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Regrets, strengths and setting career goals

By Martin Cole

career goals

If I’m honest, I have a few regrets about the way I’ve handled my professional life.

Of course, reflecting on regrets is not always a productive exercise. But, when viewed constructively, regrets can teach us some valuable lessons and they carry with them an emotional power that can generate a strong motivation for future change.

So, I offer you up my career regrets here, not as an exercise in self-indulgence, but to highlight some pitfalls that are best avoided and to provoke some further thought about how we can turn round these career downers, especially if we are careful in setting career goals.

And, of course, these ideas will not only be useful in your own career planning, but also when it comes to helping those you are coaching or managing as they consider their own long-term aspirations and career goals.

No long-term career plan

The single biggest career mistake I have made, and probably a contributing factor in the other mistakes listed below, is my failure to have a coherent career plan.

For parts of my career I lacked a long-term view of where I wanted to go and why. As a result, some of the moves I’ve made were really just responses to existing circumstances, short-term fixes to present problems.

That’s not to say I was aimless. I pursued various career goals along the way. But what was missing was a clear vision against which I could test my circumstances and prospects and make decisions that would stand the test of time.

In coaching, I now know, such a vision would be called a higher order goal.

Higher order goals are abstract, values-based goals that should stand above and feed into the more specific goals we may wish to achieve in the short to medium term.

Higher order goals are often neglected in coaching or when it comes to working on our own career or personal development. But they are crucial to ensuring that what we plan to do is likely to be sustainable for us in the longer term.

So, for example, what I needed was a higher order goal such as this:

“my aim is to build on the experience and proficiency I have attained as a lawyer, and to continually develop and use my leadership and people skills in an influential way, so as to help lawyers and other professionals with their ongoing career and professional development.”

With this in mind, I can evaluate the extent to which any potential career move or opportunity is likely to serve that values-based plan. And I can develop and execute specific goals and action steps that I know will do so.

The failure to link short and medium term objectives to higher order values based goals can lead to us pursuing outcomes that we ultimately find unsatisfying or unfulfilling, or which draw us away from the path that suits our true selves.

Not aligning with my strengths

For work to be truly satisfying it, it needs to:

  • have a purpose or outcome that is consistent with our values, and
  • involve us in using our top character strengths in the service of that purpose.

So what are character strengths?

Character strengths are those parts of who we are that influence our thoughts, feelings, volition and behaviours. They are not skills, talents or resources. Rather, they are aspects of our core identity that can help us develop those things.

We all have certain strengths that we display more than others, that energise us more when we are using them or that help us operate most effectively. These are our signature strengths and there is now a huge body of research that tells us how beneficial it can be to be able to use our signature strengths in our work. Use of these strengths can, for example, improve job satisfaction, engagement and performance and lead to greater overall subjective well-being.

My signature strengths include judgment, love of learning, fairness and leadership (find out yours here) and it has been one of my great career regrets that I have not always worked in roles that were aligned with these strengths. In particular, where roles restricted my ability to exercise my own judgment and lead others, or where the opportunities for learning and growth were limited, my career stagnated.

I supposed the real regret is not being aware of this stuff earlier.

Failing to persist

As Kenny Rogers so succinctly put it:

“you’ve got know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run”.

And as I look back now, there are at least two points in my career history when I folded when I should have held.

Or perhaps more accurately, and to stretch Kenny’s metaphor to breaking point, what I should have done, even if I folded the hand in question, was to have stayed in the game, rather than picking up my chips and heading for the door.

What I’m talking about is a failure to look past immediate set-backs or difficulties that I faced, in order to try to find other ways to work things out. Instead, I stacked my cards and then had to start all over again in a new game somewhere else.

No doubt you can see how having a long term plan with some clear career goals could have helped with this.

Staying too long

Although there have been times when I should have worked through some tough challenges, there have also been times when I should have walked away a whole lot sooner than I did.

So, why didn’t I?

For two main reasons – financial commitments and fear.

These can both be a problem when what you want to do represents a significant change from a current role or where it carries a real risk of failure. Very often, big changes require us to take a step or two back, in terms of rewards and status, so that we can to try to jump a several steps forward in the longer term.

Unfortunately, the more committed you are, financially and emotionally, to your current state, the harder it can be to make the break.

So how do you deal with this?

Once again, the long term plan helps, especially because one of the most important things you need to is to make thorough preparations to move on, for example, by re-ordering your finances, cutting your commitments, or examining and eliminating the source of some of your fears.

Ironically, of course, this may mean you still have to stick around longer than you want to. But if you are taking these steps, in accordance with your long-term career goals, you are already that much closer to your ultimate destination.

Summing up

We should recognise that examining our regrets can lead to negative emotional consequences, particularly when we feel that we don’t have the opportunity or resources to put things right.

Nevertheless, research shows that regrets arise mostly from those areas of life which we perceive as holding the most opportunity for us, such as education and careers.

As a result, where opportunities still exists, regret can give us a real motivation to make changes and pursue those opportunities.

It seems to me that in the career setting we can best do this when we set career goals in accordance with a long-term plan and align our working life closely with our strengths and values.

What are your career regrets? Have they motivated you to change? If so, how? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

I'm Martin Cole. I am a UK qualified lawyer, a leader within the financial services regulatory and compliance sector and an organisational and executive coach. I have an Master of Science (M.Sc). in coaching psychology and am certified as a coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership. I also have a Bachelor of Laws (LLB (Hons.)) and was admitted as a barrister by the Inner Temple (now non-practising). I have lived and worked in London and Sydney and now live near Edinburgh in Scotland with my wife and two daughters. I support Crystal Palace FC, have wide ranging musical tastes (especially Jazz, Blues and Soul) and oppose mediocrity, selfishness and organisations that fail to value their people.

  • John says:

    Interesting piece. I like the idea of using regrets as a source of reflection and a springboard for something better, rather than just a way of beating ourselves up. Thanx

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