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What Will You Regret?

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What Will You Regret?

via HarvardBusiness.org by Marshall Goldsmith on 6/15/08

This Week’s Question for Ask the Coach:

In your experience, what are the biggest regrets people have at the end of their careers? What do people wish they had learned sooner?

This is a great question. A wise person learns from experience. A wiser person learns from someone else’s experience. The best way to answer this question is to ask the people who actually have the experience.

My friend John Izzo is the author of a great new book-The Five Secrets You Must Discover before You Die. The book is based on 250 interviews he conducted with people from age 59-106 asking them to reflect back on their lives and careers. Though the people he interviewed ranged from a town barber to successful CEOs, the themes that emerged were clear. Here is some of what he learned about regrets and the things we wished we had learned sooner.

The first thing he learned is that people don’t regret their failures and that most people wished they had risked more. Most of us go through our careers fearing failure, but Izzo discovered that trying and failing is something we can deal with. The happiest people felt they had pursued their dreams and stretched themselves in their lives and careers. So we are more likely to regret having not tried for a dream than to have failed at it. This is particularly interesting because most of us think failure is about the worst thing that can happen to us but it turns out that not trying or playing it safe in our careers is what we should actually be worrying about.

Work-life balance is such a hot topic in the world of work right now so I was particularly interested in what these interviews could teach us about navigating those choices. What Izzo found was complex. While many people regretted having been too focused on work to the detriment of relationships and personal pursuits, others made the same sacrifices but had no regrets. Izzo says “It turns out that as we navigate the choices of balancing work and life, each of us has an inner voice that is speaking to us. Those people whose inner voice was telling that they were sacrificing too much or not being true to themselves had deep regrets.” The book has some poignant stories of those who failed to heed that inner voice. The bottom line-if you think your work-life mix is out of whack it probably is.

When I asked Izzo about his own regrets (being recently introduced to the over fifty club), he told me that his only regret mirrors what he heard from those he interviewed. “I look back and wish I had not been such a know- it-all earlier in my career. Instead of trying to prove how smart I was, I wish I had sought the advice of those who knew more than me.” In his interviews, many people talked about the importance of learning and growing throughout your career and that the more we keep learning the more success we discover. “Basically these people never got stuck in a rut; they were always trying to learn from people smarter than themselves.”

The most important thing Izzo learned about the things we regret was the importance of being true to self. Many of those, I’ve interviewed looked back and felt they were too influenced by others’ opinions. They told me how absolutely critical it is to follow your own definition of success. Don’t take that promotion or job because someone tells you it’s the natural next step. Make to ask yourself if that is the step you want to take.

A final lesson from these people is that status and power aren’t what you will remember as you look back. Rather, most people said it was the things they gave and the people they mentored that give them satisfaction. The town barber put it plainly: “The money in your wallet is not the definition of your success but how many lives you touched.” Turns out that is one thing the barbers and the CEO’s agreed on.

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