In many ways, our lives are about choices. Whether it is deciding between job offers, taking the plunge on a new entrepreneurial venture, or accepting a promotion that means moving out of state, these choices have consequences for our relationships with both friends and colleagues.

In this podcast, Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, explains how the science of regret shows that staying connected to friends can make us healthier and happier throughout our careers. He also clues us into how regret can motivate us to strengthen our friendships.

Then Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and author of the book What’s Your Story?, offers advice for staying in touch with business contacts as well as friends. A "Letter to the Boss" that updates colleagues on your professional achievements and challenges can remind them of your progress and keep you top of mind when other opportunities arise.

Podcast Transcript

Jessica LOVE: Neal Roese is the author of the book, If Only, and a professor of marketing at the Kellogg school. He has made a career researching the psychology of regret.

Neal ROESE: Psychological studies of regret have as their background basis the study of counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is all about our mental capacity to think about what might have been, things that didn't actually happen but could have happened differently.

LOVE: Most of us are aware that our lives are a series of choices, and that some of those choices preclude other choices. Our minds still like to game out the what-ifs of such choices, long after the decisions are made.

ROESE: For example, I had made a particular career choice to become a psychologist, but I could have been a dentist. Sometimes I think what would my life be like? I could have my hands in somebody's mouth right now. It'd be really great. I did this from a very early age thinking about forks in the road, things I could have done differently. You might say I'm a compulsive naval gazer.

LOVE: And whether we are navel-gazers or not, we realize that these points when we choose one path over another can have profound effects on our career and our relationships. Perhaps a move to a new city means the loss of close friendships, or a step up the career ladder leaves less time to socialize.

Roese's research shows that the path we choose at these forks in the road can also have a profound effect on our mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, he’s found that feelings of regret can lead to depression and anxiety.

In other studies, he has found that one of the things we consistently identify as being important is connections with others, in particular our close friends. Which means that losing close friendships is something we are likely to regret later.

Welcome to the Kellogg Insight podcast. I’m your host, Jessica Love. Today we’re going to hear from producer Fred Schmalz about what the science of regret can teach us about keeping in touch with our friends as we move through our careers. We will also hear about a tool one Kellogg professor recommends as a way to stay in touch with colleagues near and far.

Stay with us.

[Music Interlude]

ROESE: A lot of young professionals will be thinking about, how do I best manage my career versus my marriage or my relationship? And if I have kids, I've got to find a balance for taking care of my children. That's all very salient. It's all very top of mind. What’s less top of mind is the power of friendships to create a better life.

Fred SCHMALZ: That’s Neal Roese again. In Roese’s research into counterfactual thinking—and how “what-ifs” shape us—he finds that regret can have a powerful influence on our subsequent decision-making.

So while it may be easy to see the importance of maintaining our family ties, we tend not to realize how much we’ll regret letting our friendships flicker out.

ROESE: I think that most people have a moderate degree of recognition of the power of other people in their lives to make them healthier and happier. But I do think that that message starts to register more as people get older. There's a fundamentally different psychology of thinking there's all this time ahead of me, I can do whatever I want, versus I don't have much time and I really have to emphasize the things that matter most. I don't want to waste my time on things that to younger people seem perfectly reasonable.

SCHMALZ: For many of us, friendships tend to slip down our priority list as we make career moves. When we—and those around us—switch jobs, employers, even cities with any frequency, it’s easy to go long periods of time without reaching out to friends.

You may be thinking: But I still keep up with my high school friends on Facebook and Instagram.

Unfortunately, Roese says, online connections are often less satisfying than the in-person variety.

ROESE: We realize that the power of a close physical connection is paramount. You cannot make a really deep connection by using media. It has to be face-to-face, and there’s something incredibly valuable about that. The closer these personal relationships, closer psychologically and physically, the better the health outcomes that we observe.

SCHMALZ: But not all friendships are created equal.

So before you start reaching out to all your connections and filling up your social calendar with reunions, Roese recommends you spend some time thinking about exactly which relationships you want to nurture, and go for quality over quantity.

ROESE: So again, younger people, you might be thinking ‘Oh, more is better, more friends is better I'll do more things and I’ll fill up my time with all these things without necessarily recognizing that there's variability in the quality of the connections. Whereas, several older people that I talk to feel it seems like they come to a junction, a place in their life where they realize my time is now so precious that it cannot be squandered with social interactions that are bad for me... and so they find it easier to make that break, and make that cut.

SCHMALZ: And if you’ve lost an important friendship? It turns out that the sadness that comes with that regret can actually come in handy as you work to nourish other relationships.

In one research study, Roese asked participants questions about quote, unquote “negative emotions.” Things like anger, fear, guilt, and, yes, regret. He found that people viewed regret more favorably than unfavorably. And he found that people ascribe great worth to regret. Participants said that of all the negative emotions, regret was the most helpful one when it comes to making future decisions.

ROESE: You might have heard some people say, "I live my life with no regrets." I think there's actually rather few of us that truly do. The people that say that, for the most part, are engaging in an avoidant coping strategy. What they're saying is they're trying to avoid or ignore their emotions. Whereas, others of us actually do better, but with a more active coping strategy, which means you recognize a problem, you recognize the emotion, but then you take active steps to correct it.

SCHMALZ: So don’t be too quick to push aside thoughts of the friend you never hear from anymore. Remembering and regretting that loss can help motivate you to strengthen the friendships you’ve kept.

If you need additional motivation to connect with friends, consider this: If you don’t reach out, not only are you likely to regret it later, but Roese’s research has shown that this regret is likely to last a long, long time.

