Written by Russell Johnson
The most fulfilling careers are not accidental. They’re based on long-term commitment to a meaningful and compelling career vision or purpose, and a well-conceived strategy to achieve it. It’s important to understand this, because:
- We humans are purposeful creatures by nature. As illustrated by Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs, when we achieve one set of purposes, there’s another one waiting, in a potentially lifelong progression to higher levels of fulfilment. A long-term commitment to a path that we find meaningful and compelling is the ultimate project.
- The tension created by embracing challenges is key to our mental health, which is key to how we experience our lives. As Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist, Auschwitz survivor and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, stated: “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 added “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”.
- And we can now confidently add another reason. Through an ever-increasing number of well-controlled studies, it’s being consistently demonstrated that a compelling purpose is important to physical health, too. We can all imagine the threat that serious illness could pose to the life we want to live, so this is another valid and worthwhile reason to focus on developing a compelling vision, if you need any added motivation.
The Only Sequence That Succeeds
A focus on the short term – on tactics rather than on a compelling vision and a strategy to bring it about, is a sure route to long-term harm in your career.
Unfortunately, most people are running their careers on the level of tactics.
Real success requires sustained effort – but by itself, that’s not sufficient. The effort must be sustained in a consistent direction, generally over a considerable period, to create the sort of value that makes us exceptional contributors.
There’s a natural progression, from Clarity, to Strategy, to Tactics. It only works in that direction. A tactical focus doesn’t lead to either clarity or to strategy. Over time, it will worsen your situation, because in the absence of a compelling vision, your efforts will be subject to continual redirection. Without a consistent direction and the satisfaction of increasing skills and results, motivation, and marketability, inevitably diminish over time.
This is why the methods that most people use to change jobs are so damaging; they start from the wrong point. And from there, they become progressively more limiting, and more demoralizing.
Developing or Clarifying Your Vision
You’ll need to find the core of your career vision. It needs to be something that you find exciting, so it could be a set of conditions that you want to experience in your life, and to see in the world. This can then function like a template for the person you’re going to become through making the difference that you want to make.
Think expansively. You’re choosing your ideal life. At the end of the journey, you should be able to look back on it as a great adventure. Don’t short-change yourself. Choose to become the best version of yourself that you can imagine. Your commitment to this might be hard at first, but the longer you devote to it, the more it will become a labor of love.
When developing your career vision, it’s important to ensure it’s aligned with all of your priorities in life, including areas such as relationships and leisure. Don’t let feelings of being locked in stop you. You are not as locked in as you might imagine; but the price of exit usually increases the longer we spend on the wrong path, so aim to get it right as soon as possible.
There will be other environments, other cultures, where you can succeed without becoming someone you don’t want to be. None of us need to do that.
Once you have a broad career vision, it will become more focused over time quite naturally, as long as you’re prepared to revisit it frequently enough.
Every day would not be too often.
Developing Your Strategy
We all need to assume personal responsibility for growing in the direction we want to grow, because we can’t expect our employers to take that responsibility. Why? It’s largely because the world of jobs is focused on getting people into jobs that need to be done, then making them productive in those jobs and keeping them there so attention can be directed toward other issues. The urgent and the expedient override the important, and people stagnate as a result.
Those who are seen as high potential will generally be offered new challenges if such challenges are available. However, all too often the challenges that arise are not the ones that would best serve the future of the individual.
None of us can afford to entrust our futures to an organization. They all have their own priorities, and those at more senior levels cannot be expected to place our priorities first; they will naturally see the needs of the organization, or the part for which they’re responsible, as more important.
Remember the saying (usually attributed to Sun Tzu, the author, 2,500 years ago, of The Art of War):
Strategy without tactics is the slow route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
We each need our own career strategy, so what’s the meaning of strategy? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:
A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim
Here’s a definition you could use that will relate it directly to your career: your strategy for your career could be your plan to create the conditions you want in your life. Because after all, that’s what a career is for, isn’t it?
Just remember that the conditions you want are in your life, not just in your job, because your job should be a key enabler for the life you want, not an impediment to it. So the conditions you want will almost certainly include things that you can’t get in your job, but only through it (or through having a job that does not impede them), such as:
- A happy and successful family
- Membership in and contribution to a social group to which you strongly relate
- Robust good health
- A stimulating adventure and a life well lived, creating the legacy that you have chosen
Your strategy, then, would be your plan of action to achieve all of these, through your career. It would of course also include the outcomes you are aiming to achieve in your working life.
Don’t Paint Yourself Into a Corner
Lack of a sound strategy will inevitably lead over time to ‘painting yourself into a corner’. It will leave you with progressively less options and less satisfaction in your career, and ultimately it’s very likely you’ll be forced into decisions and actions that you don’t want to take.
If you have a well-developed strategy, on the other hand, it will energize you. You’ll be motivated by the knowledge that setbacks are temporary, and you will be able to see mistakes as simply learning experiences that were necessary for you, because you didn’t yet have enough clarity to avoid them.
To develop your strategy, it’s essential to clarify who you want to be and what you want your life to be about. Think in terms of getting to know yourself better, because lack of conscious awareness is what keeps most people disempowered and stuck at lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Be prepared to embrace imperfection. You will be able to see more in the future than you can now. And as your clarity grows, you can fine tune your strategy still further. Just accept that it’s a journey and that you will need to do some deep work on this over an extended period.
It can be some of the most rewarding work of your lifetime.