Career goals guide us on what we need to focus on right now to achieve a larger purpose. Goals offer a sense of control and support us to prioritise current activities, as well as signal what needs to be in place to manage future steps.
However, to succeed, it's necessary that what we identify as a 'goal' is something that we genuinely want (or need) to accomplish. If we don't connect with our goals - say, because they reflect someone else's desire or a whim - then the essential ingredient of achievement, that is self-motivation, won't show up.
Ideas are useful conduits for creative thinking, but if those thoughts don't become anchored to an intention, they'll drift away. We often struggle to identify career goals that we can commit to - not because we lack ambition, but because REAL goals can be tough to nail. So before launching into a 'how to', a couple of thoughts on HOW NOT to approach goal setting.
Don't reduce important concepts to simplistic 'big questions'
tackling something as multi-textured as your career plan with questions like:
Where do I want to be in 12 months/ three years / five years?
What do I want to do with my career/life?
If money was no obstacle, what would you do next?
when you are actually searching for an answer can overwhelming, and result in a mental shut-down. Further, this approach often leads to you saying something like: 'I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up'. Seriously, people say that to me all the time and they think they're being amusing and original. I hear it enough to see it as a sad cliche.
Don't edit before your create
using a goal setting discipline such as SMART before you are clear on what you want to do limits your possibilities and interest. I think we need to open up our minds, get curious, think through and test our ideas before we bring in the red pen. SMART is an excellent discipline, and quality check, but save it till you're ready to build some structure into goals.
My recommendation on creating a career goal is ... that you start with a draft concept which includes a range of elements that matter to you: such as work preferences, competencies, environment, values, professional development, income, location and so on.
So, rather than asking one overwhelming question, ask yourself a series of related questions to build a series of statements on what you want. Here are some to get you started:
- What kind of work do I enjoy doing? What would I like more of/less of in my next role
- Geographically, where do I want to work?
- What team structure/culture is best for me?
- What management style/support will help me do my best work?
- Are there areas of my skillset I need or want, to develop? What types of roles or organisations can give me this experience
- How much do I need/want/expect to earn? What does the market pay?
- How do I want to feel at the end of my work-day (satisfied, challenged, thoughtful, buzzing, ready to do more)
- Culturally, what kind of work environment suits me?
- If I stay with my current company/role, will I continue to feel secure? Is it a culture that will support my professional growth? Can I still contribute and be satisfied?
- Do I want/need to do professional development? Specifically What? Why?
The list is by no means comprehensive - ask these questions, or similar questions to tease out your thoughts and then begin to pull together a draft statement, such as :
In 12 months, I want to be working with an international bank's investment team as a senior analyst. I want to focus on market and economic research, contributing to corporate and commercial strategy. I'll use my skills and experience, and have opportunities for professional growth. There will be formal professional development programs, including mentoring. My preference is a focused 8-hour work-day, with minimum expectations for out-of-hours work activity. Salary expectation is $X.
This is a draft goal - and if it holds real meaning, you'll feel comfortable connecting with, and building on it. Over time, you'll finesse the content and wording, adding in structure and timelines. Like streams heading towards a river, career goals are adaptive and respond to opportunity, setbacks and diversion. However, they also have determination. Giving yourself the time and space to set your direction is a valuable exercise contributing to your career success (and satisfaction).
If you would like to explore an overarching life/career purpose, you might find this post on finding your mission interesting.