Strategy is essentially a plan of action to achieve an overall aim.
Any more limited context is tactics instead. And tactics must follow strategy. In its absence, they will produce unwanted results. So to develop strategy, we must begin by defining our overall aim.
In war, where the concept of strategy originated, its purpose lies in winning not just battles but the war itself. Ultimately, however, the purposes of war are usually decided by political rather than military leaders. Military strategy, therefore, is also limited by its context.
In contrast, career strategy imposes no such limitations. But this freedom necessitates a wider perspective; we must know what kind of life we want to create.
Few people do know this. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who developed the famous Hierarchy of Needs and who proposed self-actualization (and ultimately self-transcendence) as the full attainment of life’s potential, stated, ‘It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
We can of course adopt a tactical career focus, e.g. by making retirement our real goal. This leaves the necessity for a strategy that will yield the life we want unmet – usually with negative results.
We actually need an abiding sense of meaning and purpose. As the psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
“To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health… What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal.” He went on to state that “Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people” (emphasis mine).
Thus, a sound career strategy requires deep clarity about our purposes in working. Such purposes can encompass having the best life we can envisage, in all of its aspects from relationships to health and vitality, wealth and well-being, contribution and even legacy. Strategy based on such levels of clarity generates side benefits that include high level mental and physical health as well as contribution to human progress.
The great mistake in career strategy is to replace it with tactics – a sure way to ‘win the battle and lose the war.’ Effective career strategy is based on clarity about the life we want to live, since ultimately, that is why we work in the first place. It protects us against the buffeting that results from short-term thinking, enables us to maximise our contribution and fulfilment, and supports every aspect of a successful life.