Are You Hung Up on That Career Path You Didn’t Choose?

It’s only natural to think about the alternate career choices we could have made — but can it be too much dwelling in the past to keep us from succeeding in the present? Based on the findings from a survey of more than 300 workers and their coworkers, the author suggests that a bit of longing for the road not taken is fairly common, and in some cases, this sense of career regret can keep people from being fully invested and effective in their current jobs. However, the research also sheds light on two key strategies to ward off this sort of harmful rumination and dissatisfaction: First, employees and managers can proactively explore opportunities for job craft, bringing unfulfilled aspects of workers’ identities into their current roles. And secondly, workers can cultivate an internal locus of control, helping them to focus more on the present and future, rather than getting stuck in the past. Ultimately, the author argues that in our jobs as in every aspect of our lives, the only way to stay productive and feel fulfilled is to balance the tantalizing “what ifs” with awareness and appreciation for what’s right in front of us.

Every career is made up of choices. But sometimes, even when we know we made the right decision, we find ourselves longing for a forgone role or career path. How does this sort of dwelling on the road not affect us in the workplace? And what can employees, managers, and organizations do to help workers who may be experiencing some internal conflict with respect for their chosen careers?

To explore these questions, my colleagues Jason Colquitt, Erin Long, and I surveyed more than 300 US-based workers and their coworkers across a wide range of professions and seniority levels. We asked the workers how satisfied they were with their current job, how often they thought about other paths they could have taken, and the extent to which they felt able to determine the trajectories of their lives and shape their work. We then asked their coworkers how often these employees engaged in helpful, collaborative behaviors, and how often they exhibited behaviors that suggested a withdrawal from work, such as showing up late or distracting others.

Through these surveys, we found that many workers spend a significant amount of time dwelling on alternative professional paths they could have taken — even years after the decision was made. In fact, only 6% of the participants in our study reported never or almost never thinking about other paths they could have taken, and 21% reported thinking about these questions often or even almost always.

These are social workers who might have been veterinarians, architects who could have been painters, teachers who considered pursuing law. One participant described trading a future as a scientist for a career in finance after a bad experience with a supervisor during his PhD program. While happy in his current role, he shared that he frequently thought about the potential fulfillment he might have found in this foregone identity:

“I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I had pursued my PhD in biochemistry or genetics. I had a natural affinity towards scientific endeavors and did exceptionally well in these areas…If I had become a genetic engineer, I would have been on the forefront of scientific development and potentially changing all of humanity. It is possible that I would not have achieved monetary success, but I would have likely been more fulfilled with the ‘possibilities’ of the work.”

Whether their career choices were driven by a desire for financial stability, a search for fulfillment, or other motivations, almost all of the workers in our study demonstrated at least some wisdom about what might have been had they taken an alternate path. Moreover, we found that longing for forgone professional identities often kept them from being fully invested and effective in their current jobs. Based on both their own self-evaluations and input from their coworkers, we found that workers who felt somewhat stuck in the past were more likely to be distracted and to daydream while at work, took more breaks and days off, were less engaged with their colleagues, and were more likely to search for other jobs. Importantly, they weren’t necessarily consumed by despair or regret. In fact, many participants indicated that they were happy with the way their lives turned out. But still, the feeling that they had missed out on a different path — especially one that may have felt more aligned with their sense of identity and purpose — could be hard to shake.

This “grass is greener” phenomenon is exacerbated by the increasingly common experience of choice overload: As remote work and online applications make the world smaller, the sheer number of (theoretically) available jobs can become overwhelming. And to be sure, greater access to job opportunities is generally a good thing. But having too many options can sometimes make us feel less committed to the choices we ultimately make. This FOMO effect is only worsened by social media, which constantly bombards us with alternate careers, places, and lifestyles that we’re missing out on.

The good news is our research also found that we don’t have to remain stuck longing for what might have been. Specifically, we identified two key strategies that helped the workers in our study avoid excessive dwelling on the past, ward off rumination and dissatisfaction, and stay focused on what’s ahead.

1. Craft your work identity

First, we found that workers who practiced job crafting — that is, those who proactively shaped their roles to make their jobs more fulfilling — were less withdrawn from their work and more likely to help their colleagues, even as they continued to feel some longing for alternative career paths. While different positions may offer different kinds of flexibility, it’s almost always possible to find some way to bring more of your passions and interests into your current role.

For example, a social worker who once considered becoming a veterinarian could use service animals to help those dealing with trauma, enabling her to incorporate her love of animals into her job in a way that might make the role be a better fit for her. Similarly, a salesperson who gave up a career as a travel writer could opt to expand into working with international clientele, helping him to scratch his travel itch while still enjoying the benefits of a stable, high-paying career. Thinking about the parts of your job you enjoy and the elements of your identity that still feel unfulfilled can help you to create a role that really works for you.

At the same time, managers should strive to learn about the hidden talents, interests, and passions that may flow among their workforce — and find creative ways to help employees embrace those parts of their identity. While not every position can be adapted to meet every aspiration, making an effort to tailor roles or assign projects based on the kinds of work that different employees find most fulfilling can boost both productivity and job satisfaction. Of course, supporting this sort of personalized job crafting can be challenging. But keeping a talented employee happy and engaged by tweaking their job duties is a lot easier than waiting for them to quit and then being forced to hire someone new.

2. Cultivate an “internal locus of control”

Second, our research shows that even when external circumstances don’t change, shifts in internal perspective can make a big difference to how we feel and act. We found that people with what psychologists call an internal locus of control — that is, the tendency to view what happens to them in life as the result of their own actions, rather than being outside their control — are more likely to respond productively to longing for a forever career path, by adapting their current jobs, rather than destructively, by withdrawing and becoming disengaged.

Cultivating an internal locus of control starts with taking ownership of your past career choices. Try to focus less on what could have been, and instead, remember why you made the decisions you did. Then, redirect your energy toward imagining what could be in the future, and the steps you could take to get there.

It can also help to take a moment to reflect on all that is good in your life. A large body of research has demonstrated that gratitude can help us overcome adversity and improve both mental and physical health. Consider spending a few minutes each day writing down what you are thankful for in a gratitude journal or try out a daily practice of expressing thanks to someone in your life. This doesn’t mean accepting an unhealthy work environment or pushing your dreams aside — but a bit of gratitude can often help reframe experiences and offer greater perspective into the parts of your life and career that do make you happy.

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Wondering about what might have been only natural. But in our jobs and in our lives, balancing those tantalizing ‘what ifs’ with an awareness of what’s right in front of us is the only way to stay productive and feel fulfilled. In a world of endless possibilities, we must strive to move past longing for greener grasses, seek out ways to improve our lives, and ultimately learn to embrace our own realities.