“Do you ever regret a decision you’ve made in your career?” This is a question that gets to the root of the entrepreneurial journey. Entrepreneurs value autonomy and self-determination. But, how do they feel when things just don’t work out?
At a pizza lunch last week with some highly engaged young professionals, I was asked this important question: do I have regrets?
My initial thought was to answer “of course not.” I see successful friends provide this answer often, as a way to communicate the subtext that if you are confident and look forward, there is no reason ever to look back. We entrepreneurs tend to be an optimistic lot.
I also considered answering by saying “of course, I look back at prior decisions and sometimes regret that things didn’t turn out the way I would have hoped. I’ve seen entrepreneurs state this as a way to show that they have an element of self awareness. Successful entrepreneurs tend to value self-awareness.
Yet, while either of those answers would have been heartfelt, they would have been fundamentally unhelpful to the asker. It wasn’t about whether he could be like me, it was about how he could develop skills to make the best decisions for himself.
We all make decisions that in retrospect we will wish we had made differently, or had different outcomes. That’s what I ended up answering. Yet, to me, it wasn’t enough to acknowledge the zigs and zags of life, it was about doing two things: acknowledging that a decision was made with the best information available at the time, and owning the results.
The entrepreneurial mindset is to not pretend that all decisions were the correct ones, but to acknowledge that whether right or wrong, your decisions are your own.
Yet a bigger question remains unanswered. How does a young professional get the information and context to make the best decision? For insight, I turned to some local entrepreneurs.
For Elizabeth Shea, founder of Vienna public relations firm Speakerbox Communications, career development starts with taking as much responsibility as possible early in one’s career. Shea says she believes the best career decisions are made by people who are hungry for responsibility and always willing to learn. She tells young professionals to always “pick a project to run and own, ask questions when needed, and deliver.”
Eric Koefoot, founder of PublicRelay, a Tysons media monitoring and measurement firm, agrees. He added two goals for early career development: find out what you like to do and what you do well. The two are tightly entwined. If you like what you do, you’ll do it with more passion and commitment and with repetition, competence develops.
Being willing to take personal risks and push the outward boundaries of personal comfort was a recurring theme, as was the importance of gathering life experiences, which could provide additional context and valuable input into what would make a happy worker.
Happiness with oneself, self-determination and access to a broad range of people to draw upon for advice when facing big decisions were also cited by experienced entrepreneurs.
“Your network is your net worth,” shared Tien Wong, chairman of Opus 8, an investment, advisory, and conference management firm based in Chevy Chase.
The message was clear: to develop a good career path is to create a base of experiences that are informative and enriching. Decision-making is enhanced by having skills and experiences.
So, should one have regrets with the professional decisions that we make?
Reflecting on a decision with regret is a waste of time. Reflecting on a decision made in ignorance is a tragedy.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.