I regularly ask this question to team members, colleagues, friends, and even my spouse.
Why? Because I believe a clear goal should guide each step we take, every minute that we spend. I believe in living consciously. Ironically, in modern life, we tend to have the clearest visions when we choose to let loose, to get away from work, to go on vacation. Our weekend and vacation plans are sometimes more structured than our career plans.
How do I know this? One in two people I ask this question to doesn’t have a clear answer. They are too busy with the day-to-day to reflect on their long-term goals. They focus their effort on what their boss or team needs of them today. Or they simply haven’t had a need to think about their goals yet. They just want to get a new job, or get the next promotion. Why think long-term if there’s a logical next step? Why spend time finding a problem we passionately care about when I’m already doing something seemingly valuable?
Because that is leadership. To react to external forces is not. Reacting without a clear goal in mind translates into doing everything that others want, without knowing what we want. Over time, we get frustrated at best, and feel lost and confused at worst. In my opinion, leadership starts by leading one’s life.
A big part of my role as a manager is thus helping people define, refine, and make progress on their personal career goals. In this blog post, I’m going to share three guiding questions to help answer “What do I want to accomplish in my career?”
1. What do I passionately care about?
What problem do I want to work on?
To find a passion is to find a problem we want to tackle. A problem that speaks to us, and that energizes us more than other problems. This demands us to explore our values, to acknowledge our past, and to identify what motivates us.
There is an infinite number of problems in the world. People dying of diseases is one we can all relate to. Or the need to clothe people fashionably. The need to educate children so they become valuable and responsible adults. The need to protect our environment so future generations can depend on Earth for survival. The list goes on… The hard part is understanding ourselves enough to be able to identify which problems speak to us and which ones don’t. The more we learn about ourselves, the better our choice will become.
Is a problem more or less important than another?
In my opinion, the most important problem is one that I care about. A problem that I would lose track of time working on. It’s a sign that it makes me happy. Assuming that life is about being happy, how can anything else be more important?
One of my professional aspiration is “To breakdown barriers preventing us from understanding each other.” It speaks to me because I have friends from diverse ethnic, demographic, and cultural backgrounds, but I hate to hear about one group of friends speaking negatively about another group of friends, often based on incorrect assumptions. I also love opening my mind to different lifestyles, especially when locals from a foreign nation open their doors to me, and allow me to see a part of their daily life. I would love for everyone to experience that. To appreciate different mindsets, values, lifestyles, and not fear each other.
There are many ways to work on my aspiration, which leads to the next step…
2. What is my final destination?
Guided by our aspiration, it’s time to choose a goal that also fits our values, capabilities, and interests.
Ideally, what job position, role, or life do I want?
Thinking ideally at this step is important, because if we do not know what we want in an ideal world, then how do we know what we want in a constrained world?
For example, there are multiple options available if I aspire to relax. I can go to Disney World; I can stay home and watch TV; or I could travel to a beach in Bali. All are sound options, but I have to choose one that fits me. If I have a family and a week off, I may choose Disney. If I’m on a limited budget or simply don’t feel like going anywhere, I may choose to stay home. And if I want to explore a foreign country, I may visit Bali. There exist many ways to fulfill our aspiration. The final destination is a choice that we have to make.
One of my friend’s ideal role involved being in command of his organization’s Research & Development strategy. He wanted to shape the development strategy of future products. That came about from his aspiration to create new products and bring new value to the world. He didn’t stop there. He also wanted to spend morning and evenings with his family, and also travel for at least 2 to 3 months every year to explore new perspectives. That sounds like a pretty clear career goal to me.
Is thinking ideally unrealistic?
It’s unrealistic if there are physical factors that are impossible to surmount. For example, we can never have more than 24 hours in a day, we can’t defy gravity, and we cannot be in two places at once. These are constraints we have to account for. For everything else, we can think Bold.
The fact that our ideal vision seems impossible or very difficult to achieve today is OK. Our final destination is not meant to be achieved today. It’s meant to serve as a guide. To give us direction. Some may say that we’re thinking too small if we work on a problem we can solve in a lifetime.
Should we ever arrive at our final destination, we will surely seek a new one.
3. What are possible paths to reach my destination?
Let’s first acknowledge there are multiple paths that lead to our final destination.
For example, if we’re going from New York to Disney World to relax with our family, we could fly there or we could drive there. If we drive, there are dozens of routes that all lead to Florida. We could even choose to take a detour to Pittsburgh to visit family before heading south. Which path we take is up to us, depending on our priorities, values, interests.
Where am I now?
Before choosing a path, it helps to acknowledge our current position. In the context of a professional career, this translates into our current role, abilities, skills, assets, resources… This defines our starting point. Our starting point may be closer to the final destination than we thought, which would be great. It could also be further than we thought, which is OK. The goal is to start taking conscious steps toward our end goal.
I had a friend ask herself “Where am I now” to unfortunately recognize that her role existed for no other reason than the fact that it existed before. Her job didn’t have a clear purpose or direction among the organization’s strategy. While it was a sad realization, it allowed her to set a new course for herself and move away from the current death trap.
What are my options?
With a clear starting point and final destination in mind, we can now identify all potential paths. What are possible first steps? What could follow after that? What do we envision happening if we took those steps? What do our friends, mentors, advisors think?
This is the moment to be creative and to avoid being bounded by existing structures. If one wants to become a professor at a university, sure he or she could get a PHD and start teaching. But if the individual doesn’t want to spend 5 years at school, there are other, creative ways to achieve the same goals. For example, many corporate managers and executives teach at business schools. Universities also enlist adjunct professors and guest lecturers that teach part-time. The point is that there are many possibilities beyond what is “common”.
A schoolmate I went to college with had the desire to lead her organization’s Quality Assurance division in an effort to streamline operations. Yet her organization didn’t have such a role available. QA was split across teams, each responsible for its own program. She identified several options to achieve her goal: 1) Merge all QA teams into one organizational department and lead it; 2) Create and lead an office that shares best-practices across QA teams; and 3) Outsource QA and manage that work. She then proceeded to investigate the pros and cons of each option, detailing potential outcomes of each scenario, and what changes needed to be made. She pitched her ideas to the CTO with help from her boss, recommending, in her opinion, the best option for the company. The result was that her organization saw the benefit of changing their QA programs, and asked her to lead the effort.
Which path do I pick?
Why not start with the one that will make us the happiest (it may not be the easiest or most probable, but one with the biggest reward)? Let’s rank our options from the most appealing to least, and start with our top choice.
Let’s also expect to face resistance and challenges along the way. Creative solutions will always face resistance. Let’s simply learn from any opposition and keep experimenting and iterating.
Can we take on multiple options at once?
Absolutely. Depending on what options are available, it may be convenient to try all paths at once. Let’s however be aware that the more initiatives we take on in parallel, the less energy and effort we can dedicate to each.
Do you know “What you want to accomplish in your role?”
What do you aspire to achieve? What does the final destination look like? What are plausible paths from where you are today to where you want to go?
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