Do you find yourself spending a lot of time ruminating about your past career decisions, wondering if you should have done things differently-if you should have made other choices? Do you worry that you wasted your efforts or made a wrong decision somewhere along your path? Let me reassure you. Having had the honor of working with thousands of individuals with a wide variety of career experiences, I have come to believe that there are no wrong choices.
Each of your past career experiences happened for a reason, regardless of the outcome. From them, you have gained valuable insight about yourself-what you like and don’t like, what you do well and where you can improve, how you work best, etc. And some choices may not have delivered the outcome you were expecting, but instead, they led you in an equally positive, albeit different direction. As a result, you have grown and learned new skills, met new people and been introduced to new opportunities. Without those experiences, you wouldn’t have the knowledge and self-awareness that you do today.
For instance, I have worked with numerous clients who have coveted a specific position within a company and failed to get it, only to later find and attain a position that was an even better fit. One woman spent 20 years working for a company as a software developer for trading programs. She decided that she wanted a change and invested six years into developing, testing and trying to sell her own high-end trading software program. Despite the fact that she made very thoughtful decisions and did everything right, her product was not successful. She was devastated, feeling that she had squandered her time and effort and had foregone millions of dollars that she could have earned during those six years.
However, this difficult situation forced her to consider the next step in her career. After careful thought, she chose to become a trader. Not only does she now love what she does, but she is sought after in the industry for her guidance and training. Had she not experienced the initial setback, she would not have discovered her fulfilling new career.
At times, it’s difficult to see and appreciate it in the present moment, especially when fear and anxiety begin to creep in, but when you look back, sometimes
years later, you’re better able to understand how it all fits together. Despite how frustrated you may feel in your current job, there may be parts that are completely relevant and valuable to future steps in your career-you just don’t know it yet.
I have experienced this in my own career. Earlier in my life, I was a teacher and I came to a point where I decided that teaching was not the right fit for me. As I tried to determine my next move, I took a job waiting tables and, later, managing a restaurant. I was ashamed and resented my jobs in the food service industry. I had a college degree and felt like I was misusing my time and energy. However, years later when I was working for Goldman Sachs, I hosted a dinner for a group of foreign currency traders at a posh New York City restaurant. In an effort to rattle me, they handed me the wine list and told me to choose a bottle for the table. It was then that I realized the value of my restaurant experience; I was familiar with fine wines and made a selection that not only shocked the traders, but won their respect.
When faced with a decision, the most important thing to remember is to not let it paralyze you. No matter how difficult or serious the situation might be, endless analyzing and agonizing isn’t useful. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t spend some time considering your options, but there is a point where it becomes unproductive. For all of the effort you spend weighing the pros, cons and potential outcomes, you will never have all of the information. There will always be variables involved and, therefore, there is a certain amount of guessing no matter how well-researched and thought-out your decisions are.
In the end, go with your gut. Choose the option that resonates with your beliefs and values. And when you finally do make the decision, you will likely experience a sense of relief.
The next time you find yourself torn between several options, try this exercise. Identify each of your options and focus on them one by one. Don’t think about or judge the options-just react to them. For each, ask yourself, “Does this make me feel hot or cold?” Choose the one that generates a sense of heat. If more than one elicits a feeling of warmth, consider if one option feels hotter than the other. By using this approach, you are averting analysis paralysis and paying more attention to your intuitive gut reaction.
A Matter of Perspective
Right versus wrong, good versus bad-it’s often just a matter of perspective. Sometimes, the key to turning a potential negative into a positive is patience and time. Consider the Chinese folktale “The Lost Horse” below.
“A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his son’s horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console the son, but his father said, ‘What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?’ Some months later, the horse returned, bringing with it a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated the son, but his father said, ‘What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?’ Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day the son fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, ‘What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?’
“A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other.”
In this story, the father had the wisdom to understand that even those events that seemed disastrous had the potential to be blessings. Although it wasn’t apparent at the moment, he knew that in time he would see things more clearly. What may seem like a wrong decision or mistake now may prove to be beneficial down the line.
Your Career Collective
Your career isn’t a linear path; it’s an iterative process, building upon itself as you grow and develop. It’s a series of choices that you make throughout your life. Don’t think of this as intimidating-think of it as exciting and filled with possibilities. Your next career decision is not the end of the story. It’s just another chapter.
Your career is a vehicle through which you express your values, talents and passions. It’s a tool you should use consciously to progress toward the accomplishment of your objectives. In the end, the only wrong career choice is the one in which you resign to stay in a job that you know is the wrong fit for you.