Fear of missing out on a career you didn’t choose

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New research from ASU Professor Rachel Burgess at the W.P. Carey School of Business, suggests that when people are fixated on the career path they could have taken, it affects their productivity and engagement at work. In this op-ed for Harvard Business Review, she shares tactics to help them reconnect and be more satisfied in their work. She talks about how Arizonans can’t stop longing for what could have been.

Burgess and her two colleagues, Jason Colquitt and Erin Long, surveyed more than 300 U.S.-based workers across a wide range of professions and seniority levels. In their study, they only found that 6 percent of their respondents rarely thought about the idea of what could have been.

Research shows that it has nothing to do with your initial happiness, people who are perfectly happy with their life often think about what could have been. This sort of dwelling on the road not taken affects individuals in the workplace.

“Just thinking about what could have been, it can lead you to withdraw from the workplace and to be less helpful from the people around you, which are both negative consequences,” Burgess said.

Burgess said a lot of people think that satisfaction is largely driven by pay, but it usually has to do with the fulfillment you could have had. Opportunities and growth have more of an impact than higher pay.


Engaging in “job crafting” can help people in the workplace by focusing on what is the most fulfilling in your job.

“People can do this by tweaking the tasks that you work on by focusing on things that are related to the life you could have led,” Burgess said.

Another idea is developing an “internal locus of control.” Burgess said this is the tendency to view what happens to them in their life as a result of their own actions, rather than being outside their control.

Prof. Rachel Burgess, W.P. Carey School of Business.

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