ROESE: Well there's just one question that people keep asking me over and over again, which is, do we regret more the things that we do versus the things we didn't do?

Overall, looking at the typical American, it's a pretty even balance. However, the big difference is in how long those regrets last. And so, the things we didn't do tend to haunt us longer. It sits in my imagination and I unpack it and think about it and poke it around a bit day after day, and it tends to last longer.

[Music Interlude]

SCHMALZ: So it’s important to maintain close personal connections as we get older. But what about maintaining active ties to our career contacts and connections? How do you keep in touch with that consultant you sat next to at a conference three years back?

Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg, is interested in how business leaders present themselves to professional contacts in a way that encourages connection.

Craig WORTMANN: The key lesson is that we should be striving to communicate well, very cleanly, in a very tight space, very beautifully with the people that we care about, the people that are trying to help our careers, or that we just report to or are responsible to.

SCHMALZ: One tool he recommends for keeping in touch is something called a “memo to the boss.”

WORTMANN: it’s very simple and… boss should be in quotes, because it doesn't matter who the memo is to.

A "Letter to the Boss" might look something like this.

SCHMALZ: The “memo to the boss” is an easily digestible one-page document that explains what you’re working on, what you’ve already done, and what you could use some help with.

Wortmann encourages people to send it to their contacts—a wide range of contacts—on a regular basis.

WORTMANN: You can do it with your network. You can do it with LinkedIn. You can do it with your Kellogg buddies, and you can certainly do it at work.

SCHMALZ: Why should you do this? Well, the memo’s exact PURPOSE is going to shift from situation to situation. If your memo is going to a new boss, it might be about making a strong first (or second, or third) impression.

But if it’s going to former coworkers you haven’t seen in years, it’s a great way of breathing some new life into those older connections. Because... why not?

WORTMANN: You never know what's going to happen with those. Let's say you reach out to ten people in a given quarter. You're reactivating people you haven't talked to in three years. One of those is going to reach back to you and say, "Wow. It is so good to hear from you." That may turn into a coffee, and that may turn into a business relationship. It often does. And I have no idea what the math is, but the math is in your favor.

SCHMALZ: This is something he recommends to people at all stages of their career, by the way. And yes, he does it himself.

But if you’re going to bother to write and send a memo, go all in.

WORTMANN: You wouldn't send your mom an email on her birthday, probably. You go and you get a card, and you write the card. That's simply what I'm asking people to do, but it's consistent.

When I say beautiful, I mean beautiful. Beautiful design, colorful, graphics, not tons of words, probably your picture on it.

SCHMALZ: That might seem like a lot of trouble for an email memo. But a savvy memo distinguishes you from the scrum of everyday communication that we are constantly besieged by—what Wortmann calls the “information landfill.”

WORTMANN: We think we're communicating with our bosses or our constituency through email or Facebook posts or LinkedIn, and those are all valid. I'm not disparaging them, they’re valid forms of communication. This is something special.

SCHMALZ: Wortmann recommends that the memo land regularly, and at least quarterly.

WORTMANN: They know it's coming. You're predictable. "Oh, my gosh. Here's this thing from Fred."

Whether they read it every month or every quarter or not, it doesn't matter, but you, the benefit accrues to you because you're the person consistently sending it.

People go, "Oh, she's the one that always sends that memo. I love that memo. I look forward to that memo."

SCHMALZ: Your memo to the boss—well, one that actually goes to your boss—might include a list of steps you’ve taken toward your goals, people you’ve met with, recent insights you’ve had, and upcoming meetings or conferences you’ll be attending.

Wortmann says it’s important to mention more than just the good stuff you’ve done. Be honest. Bring up your failures, too.

WORTMANN: When you say in written form on a memo, "Here's what I'm struggling with," that is an honest representation, because things are not always perfect.  I think there's a disadvantage to showing up in any situation, any communication situation, and being overly perfect or polished. You're just working at it, and it's very genuine. And that's what I think makes you magnetic.

SCHMALZ: And your memo doesn’t have to be all about you, either. Think of it as an opportunity to ask people in your broader network questions about themselves, their lives, what thrills them about what they’re working on, and what’s keeping them up at night.

And think beyond your career, as well.

Wortmann recommends adopting this format to send regular updates to friends and family as a way to strengthen connections—or to show loved ones what you are up to.

One of his MBA students did just that by writing a memo to his fiancé about his progress planning their wedding.

WORTMANN: He had a… I think it was a booze-o-meter about how much money they were spending on alcohol on the wedding. It was just absolutely hilarious, but also rich. It actually got work done. The memo like gave her an update on what he was responsible, on the wedding what he was responsible for.

SCHMALZ: Back in the professional world, Wortmann is starting to notice businesses creating personalized video spinoffs of the “memo to the boss” concept as a way to nourish connections with customers.

WORTMANN: One of the things I'm seeing on YouTube increasingly is businesses thanking their customers via a very, very quick video, and they just— it's a handheld. They're holding their phone out in front of them and they say, I just saw one on a vineyard. "Got your order for three cases of our Merlot. I just want to say thank you on behalf of the vineyard," and they're standing in the vineyard. That stuff makes a huge difference.

[Music Interlude]

LOVE: That was reported by Fred Schmalz, who notes that you can find an example of one of Wortmann’s “Memos to the Boss” on our website. So check it out.

This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was written by Anne Ford.

Special thanks to guests, Neal Roese and Craig Wortmann.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, Google Play, or our website, where you can read more about making personal and professional connections. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another Kellogg Insight podcast.