Setting Career Goals: Taming the Monster

Setting a course that leads you to, and through, a great career is one of the most important tasks you will ever take on. The mileposts along that course are the goals and objectives you set. Choosing the right ones is clearly critical to your success.
Everyone wants to be successful. But what is your definition of success? Is it only a matter of making a lot of money? Does it also require spending your working life doing things that matter to you, that you love, that nourish your heart, mind, and soul? Several recent surveys of working Americans (e.g., Taleo, 2/08) say essentially the same thing: about six out of seven hate either their job, their boss, or both. Does that sound like success to you? Think you’re stuck with it? If you do, read on.
The popular view in the developed world, and probably beyond, is that hard work at something you may not enjoy is the key to success. The problem is that it just doesn’t fit the facts. Here is some evidence to support that assertion.
Srully Blotnick did a study with 1,500 business school graduates, following up with them 20 years later (from 1960 to 1980). In the beginning they were each asked which of two career approaches they would use. Category A (1,245 graduates, or 83%) advocated making money first so that they could enjoy it later in life. Category B (255 graduates, or 17%) favored doing what interested them most, what they loved, in the belief that the money would follow.
In a follow-up survey 20 years later they found that of the 1,500 participants, 101 became millionaires. Only one of them was from Category A. The other hundred were from Category B. In other words, among those in the study, those who did what they loved were 488 times more likely to become millionaires within 20 years. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.
The author of the study observed that “the overwhelming majority of people who have become wealthy have become so thanks to work they found profoundly absorbing…Their ‘luck’ arose from the accidental dedication they had to an area they enjoyed.”
Clearly it is critically important to choose your goals well, and choose them on the basis of what you are most passionate about. Start with one grand vision. What would you just love to be doing by the end of your career? Initially, forget how you are going to get there. An ounce of passion is worth more than a ton of discipline, because you will do things for your passion that you would never do by forcing yourself.
“Divide and Conquer” is a well established and successful method used by the business and technical communities. It means that any project, no matter how extensive, can be broken down into smaller sub-projects. And these in turn can be further broken down. By following this process, you eventually arrive at tasks which can be done right now–today! Having practiced this approach in a wide variety of situations, I can say without a doubt that it really, really works. What seemed overwhelming at first, once broken down far enough, becomes simple and manageable. Career building is certainly no exception.
Start by finding the heart of the matter: where do you want to be at the end of your career? Then backtrack and list the things that will have to happen before that is possible. Then, starting at the earliest point, break each of them down into smaller and smaller increments, prerequisites if you will, until you arrive at tasks that can be put on a schedule and accomplished more or less immediately. When you have finished those, you will be ready to go after the next level. When you have done it all, guess what? You’re there!
For example, say your true love is floral design. You want to be a highly regarded expert with your own TV show. A lot will have to happen to get you there. Let’s look at just one part of one sequence: knowledge. You might take a 2-year course from a local Community College. That begins with finding a school, then registration, then completing the coursework. Each of these is a sub-goal leading to the final goal. If you want your own TV show, you will need to learn about visual presentation, public speaking, etc. As always, just break it down until you can schedule it.
Although it is not always possible or practical, it is very helpful to express your goals in terms that are measurable in some way. What will you need to know? How much cash do you need to accumulate? How much education will you need? With measurable goals, it is much easier to know when you have successfully met them.
The larger the project–and crafting a career can be pretty extensive–the more you need good tools and a command of their use. In the 21st Century, many of the tools will involve computers and software. Basic skills like typing, good written communication, online research, facility with spreadsheets and word processors are among them. When it comes to creating things, like a career, there are also specialized tools designed to facilitate creativity and organization. Spend some serious time collecting the tools that best suit you and learn to use them well. It will be more than worth the effort.
Whether you are just out of school, or a grizzled old veteran, career building is a virtually lifelong process. The skill you develop in this pursuit will cast a long shadow over your entire life. Take it seriously, but don’t forget to have fun, too. In important ways, your life depends on it.