In consideration of the road not taken

Daydreaming about the career you could have had is normal, but it shouldn’t take away from the job you’re doing.

Most of us have at one time or another pondered the career path not taken. It’s rare to be perpetually satisfied with our careers, and chances are the job you’re doing today isn’t the same as the job — or jobs — that you grew up dreaming of doing. You may have even pursued some of those other jobs at one point before settling on your current vocation.

If this sounds like you, you’re far from alone. At one point I was on my way to being an electrical engineer. Then a high school teacher. I sometimes still wonder, “What if?”

Harvard Business Review recently conducted a survey of more than 300 U.S.-based workers across a wide range of professions and seniority levels to determine how satisfied they were with their current jobs, 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.

The survey authors then asked the co-workers of those professionals 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 is made,” wrote Rachel Burgess, one of the survey authors. “In fact, just 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 almost always.”

Luckily, Burgess and her colleagues identified two key strategies that helped the workers in their study avoid excessive dwelling on the past and stay focused on what’s ahead.

  1. Craft your work identity

Participants who practiced job crafting — proactively shaping their roles to make their jobs more fulfilling — were less withdrawn from their work and more likely to help their colleagues, even as they continued to feel some longing for alternative career paths, noted Burgess.

“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 a better fit for her,” Burgess said.

  1. Cultivate an “internal locus of control”

While external circumstances may not change, shifting one’s internal perspective can make a significant difference in how we feel and act. Participants who viewed what happened to them in life as the result of their own actions, rather than being outside their control, were more likely to adapt their current jobs, rather than become unfocused or disengaged by thinking about what could have been.

“Cultivating an internal locus of control starts with taking ownership of your past career choices,” said Burgess. “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.”