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Thinking About “What Could Have Been?” You’re Not Alone!

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Have you considered a previous fork in the road and wondered, “if I had taken that other path, what would my life have been like?” Do you find yourself wishing for that life?

According to my research, people spend a lot of time thinking about their forgone professional identities — the life they might have had if key events had turned out different. Maybe a social worker thinks about the life she might have had if she had become a veterinarian instead — something she seriously considered doing at one point in her life. Surprisingly enough, many people have a forgone identity!

So, what’s the big deal? Dwelling on your forgone identity can interfere with the way you treat other people at work. Specifically, thinking about “what could have been” leads people to feel a sense of longing—an emotion which, in turn, can lead people to withdraw and can reduce their willingness to help people around them at work. That is, spending time thinking about “how things could have been” reduces our connection to others around us.

So, what should managers do? Employees should have permission to turn their thoughts into action by crafting their jobs in ways that suit them best. In our study, we found that job crafting, or redefining your job to incorporate your motives, strengths, and passions, can mitigate the negative consequences of forgone identity dwelling. For example, the social worker described above may find ways to incorporate therapy dogs into her work with children. In short, managers may consider encouraging employees to be a little bit creative in the way they execute their work tasks. Doing so not only reduces the negative consequences of dwelling on “what could have been”, but it also demonstrates support for employees and can increase trust between managers and employees, along with a host of other benefits.

The next time you find yourself wondering about what your life would have been like if you had taken that other path, consider ways that you can incorporate aspects of that into your current work role. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results!

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