Conform and live with a lifetime of regret
A view from Sue Unerman

Conform and live with a lifetime of regret

According to recent research in the US by Allianz, 32% of Americans regret major choices in their lives.

Topping the regret charts according to the research? Ignoring your health, neglecting to exercise, giving up on a romantic relationship, losing touch with friends.

It's common for people to reflect that they've let stress rule their life in a really unhelpful way. A bit of stress isn't bad for you. It can raise your adrenaline levels in the office, some people thrive on it up to a point. 

But if you're living with stress surrounding you every time you step into the workplace, dreading the next encounter with a certain colleague or a boss so much that it gives you sleepless nights or anxiety strewn weekends, then you need to take some action.

When you're very stressed it’s too late in my experience. You can't diagnose yourself at that point. Seek out mindfulness techniques and meditation now, not when you've crossed the line, not when you're too busy to think.

One very big stated cause of regret is letting fear drive your decisions. Psychology professor Hal Shorey says there are two aspects to this that lead to this.

First, instead of taking healthy risks and following your passions and intuition, people worry that they won't be up to the job, or that the choice won't meet the standards that other people have for them and so make choices that aren't really right for them.

I can remember being on the brink of what felt like a huge career decision, several people told me I was making the wrong one and of course I was filled with anxiety. Then a friend said to me "well the decisions you've made so far haven't been that bad have they, and also if it doesn't work out you'll go and do something else instead".

That outside perspective stabilised me into what turned out to be a key step in my career.

The second consequence of fear-based decisions is ethical regrets according to Shorey. He says, "with a lot of my grads, they're making good money for the first time in their lives, and they think to themselves, 'oh my goodness, I've arrived'.

"Then they'll be asked to do things professionally that they may think are unethical or go against their own knowledge of leadership and because they're concerned about losing the job they go along and conform".

Conform, and live with a lifetime of regret.

According to our own research, conducted by Lightspeed in the UK, US and Russia for our new book, The Glass Wall, more than 40% of women surveyed regret their career choice – an upsetting number – though perhaps understandable given the glass walls so many face in the workplace.

Kathryn and I wrote the book because we don't want any women to be disappointed with their career paths. We hope the book will improve a system that seems stuck in an unhelpful and unprofitable cycle of disappointed careers and frustrated intentions. We would have regretted very much staying silent on this issue.

Fast Company Magazine writer Gwen Moran says it's not possible to map out a strategy for a regret-free life, and some regrets of course are bigger than others. Some we get over, some stick with us for ever.

When you're considering the next move in your career think seriously about what your regrets would be, what opportunities you'll never get over if you miss them.

Most crucially, a year from now, what could you have achieved, what difference can you make?  And how can you set about doing it?

Topics