What People Regret Most in Their Career

I surveyed my LinkedIn followers on their career choices after graduation in hindsight, and the results were quite surprising.

We all have regrets. According to an infographic on website Happify, nine out of 10 people reported having a major regret in their lives. A study conducted in the UK in 2019 revealed that 40% of the 2,000 British adults that took part regretted how they had lived their lives so far.

And out of those regrets, career choices accounted for a significant proportion. Researchers from Northwestern University in the U.S. found that 12% of regrets revolved around our careers. An older survey, published in the U.S. in 2005, showed 22% of regrets pertained to Career— second only to Education (32%) and ahead of Romance in third (15%).

“Many people reported feeling that they chose the wrong path. Interestingly, the more education participants had, the more likely they were to wish they had made a different career choice.”

— “Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda: What Do You Regret?”, Everyday Health

Happify claimed that “When it comes to our careers, the biggest regret is taking a dissatisfying job just for the money”.

Also, fun fact: 29% of adults 34 or younger have posted something on social media that they think could harm their careers. So think twice before you hit that publish button.

So what did I find out?

Shirts and ties are out

It’s official. Silicon Valley has taken over the notion of cool and successful from New York City.

Of the 303 responses that came in over two days, only 17% would have chosen to climb the corporate ladder if they had a chance to start all over again after graduation.

I have over 30.5k followers on LinkedIn from various countries, gender, age groups and professions, so it is unlikely that the responses were biased towards a certain demographic. Although the title “Founder” was the most common title (722 people) among the users that viewed my poll, this constituted only 5.5% of the total number (13,076)*.

*I know what you are thinking. I should have used the ratio for actual respondents instead of just viewers. Unfortunately LinkedIn does not provide aggregated profile stats of poll respondents.

Jeans and hoodies are in

40% or 121 individuals said that they would have joined or founded a startup had they had the chance to choose all over again after graduating.

This was more than double of the 51 individuals who chose ‘Climbed the corporate ladder’. But this result was hardly surprisingly to me. In recent years I have personally met many top graduates who have turned down offers from brand name corporates to found or join startups.

What was surprisingly was the fact that, of the 121 individuals who chose this option, they were mostly mid-career professionals. This goes to show that the perception of startups as a much better career option has infiltrated the minds of not just the young and green, but that of the seasoned professionals as well.

I also did a quick scan through the profile headlines of the 121 who picked the first choice. There were 10 users who described themselves currently as founders and a few others who were entrepreneurs of some sort. Most of them weren’t fresh or recent graduates.

Be a bum my young padawan

Right. For the grand finale. So how many chose to travel the world first?

43% or 131 individuals.

That would certainly have been my choice too.

When I was in my late teens a much older friend advised me not to be too eager to step out into the working world.

“You have the rest of your life to work. And if you think about it, working takes up the largest proportion of a person’s life,” he said to me.

He was right. If the average individual started working at 21 and retired in his late 50’s or early 60’s, given the average lifespan it is very likely more than half his life would have been spent working.

But by the time I graduated from university, I had less than $300 in my bank account and I was eager to start my career. My elder brother offered to loan me some money to go backpacking for three months but I turned him down.

I regretted that decision. Years later I advised a hesitant young friend to take a loan from her relative to do a six months exchange program in Paris instead of worrying about the money.

She took my advice and told me she was happy with the decision down the road.

A few thousand dollars might seem like a lot as a student but it can be easily paid back once you start working. Time and youth — you can never buy those back.

So there you have it.

Within my LinkedIn network, the biggest regret professionals have isn’t the choice of career itself. It’s the fact that they should have delayed starting their working life to experience the world first.