Hennessey on Career Regret

I’ve been mulling for a long time whether to stay in physics, and a colleague pointed me toward this Master’s thesis on career regret by Hennessey.

The study examines the experiences of individuals who, if given their time back, would have chosen a different career path. Despite the fact that career has been consistently documented as a major life regret for many it is rarely mentioned, or only referred to tangentially, in career development literature. Five individual interviews, four female, one male, with people retired or transitioning to retirement are presented to explore the experience of regret as it persists throughout the adult lives of participants. Although the narratives shared by participants are unique and deeply personal, common themes emerged through qualitative analysis. Four themes relate to perceptions of the past: Early Influences, Why I Regret My Choice, The Passage of Time, and Balancing Work and Family. One theme relates to the present: If I Could Do It Over Again, and one to the future: What the Future will Be. Findings from the current study add to the limited research on the topic of career regret and implications for theory and practice are examined.

In this blog post I’ll mostly just pull out notable excerpts. I encourage you to read the thesis if this catches your interest. (See also Hanson on deathbed regrets.)

From the introduction:

If you work full time for thirty years the number of hours spent on the job would be approximately 60,000…

What if you never figured out what you want to do with your life? What if you spent your whole life searching and never found the work you wanted? What if you knew what you wanted to do but circumstances prevented you from realizing your dream? What would the experience of any of the aforementioned be like?

This study attempts to examine the experiences of older people who have regrets about their career, specifically as they transition to retirement…how well do we understand the impact of regrettable choices on this population? If a portion of the latter years are indeed spent in quiet contemplation of one’s past, how does one cope with career regret?

Quotes from the literature review on the general phenomenon of regret:

Zeelenberg (1999) refers to regret as a higher order cognitive emotion and this interpretation of regret is supported by the work of Guttentag and Ferrell (2004), who found that 7-year-olds could make the “comparison of what is with what might have been,” whereas 5-year-olds could not. This suggests that, unlike emotions such as fear and anger that can be experienced in infancy, regret requires higher emotional development and cognitive reasoning…

Overall, people are said to experience regret when conventional choices are rejected in favour of unusual ones (Simonson & Tversky, 1992); failure in a situation is the result of a narrow versus wide margin (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995); bad advice is followed and good advice is rejected (Crawford, McConnell, Lewis, & Sherman, 2002); knowledge of alternatives are made available after making a bad decision (Zeelenberg, 1999).

Particularly, in examining the function of regret, Saffrey, Summerville and Roese (2008) found that individuals value regret more than eleven other negative emotions (guilt, sadness, disappointment, shame, fear, disgust, anger, frustration, anxiety, jealousy and boredom).

According to Kruger, Wirtz & Miller (2005)…[w]hen we are young, we are more likely to regret our actions. As we get older, it is missed opportunity that tends to trigger the most regret.

Specializing to career regret:

In a meta-analysis of 11 studies, Roese and Summerville (2005) concluded that the “six biggest regrets in life center on (in descending order) education, career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure” (p. 1273). The proportion of regret was reported as education (32%), career (22%), romance (15%), parenting (10%), self (5.47%) and leisure (2.55%)

Interestingly, Roese and Summerville (2005) also surmise that the high incidence of career-related regret may not be universal. According to their research more profound regrets are experienced in incidences of high opportunity compared to low opportunity. They posit that the freedom of choice available to North Americans may make this population more prone to experiencing career regret. In cultures where societal structure is caste- or class-based, career choice can be limited and individuals would be less likely to ponder missed opportunities or imagine alternatives. However, not everyone agrees with the above assumption, Schieman, Pearlin and Nguyen (2005) note that “although the individualistic ethos in American culture implies that choice determines the content and direction of such pathways, sociologists often view institutional and historical forces as constraining the trajectories of individuals—especially those who have particular ascribed statuses” (p. 694).

As the author emphasizes, this is not an attempt to systematically understand career regret across a population, but is rather a window into the regret of five individuals. Better to think of it as a collection of biographies with some academic rigor:

…the method of phenomenological inquiry typically follows a process as outlined below:

  1. Review the historical literature to reach an understanding of the philosophical perspective of the approach
  2. Develop questions to draw from participants descriptions of the lived experience of the phenomena being studied
  3. Collect data, usually through interviews
  4. Analyse the data through (i) horizontalization – division of transcripts into statements; (ii) the emergence of clusters of meanings; and (iii) textural description, a general description of the experience
  5. Finally, the essence, or invariant structure of the experience through identification of themes provides the reader with a better understanding of the phenomena.

…For the current study, a purposeful sampling method was employed as it was necessary to select participants who have experienced career regret to better understand the phenomena. Selection of participants occurred mainly through word-of-mouth referrals by friends and acquaintances.

…Participants included one male and four females ranging in age from late-forties to mid-sixties. Four of the participants were married and parents; one participant was single and did not have children. The education of those included in the study ranged from high school completion to doctorate degree.

