Our world, our companies, the technologies we use, and jobs are changing at a faster-than-ever pace. If ten years ago you asked your role models where they would be in their career in 2012, the majority would not respond with what they are doing now. Situations change and we adapt. But if the fate of our future career is unpredictable, how can we prepare ourselves? If we can’t predict what job we will be at in five, ten, or twenty years, can we even make a long-term career plan? I think we can and we should.
Set Your Direction
Start by following the typical career planning advice someone of an older generation might give you. What would you have to achieve to consider yourself ultimately successful in your career? This is mostly an emotional decision, so go with your gut. It will be a different metric for everyone. Is it a certain salary or bank account balance? Is it an international acknowledgement of your expertise? The launch of your own business? An innovation that changes lives? A CXO title at a respected company? Early retirement?
While there is no right answer, you can certainly go wrong here. If you don’t know what you want to achieve, you will have a difficult time acknowledging your success when you get there. If you are uncertain or go through the motions doing what is expected of you, you may follow the wrong path, and you may not feel successful even after achieving great things.
To make the move from idealistic to realistic, keep in mind your ultimate career direction when setting and forming goals and seek to integrate it with your daily activities.
Still in planning mode, identify key opportunities and experiences that will enable you to reach your ultimate career goal. Write these down—identify specifically what these opportunities would look like. It is important to do this step before an opportunity comes along, because without identifying what it looks like, you may not notice when it is right in front of you.
This is the way to integrate your big picture vision with daily action. To capitalize on a good opportunity when it presents itself, you have to first know what it will look like. In our day-to-day, we are busy, we get carried away with deadlines, and more often we fall into the trap of doing things we want to do rather than things that move us toward what we ultimately want.
When faced with difficult decisions about your priorities, switch back to thinking two or more steps ahead again. Favor roles and activities that will maximize your options in the future.
Focus on Now
Last and perhaps most important, define your annual goal to transition from planning to action. Consider your ultimate career goal and think about what opportunities you would like to take advantage of. Then, ask yourself: What do you really, really, REALLY want to happen over the next year? Spend some time to think about this. Envision what you want to know, be, see, have, feel, etc. by today’s date in 2013. Feel free to brainstorm many possibilities, but in the end, limit this to what you are most interested in achieving within the next year.
Since you are probably now left with a fuzzy picture of your desires without being quite sure how to make them happen, the next step is to operationalize those dreams. Take that vague priority and turn it into concrete, behavioral, approachable action items.
Work backwards to define what would need to be implemented to make that priority possible. Break up quarterly targets into monthly goals, and further define monthly goals into weekly agendas. Your to-do list should, in some way, be connected to the annual objective you set. If not it is not, you are simply busy without a purpose. That connection between your schedule, your annual priorities, and your ultimate career goal creates laser-like focus.