidewell, who died last year: "You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present."

- Sydney Morning Herald


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