…Once initial rapport had been established through introductions and an explanation of the ethical parameters of the study, the following points were used to guide the dialogue:

  • Please tell me about your career.
  • At what point did you start to feel regret? Can you describe that experience?
  • If you had your time back what would you have done differently?
  • Who were your supports and in what way did they help you?
  • If given the opportunity to talk to yourself X number of years ago, knowing what
    you know now, what would you say to your younger self?
  • When you think of the future what comes to mind?

…Phenomenology is not intended to solve problems or provide solutions. The experiences described herein should not be generalized to any individual or larger group. Indeed, if there were one rule of phenomenological inquiry it would be: “never generalize” (van Manen, 1997, p. 22). The goal of any phenomenological study is not to arrive at immutable laws but rather to increase our understanding of an experience or phenomena this is a meaningful endeavour in and of itself.

The actual and desired occupations of the participants:

Actual OccupationDesired Occupation
Fisheries ObserverFisherman/Farmer
Mother/TeacherUncertain (Academic/Dancer)
Civil Servant (Customer Service)Horticulturalist/Cook

Some general themes:

Despite a disparity in the specific circumstances of each participant, analysis of the interviews using the method outlined in Chapter Three revealed pervasive themes that are categorized as follows: Early Influences, Why I Regret My Choice, The Passage of Time, Balancing Work and Family, If I Could Do It Over Again, and What the Future will Be.

…Many people admitted to having career regret but were not willing to discuss their experience as they deemed it too painful to revisit…As will be made clear, career regret is not always found in those who spend a lifetime in a single job. For some, it is a lifetime spent searching, making sacrifices for loved ones, discovering what they want to do, or reconciling themselves with not following a passion because of the economic realities of the time.

I encourage you especially to read the interview excerpts and summaries in Chapter 4. When single spaced, it’s only 13 pages, and quite engaging. Here are some quotes by and observations about individual participants. (Participant quotes are italicized, the author’s discussion is upright.)

“It would be easier to discuss my painful divorce rather than my horrible career, because at least when I was married I could blame the other person, but with my career I can only blame myself.”Hennessey: “This was a statement made by a person who considered becoming involved in this study, but who eventually declined because she was not ready to discuss her one major regret (permission was obtained to include the quote).”a  

“The way I thought of myself was a liberated woman and a feminist, and yet I seem to end up staying at home like my mother and it sort of just happened, it wasn’t something I planned. Quite a lot has been written about this, about how daughters feel that they can’t go further than their mothers. I feel like there is something there, big, and now I’m going to university and my mother never went to university, she valued education and pushed us. That’s important actually because her attitude toward career was almost—if anything happens to your husband you’ll have something to fall back on. That was it, right, and really that’s how I was.”

…The transition to work did not always involve a direct or easy path for many of the participants. Once established in a career, several noted how difficult it was to change because of other responsibilities and lack of opportunity. For some, compromising was the only option. Even those who left jobs to pursue other work or education did not always find happiness or fulfillment.

…In hindsight, she confided that there was a pattern of “service” in much of her upbringing which laid the psychological foundation for her seeking out work designed to serve others. The demands of the job, however, detracted from her ability to devote herself to motherhood, and ultimately, the latter would take precedence.

“it has taken everything out of me. Looking at it now, I’ve got six years more, and now you’re counting down, summer’s past, winter’s coming up you have to get through that. Then, there is another summer and it will be five years. But it is still looking at the clock…You break it down into bits and you get through. You get through, you get through, you go home.”

…For one participant, the bold move of leaving a stable job to pursue another did not meet his expectations. His desire to leave a “desk job” and find work in a field close to his dream occupation of fishing yielded in a disappointing reality.

“No, I didn’t enjoy the work. It was a useless, useless job that nobody wanted. It didn’t do any good, it didn’t serve any purpose. The only reason I was out there was so that the Fisheries Union and the Government could say that they had observers aboard the boats, so if any trouble came up or any controversy about vessels fishing inside of our limits or anything like that, DFO could say we have observers on those boats and we know what they are at all the time. The work that we were doing was absolutely useless.”

…In examining why they regretted their careers, participants used such words and phrases as “…taken everything out of me,” “painful,” “useless,” “burned out,” and “awful.”

“When I was 45, I thought up to now life has been like a funnel going out, endless possibilities, it’s my life, it’s open, and it’s anything. When I got to 45, I felt that the funnel was going the other way, life was at the other end. Everything changed, no longer was I this young person with my life and future in front of me, I was now facing death. It sounds morbid but it’s good to know that because it does inform everything. Like I said to you my thought is not five years, ten years, it’s on my deathbed. How will I feel?…bringing up a thousand things to see before you die, or whatever. People are starting to think like that. I think that it really is a definite stage—for me, it is. I mean some people go out and buy a red sports car and do it that way, but you know, I’m just not one of those people. Let me put it this way…part of it is to take stock and what could I have done differently? What do I need to do to make me feel that I don’t have regret? Because I don’t want to have regrets, how awful to be on your deathbed and think, “if only?” And if I died tomorrow, I sometimes think about that, would I have major regrets? I don’t think I would. I’ve got some minor ones, but would I do it differently? I did it the best I could at the time. And did the best with the choices and who I was at the time. This is strange…the time is running out and it feels like decisions are more important now than they were before, there is more riding on them.”

