How to stop longing for the path not taken

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Written by Rachel Burgess, an assistant professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Her research focuses on employee identity, organizational justice and the work/non-work interface.

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Rachel Burgess

Careers consist of many choices. Sometimes, you may find yourself longing for the life you might have had if you had made a different choice — the forgone career role. 

In my research, my colleagues Jason A. Colquitt, the Franklin D. Schurz Professor in the Department of Management & Organization at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and Erin C. Long, the assistant professor of management at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, and I focused on how dwelling on the notion of “what could have been” can affect employees. We focused on what employees, managers and organizations can do to minimize the negative consequences of that reflection.

For the paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal in February 2022, we surveyed more than 300 U.S. employees to try to understand how they experience and react to forgone identity dwelling, or ruminating on what could have been. We focused on their emotions and the resulting behaviors they engaged in at work. Our results represented a wide variety of current and forgone identities — social workers who could have been veterinarians, architects who could have been painters, and teachers who could have been attorneys. 

In response to forgone identity dwelling, participants longed for the life they might have had. For example, one participant recounted trading a future as a scientist for a career in finance. While happy in his financial career, he said he often thinks about the possible fulfillment he might have found in this forgone identity.

That longing led to withdrawal in the participants and reduced the amount of help they offered their co-workers. While many respondents said they were happy with how their lives turned out, the longing for what could have been kept them from being fully invested and effective in their current jobs. As these findings indicate, forgone identity dwelling is detrimental not only for individual employees but for the workplace as well.

So, what can you do if you feel this way? What can managers do? 

1. Craft your job to make it more fulfilling.

First, our research showed that people who respond to longing for the road not taken with job crafting, or shaping current work roles to make them more fulfilling, were less withdrawn and more likely to help their co-workers. And it boosted their productivity and job satisfaction.

Although some careers are better suited for job crafting than others, it’s almost always possible to find a way to incorporate your passion into your work role. 

For instance, the social worker who thought about becoming a veterinarian could use service animals to help clients dealing with trauma, allowing her to use her love of animals at work. Likewise, a salesperson who gave up a career as a travel writer could work with international clientele, allowing opportunities to travel while still in a stable, high-paying profession.

In addition to your own proactive approach, managers play a role. Managers can identify their employees’ interests and passions and look for ways they can incorporate them into employees’ work roles. For instance, managers can make an effort to tailor roles or assign projects based on the kinds of work employees find most fulfilling.

Naturally, not all jobs can be tailored to a specific individual, but even small changes can help increase job satisfaction and productivity.

2. Cultivate the belief that what happens is because of your own actions.

Second, try to cultivate an internal locus of control, or the tendency to believe that what happens in life is due to your own actions, as opposed to luck or chance. Our findings showed that people with an internal locus of control respond less negatively to forgone identity dwelling. 

To create a sense that you control your destiny, try taking ownership of your past career choices. Focus more on why you made those decisions rather than where you could be today. Reflect on the parts of your life you are grateful for. Research has shown that gratitude improves mental and physical health and resilience to adversity.

It’s natural to wonder what might have been. But to stay productive and fulfilled, move past the longing for that alternative life and learn to embrace the life you have. n

This article has been adapted from a Harvard Business Review feature. 

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