Before you achieve your career goals, you first have to define them.
We all want to get ahead. Whether personally or professionally, moving up is exciting — it's a sign that you're doing well and are on track to do even better. But maybe you've been in the same job for a while and are starting to feel stuck. How can you get out of the rut to actually make those advancements happen? It all starts with setting goals.
Defining your career goals is a key part of getting ahead professionally; long-term goals, in particular, are what will guide you to your ultimate career bliss. Setting them may seem easy enough in theory, but when it comes time to actually thinking through your goals, things often get murky. After all, “be successful” is a bit vague. To help with this, we've outlined five steps that career-savvy professionals can take to define and begin achieving their career goals.
Step 1: Define your dream job
While setting long-term career goals and motivating yourself are great ideas, achieving your dream flows first from defining it. After all, how can you hope to achieve a dream that's not clear in the first place? This enigmatic exchange in “Alice in Wonderland” between Alice and the Cheshire Cat illustrates the importance of a well-defined goal: “Tell me, please” says Alice, “which way I ought to go from here?” To which the cat justifiably answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” A befuddled Alice counters, “I don't much care where.” The cat's retort? “Then it doesn't matter which way you go.” When we are Alice-like, we tend to be just as unfocused and muddled in our thinking.
Related: Ask Amanda: How Do I Find My Dream Job?
If, like Alice, you're unsure where you want to go next, give this exercise a try. Pull up a chair, turn off your electronic gadgets, grab a pen, and close your eyes. Reduce or remove distractions where you can. Now, with your eyes closed, think about moments in your childhood when you felt the most at ease. Perhaps you enjoyed playing a musical instrument or gravitated to the art supplies beckoning to you from your older sister's desk. How about all those pickup games of basketball? Ever pretend that you were the teacher and that your stuffed animals were your students? For me, I remember designing my own word games and crossword puzzles, a foreshadowing of my lifelong love of words. The things we loved as children helped define us, and it's in these memories of play that we may find important pieces of who we still are, even to this day. Use this information to help drive your long-term career goals.
Oftentimes, there's a creative way to use your current soft and hard job skills in a field that truly interests you or echoes your childhood interests. For instance, you may no longer want to pursue a career in medicine, but you could apply your existing sales experience in the healthcare field. Think about how you could take an interest from your childhood — or even a recent passion — and incorporate it into your career path.
If you're still unsure of your long-term career goals, give these job-goal exercises a try.
Step 2: Write it down
Once you have a clearer idea of what your dream job looks like, it's time to document your goal. After you land this dream job, how would things be different? What would it mean for the other aspects of your life? What would your office look like, how would you dress for work, and what would you be doing? How would you feel? Writing down your goals and spelling out what success will mean to you will help your goals feel more real. Also, studies have shown that you're 10 times more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down.
The famous comic actor Jim Carrey has often related the story of how he struggled to make ends meet before he made it big. He was living out of his car while going out on auditions and following casting notices, but he soon had a novel idea to cement a particular goal in his mind: Jim wrote himself a $10 million check and dated it “Thanksgiving 1995.” Viewing it often eventually wore out the piece of paper, but the very act of writing the check created a path to lead him towards his goal. His intention — to make millions of dollars by that date — may not resemble your own goal, but Jim Carrey was able to make his goal concrete by writing it down. Visualizing and achieving success is easier when you have clarified specifically what you wish to manifest in your own life.
Step 3: Break it down into short-term goals
Now that you have a better understanding of your long-term goals, think about what you can do in the next two years, 12 months, or even six months to get one step closer to your ultimate goal.
Let's say you want to find the sweet spot between your passion for cutting-edge technology and your desire to take on a leadership role that involves strategic planning and impacting an organization's bottom line. As a result, you may determine that your long-term career goal is to be the Chief Operating Officer for a high-tech startup. If you know you need extensive management experience to be considered a COO candidate, your short-term career goals should include obtaining a management position where you can begin to develop your managerial skill set and working in the startup world to gain relevant industry experience.
When you begin your next job search, target jobs that you're qualified for and will provide you with opportunities to build the skills necessary to land your dream job in the long run. In addition to gaining relevant work experience, also explore professional development opportunities such as online courses, additional certifications, and mentorships that will help you develop the right hard and soft skills to move your career in the right direction.
Step 4: Make each goal measurable
Once you've outlined the incremental steps it will take for you to reach your ultimate career path, it's time to create short-term career goals that are S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Your goals will be more effective if they take into account where you are now, where you want to be, and most importantly, what action you need to take to get from Point A to Point B. Once you identify your end goal, hold it in your mind and think about it often — but don't stop there. Research what it takes to be considered a prime candidate in your industry. From then on, it's just a matter of frequently revisiting the S.M.A.R.T. goals that you previously set to make sure that you are on track to reach them.
Here are some sample S.M.A.R.T. goals:
Complete my PMP certification within the next 12 months.
Attend at least one industry-specific networking event per month.
Research online course options to supplement my work experience; select one course to pursue by end of this month.
Step 5: Create an action plan
Now that you've broken out your goals into smaller, attainable tasks and goals, it's time to take action. Make a list of your resources — people you know, online tools, programs you have access to at work, etc. — that can help you accomplish each of these steps.
As long as you are diligent in following the action plan that you have formulated, you'll start to feel the fire that is kindled by advancing toward your career goals. If you're searching for a job, being clear about what you want in terms of roles, industries, and organizational culture will not only make the search smoother, but it will also be easier for your extended network to help you and for hiring managers to see you as a great fit. But whether you are starting from scratch on a new path or looking to move forward on the one you're already one, defining your career goals is an important first step to achieving the success you've been craving.
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