Sometime in your childhood, you were first introduced to the concept of setting goals. Maybe it was when your mom or dad sat you down and asked you what you wanted to do when you grew up. Perhaps it was when your coach had you take a knee at the team's first practice and talked to the team about getting to the state championship. Possibly it was your fifth grade teacher who knew you could do better and set some lofty goal for you to achieve by the end of the year.
Regardless of who it was or what the circumstances were, we've all been exposed to the myth that in order to succeed, you first have to have a goal. Is that true? Do you have to have a goal to be successful? Have you even asked yourself this question? I didn't for a really long time. I was always on board with the idea. It made sense. Indeed, goals do work. They motivate you into action. But despite the positive aspects of goals, they can also be damaging.
First of all, they stress you out because you are always working under a state of manufactured duress. You'll feel like you're constantly racing in order to reach a certain target in a certain time-frame. If things take longer than anticipated or if something doesn't work like it's supposed to, you're in a whole other level of freak-out.
Having ambitious goals can also be a recipe for disaster because people are willing to cut corners, cheat, or over-rule caution in order to reach a goal. This happened with the Challenger mission, where an engineer told NASA that there would be an issue with the launch in cold weather. The higher-ups were getting impatient because the mission had already been delayed several times. No one survived because everyone was hell-bent on meeting their goal.
Of course, for those who haven't achieved their goal (for less disastrous reasons), they get depressed. And if you were close to reaching your goal, but just missed, it's even more depressing. Consider this fact: Olympians who get the silver medal are generally not as happy about their accomplishment as those who receive the bronze medal. Why? Because if you win the silver medal, you dwell on what you missed out on - the gold medal; however, if you win the bronze, you think about how you almost didn't get on the podium at all. I suppose the happiest athletes of all in the Olympic Village, are those who go into the competition with no expectations put on them, who are just thrilled to be participating, and then end up actually succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.
Then, there is the let-down after the goal has been reached. Let's say you made the goal to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company by the age of 40 and you actually manage to do it. For a few days or weeks, you'll be really happy, I'm sure. But then you'll start to get this nagging feeling. "What do I do now?" you ask yourself. If you're like most people, you'll come up with some new goal to chase. You'll get right back on that hamster wheel and start all over again.
It's a vicious cycle. One that most of us are all too familiar with. Fortunately, there's a better way.
Take a Systems Approach
A goal has a single, specific objective that you'll either achieve or fail at some point in the future. This approach to your career has several flaws, as we discussed earlier. You either reach your goal or don't; you don't consider other options; and if you reach your goal, you feel like you have to make another goal to chase. It's a fragile state at best, even for the most high-achieving person. Even if you never make a mistake (which all of us will do) you'll burn yourself out in this continuous "goal - achieve/fail - goal" cycle. Honestly, it's no way to live.
A simpler way to approach your career (and life in general) is to use a system instead. I can hear your first question already, "What do you mean by a system?"
The easiest way to understand a system is to consider the old phrase, "Life's a journey, not a destination." Where a goal-oriented life focuses on the destination, a systems-oriented life focuses on the journey. A system is all the things you do on a regular basis that improve your odds of having a more successful career. As a systems-oriented person, you may have a vague idea of what you want to do, but there are no deadlines and there are not exact steps or formulas to undertake to get you there. You are flexible. You realize that "success" for you can be measured many different ways and that there are a variety of paths that you can take toward your success. Because of this, success is almost guaranteed. Even "failure" is a step towards success, not away from it.
What a Winning System Looks Like
A winning system is one of self-discovery and growth that will lead to bigger and better things. This could include doing such things as training, volunteering for projects, or taking a new job. A winning system opens you up to a wide variety of possible avenues you can take through the course of your life and career. So without further adieu, here are a few factors to consider when devising your system.
Discover Your Strengths
This is the first step to having a system that's going to work for you. Knowing what your strengths are will help you decide if you are pursuing things that match your abilities and talents. Yes, you want a system in which you are learning and growing, but your ability to learn and grow is limited by your strengths.
For instance, if you're not naturally inclined for math, even if you get trained by the world's greatest accountant, there's only going to be so much you're able to retain and understand on the topic. Accounting is a good skill to learn, but you need to understand that you're probably not destined to be an accountant. Instead, make sure your career moves dovetail with your strengths and you are stretching them as far as they will go.
Develop Useful Skills
The second step, after you've figured out your strengths, is to start expanding your skill set beyond those skills you already have. Obviously, skill development should still be centered around what your core personal strengths are, but there are some skills that could be developed that will be useful in almost any career. Things like public speaking, business writing, design, psychology and persuasion, conversation, and technology, are all good things to work on. You don't have to get to an expert-level on any of them, but they will help you in your career.
Never Fail, Always Learn
No one is perfect. We all mess up at some point in our life and career. The beautiful part about a system is that what feels like failing to the goal-oriented person will feel like learning to you. You tried something that didn't work. What can you learn from it? Maybe there's something in what you did that could be done differently next time for a better result. Perhaps you learned that you really don't like doing it and will avoid it moving forward. Whatever you take away from your mistakes will only make you stronger in the long-run.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in his book, Antifragile, "He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has sinned only once. And someone who has made plenty of errors - though never the same error more than once - is more reliable than someone who has never made any." For every mistake you endure, there's a lesson to learn and grow from. Don't run away from mistakes, embrace them.
Pursue New Opportunities
Once you feel you've learned all there is to learn from a job (no, not after the first year, you job-hopper!) it's time consider the next thing. It used to be considered a virtue to stick with a job for years and years. You know what happened to those virtuous people who followed through on this idea? They got laid off and lacked marketable skills to get another job quickly. I understand that it's comfortable to stay somewhere, especially when you have a good reputation and people respect you there, but it's not healthy for your career. The longer you continue doing the same thing, the more pigeon-holed you become.
By always looking for better options, you'll gain experience in different capacities, develop new skills, and meet new people to add to your network. Think of it like a video game in which at each level, you acquire a new weapon that you will need for the next level. So it is with a job. You learn and hone a new skill that you'll need for the next job. Some skills take longer than others to become proficient, so take the time necessary to learn it fully before moving on.
Explaining Your System to Others
Because people are often goal-oriented instead of system-oriented, your path might not always make a lot of sense at first glance. You'll need to explain it. You don't have to get into the details of each skill or experience you're trying to learn at each step of your career. What you want to accomplish is to show them how you're actions are consistent and logical.
For instance, between a couple of HR roles that I had, I worked as a Data Analyst for a public school district. It seemed out of place on my resume with all my other Human Resources experience. When I applied for a Recruiter role later, I was asked about it. I explained that in the future, I had plans to pursue an opportunity in HR Information Systems or an HR Analyst role. Because I already had a significant amount of HR experience and needed to do something where I would be working with large databases. I then told them about how the job at the school district was a great opportunity to learn this skill and made me better prepared when such an opportunity would arise in their company.
It's really as simple as that. Just help them understand the motivation that led you to each job. What were you trying to learn or develop and how will this skill help them? There are good ways to demonstrate this in your cover letter and resume, as well as during your interview so that it makes sense.
What's Your System?
While the principles outlined here are universal, everyone has a different idea about what they want to do with their life, and with each idea is a different system. You are unique and so should be your path to success.
If you feel like you need help getting started and coming up with ideas on how to pursue the skills that will benefit you the most, perhaps a good career coach can help.