Career Regrets

Your tree of life moment?

In providing personal coaching to people at various stages in their work lives, I find that there is either an explicit sense from people that they feel they played things too safe and conservatively over the years, only to wake up one morning to realize they’ve squandered much of the time they thought they had to do things, or they are vaguely dissatisfied with their life but probing often reveals career regrets rooted in a creeping complacency.

Leah Eichler wrote a piece recently focused on the career mis-steps and regrets of women in the workplace, but I thought it applied to anyone:

I’ve felt it, and I know I’m not alone. It’s the Sunday-night syndrome – that feeling of dread at the end of a weekend where you stare at your calendar for the coming week and anticipate the avalanche of appointments, phone calls and meetings with disagreeable co-workers.

It’s a phenomenon that can repeat week after week, but at some point you need to ask: Is this it?

Admitting to a career misstep can be challenging. Unlike other major decisions you make, it can be a stretch to blame your career mistakes on others in your life.

As well, your professional choices and personal identity often intertwine and can be difficult to separate. Many people, when asked to describe themselves, start off by talking about their job. So when career dissatisfaction rears its ugly head, it’s difficult not feel a sense of personal failure.

At the risk of generalizing, women specifically may avoid confronting their career regrets because tackling them requires introspection, and that takes time, an ever-elusive commodity. But imagine the results if you keep ignoring those regrets.

“People tend to have signs. Their instincts will tell them they are not happy, that they are not aligned to what they should be doing,” said Patricia Barbato, author of Inspire Your Career: Strategies for Success in Your First Years at Work.

“When you feel that, you need to act on it. You can’t just sit around and let another three years go by,” she warned.

Ms. Barbato boasts an impressive career track. As senior vice-president of the home health division and business development at Mississauga-based Revera Inc., which provides senior care and accommodations, she oversees 40 sites across Canada and 5,500 employees. Yet she regrets not taking more risks in her career, which she attributes to an early lack of confidence and self-awareness.

To combat this, she suggests conducting your own research and asking co-workers where they think your strengths lie. The results can be surprising, she said: “We often see ourselves differently than others do and often, especially with women, we undervalue what we have.”

It’s important to talk about your frustrations and regrets. And given the prevalence of career coaches, it appears many women and men feel some level of dissatisfaction about their career choice or need guidance on how to achieve their goals.

“There are things [in career development literature] about career plateauing and career burnout. But what about people who persist through the burnout and still stay?” said Juanita Hennessey, who explored the issue of career regret for her master’s thesis in education at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Ms. Hennessey interviewed retirees who reflected on their careers. She found that those who stuck to the grind suffered a mental and physical toll that had an impact on both their personality and personal relationships.

And although every participant in her study regretted their career choice, they didn’t necessarily change jobs or fix their mistakes to lessen their regrets. (One participant who spent 26 years at the same job likened it to a prison sentence.)

 For posts on this theme please see also:

If We Ever Get Out of Here