Making Career Decisions You Won't Regret

Posted by The Editors on August 24, 2011

For the first time here on the WetFeet blog, I’m diverging from my regular focus on personal branding and the Internet. Instead, I want to talk about regret—and decision-making techniques to prevent it.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Life, blogged yesterday about making good decisions—a skill we can all use. The inspiration for the post came from a study out of University of Illinois that said love-related regrets are more common for women, and career-related regrets are more common among men. The study also shows a correlation between level of education and career-related regrets, among other regret-related stats.

Yesterday, I faced one of the most difficult situations I’ve encountered in my career—and I had to make a decision. I’m not going to mention the details of the decision, of course, but let’s just say it wasn’t one of those everyday what-should-I-have-for-lunch or how-much-should-I-pay-this-consultant kind of deals. It felt bigger than that. So while I certainly found the stats on career-related regrets interesting, it was more Pink’s strategies for avoiding regret that got me thinking.

In the first technique, Pink says that when he faces tough decisions he considers the path 90-year-old him would want him to take. “In most cases, the 90-year-old me wants today’s me to take an intelligent risk rather than to avoid one — and to act nobly rather than like an ass,” he wrote. Simple enough.

I tried it. I imagined the 90-year-old version of myself, with silver hair and crow’s feet around my eyes, sitting at a table with my hypothetical children and grandchildren. “Tell them about the time when…” was the lead-in, of course. The technique immediately succeeded to guide my thoughts by giving me something meaningful to focus on: The kind of person I want to be.

Still, it wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure at first which choice would lead to a more inspiring story for 90-year-old me to tell: the one about the fed-up employee who finally says “no”—or the one who stands strong in a different way, tossing politics and anger aside to accept a new challenge. Well, that answers that.

The other technique Pink uses to reduce the chance for regret is what he calls the “Viktor Frankl Test,” taken from Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” This technique assumes that we’re more inclined to make rash, emotional decisions at first—the kind we’ll regret. Given the way I felt for about 12 hours after getting into this particularly trying situation, I’m going to go ahead and say that assumption is correct. What I wanted most for a moment or two in time was to throw my hands in the air, then a certain finger, and send a strongly worded email announcing that my decision had been made. That would be the most satisfying ending to the story, right? Pink’s post made me think twice.

I mulled over 90-year-old me and the feeling of regret for quite a while before deciding to buck up and not let the politics of work get me down. And the fact that we’ll all face many of these “Who are you?” decisions on our various career paths is why I’m writing this post today.

When a colleague says something that makes you angry, upset, and wanting to throw a nefarious finger in the air, think about that first thing you want to do and, well, don’t do it—just yet. When the time comes for you to decide whether to take an intelligent risk or act like an ass, take the time to consider all the pieces of the story before making a decision. When you simply don’t feel like making the right decision at that time or even know what it is, think about the story the graceful, wise, awesome 90-year-old version of you will want to tell. And just don’t do something that person will regret.

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