Most of us would rather think long-term about our careers, rather than wandering randomly to seize perceived opportunities and avoid pitfalls. But how can you adopt a strategic lens when you may not be quite sure where you want to end up? The author offers four strategies: 1) Start figuring out what you don’t want. 2) Choose one direction as your ‘preliminary hypothesis’ for where you want your career to go. 3) Double down on your basic skills and knowledge that will make you better, whichever direction you ultimately choose. 4) Take stock of your emotional and mental energy. One of the most important elements in thinking strategically about your career is understanding that our lives are in cycles — the author calls it “thinking in waves” — and we need to recognize where we are in that process.
It’s not that it’s easy to achieve our long-term career goals. But if you know what you’re striving for, at least you’ll have an idea of the process: start with the end in mind, work back to the present, and do it diligently.
But for almost all of us, the past two years have distorted the trajectories we had. Fundamental elements were turned upside down, from how we work (the widespread shift to remote and hybrid arrangements) to geography (11% of Americans moved during the first year of the pandemic alone) to where we work (before the labor market recovered , the International Labor Organization estimates that 114 million people lost their jobs in 2020). That has not only shifted the starting point for our career planning; in many cases it has also changed our understanding of what is possible and what we actually want.
For some, there is added clarity: I want to live close to family, or I just want a job where I can work remotely, or it’s time to start my own business. But for others, the disturbing truth is that we just don’t know for sure. Most of us would rather think long-term about our careers, rather than wandering randomly to seize perceived opportunities and avoid pitfalls. But how can you adopt a strategic lens when you may not be quite sure where you want to end up? Here are four strategies I discovered in my research that can help you achieve your long-term goals — whatever they turn out to be.
Decide what you don’t want
We often put enormous pressure on ourselves to know our future direction. This is partly because people naturally dislike insecurity, and sometimes because we fear losing status with others if it seems like we don’t know what we’re doing. But that pressure can lead us to prematurely decide on a course of action that may not be appropriate. Instead, I advise my clients to take the opposite approach: make it clear what you don’t want and then take steps to prevent it. It’s much easier to identify things you know you hate, rather than thinking about a hypothetical future.
For example, you may decide that you never want to work for a micromanaging boss again, or you are done with your current industry, or you no longer want to work hands-on and take on only advisory roles. Those are extremely useful bits of data to build a more realistic picture of what you do want by asking yourself, how can I make sure I avoid these things in the future? Those decisions will likely lead you in the direction you want to go.
Developing Preliminary Hypotheses
We all know it’s impossible to do everything at once. And yet it is difficult to resist the temptation of too many goals. Instead, we need to become disciplined and narrow our focus. Elizabeth, a professional I’ve profiled in my book Reinventing You, was interested in six possible career paths. It could be a huge waste of time researching them all, preventing her from making real progress with anything. But instead, she took a methodical approach, collecting “data points” about each profession (ranging from informational interviews to reading industry analyses) to find reasons to rule it out (e.g., the weekend hours required in a particular profession). , may it is a non-starter).
This process enabled her to focus more intensively on a small number of promising avenues. Think about how you can narrow your options (perhaps, as above, by focusing on what you don’t want), then choose a direction as your “preliminary hypothesis” for where you want your career to go. You can always change your mind later, but you have made an informed choice and will be working strategically towards a plausible goal.
Make progress on the base
In science, “basic research” focuses on increasing our understanding of fundamental phenomena — how the brain works, or the principles of physics, for example — while “applied research” translates those findings into practical, practical applications. In our career it is of course great to be practical, but only if we are sure of the direction we want to go. For many of us, the myriad of professional choices we can make lead to paralysis of decisions and no action at all. Stasis is clearly not a good career strategy.
What is much better is to focus on the professional equivalent of basic research and focus on fundamental skills and knowledge that will make you better no matter which direction you ultimately decide to take. Learning to code in a particular computer language may not be helpful if you decide to forgo technology, but becoming a better public speaker or sharpening your time management skills is likely to be helpful in almost any profession.
Take stock of your emotional and mental energy
The past two years have been exhausting for everyone, but we’ve all been affected differently based on our circumstances (working remotely and living alone? Constantly harassed by a spouse and children?). One of the most important elements of thinking strategically about your career is understanding that our lives are in cycles – I call it “thinking in waves” – and we need to recognize where we are in that process.
You may be languishing during the pandemic, but now feel ready to shake off the numbness and dive into new projects with zeal. Or maybe you’ve spent the past two years working to the extremes of your limits, just trying to keep everything together. If so, now is probably not the time to go all in at work. Instead, you may need to manage your energy and recognize that the best thing you can do for your long-term career success is to take a well-deserved break, whether it’s a more formal sabbatical or just recognizing that it’s OK is to pause on creating ambitious new goals for yourself now – and avoid beating yourself for that choice.
Short-term pressures always affect our long-term career planning, and that’s especially true when we’ve been through a collective crisis period. Even if we’re not quite sure where we want to end up, following these strategies can ensure we’re taking the right steps to move away from what isn’t working for us, and toward a future that seems more hopeful.
This post How To Progress With Your Long-Term Career Goals was original published at “https://hbr.org/2022/03/how-to-make-progress-on-your-long-term-career-goals”