For one participant, who works in customer service, the stress of dealing with an often unhappy public every day for more than twenty years has taken a toll. She intentionally avoids social situations and even withdraws from family, so great is her need for privacy and quiet time: “…My personality hasn’t changed, it’s just that I hate this job. I was outgoing, I was what people would call Martha Stewart, I loved to cook, I loved to entertain. I used to love parties and all that kind of stuff. I used to love to go out to clubs, and I used to love to go out for dancing. All that has changed. All I think about now is coming home and going somewhere in the quiet, left alone…But to me, it’s been a waste of my life to be there. And for me, there is no way out until, I say I’m leaving at 55, I’ll have 35 years in… I have six years left, I am walking out of that building at 55, I am not staying until I’m sixty, behind that counter. ‘Cause as far as I’m concerned, there are not a lot of people who live a lot longer working under that stress at sixty.”

…One participant discussed her tendency to lose interest in work she has undertaken as she develops different interests and takes on different roles. As a result, she questions whether she will ever find anything career-related that will offer fulfillment…

Several of the participants considered the passage of time as important to their experience of career regret and not wanting to have regrets. One individual, who realized she regretted taking her job six to eight months after starting, will have worked thirty-five years in the occupation before she retires.

“everybody talks about family values but there is no support for the family. Women with young kids, families with young kids and most of the burden falls on women. So, I don’t think you can have it all, I think that is what women who are the daughters of women who have had careers are saying now – you can’t have it all. You can’t have both… I see fragmentation for women. I see…I don’t think we are doing a very good job of communicating all of this. It’s almost like a dark secret that people don’t want to talk about because it seems like we can’t solve the problem.”

…Another participant spoke of the difference between how she feels now and how she felt as a young mother. Once she had the energy to keep up the pace of a demanding workplace and home life, but after more than twenty years in a high-stress and sometimes demeaning job, she can no longer summon the stamina of her younger self.

…One component of regret is the imagined alternative. For some participants, it is clear what they should have done; for others, it is rather a vague sense that they missed opportunities or discovered things about themselves too late in life.

“Because, even now, and it’s a terrible thing to say but I feel more for animals in distress than people that are in distress. And that’s because I think people have a choice. People are very cruel, and they are particularly cruel to animals.”

“I can talk about regrets, but…it’s not like I can see that there was a clear alternative and life would have been that much better.”

…Several participants indicated that they only belatedly understood the lifestyle they wanted or the profession they desired, well after critical decisions about education and occupations had to be made.

When asked why they regret their careers, most participants speak of being unhappy or unfulfilled in their work. Having listened to their stories, one is struck by the range of regret experienced. One individual, not wholly unsatisfied with her present career, would have chosen another that was very similar but which would have seen her skills and efforts employed in the service of caring for animals. For this person, regret over her career involves the acknowledgement that she discovered her passion for working with animals at a point in her life when she felt it was too late to start down a different career path. Her regret induced a curiosity that in turn motivates her to spend her free time interacting with animals.

For another participant, dissatisfaction with her job has seriously compromised other aspects of her life. She is angry, and this anger has had a negative impact on her relationship with her husband and her role as a mother. Hers is a daily lived regret. On an ongoing basis, she experiences the consequences of her decision to take and keep a job that she dislikes. Each morning she sits by herself, psychologically preparing herself for the day she must face. For this participant, anger at her regrettable choice has altered who she feels she is as a person. No longer upbeat and social, she has withdrawn from family and friends and finds only temporary distraction with solitary pursuits.

Beyond not feeling happy in the work they are engaged in, some saw their efforts as futile in the broader context. For one individual, who worked as a Fisheries Observer, the work proved to be too dissimilar from that of an inshore fisherman. His long stays at sea, the lack of a pension, and the recognition of his role as a political smokescreen with no influence over the inevitable collapse of the fishery made him dislike and regret his career choice.

…Participants speak of having seen fewer and fewer opportunities to fix or compensate for their past regrets.

The one thing I will draw from reading the interview excerpts — perhaps against the author’s advisement — is that this is a bit more anecdotal evidence for the general idea to not make personal happiness a terminal goal.

(H/t Craig Hennessey.)


(↵ returns to text)

  1. Hennessey: “This was a statement made by a person who considered becoming involved in this study, but who eventually declined because she was not ready to discuss her one major regret (permission was obtained to include the quote).”
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