When most people think about their careers, they tend to think 5 years out and picture the job they would like to have. From there, they back into the things that need to happen, and use that as a bit of a roadmap to get to where they want to be. This works well when you know with precision where you want to be, but what happens if your future isn’t quite so certain?
Treating your career as a destination can make it extremely hard to adjust as conditions change and events unfold. Worse yet, it can subordinate the entire journey to a single thing that exists for mere moments. It is practical and frequently more rewarding to keep your focus on the journey rather than the destination.
The problem with destinations
When I talk about the journey vs. the destination, I am not trying to suggest that you should not have goals. It is healthy to regularly revisit your career path, check how your motivations and desires change over time, and think through where you want your career to go. Without diligent introspection, you are left to meander through your career without ever really having a direction.
But when setting career objectives, we frequently focus on the wrong things.
For example, years ago, I had my eyes fixated on a VP of Product Management position at my former employer. The title became a bit of an obsession for me. I was the “Head of Product Management” at the time, which was essentially code for “The First Product Manager in a Group Too Small to Have a VP”. That didn’t matter though – on the org chart, I was right there reporting to the head of the business unit. So I set my sights on that VP title.
At first it was just an aspiration, but the more I thought about my career, the more I wanted that title. I was aware of the title and what I considered “clear line of sight to it” (meaning I didn’t report to someone else higher up in product management). I was so hyper-aware of the position that when a superior in another business unit suggested my boss hire a VP of Product Management, I was extremely upset.
I walked into this individual’s office with a head of steam preparing for a fight. I demanded why he had suggested my boss hire someone above me. He asked me two simple questions that changed everything. Do you think you deserve the VP title now? Of course not. I was a senior product manager with about 2 minutes of experience. I had done nothing to earn the title. What is it about the title that is important to you? Umm.
The problem with destinations is that they are useful for setting end points, but they are only useful insofar as they represent the actual direction you want to go. If you don’t know what you really want, a destination can actually be more distraction than help.
In my case, I had geared myself up for a particular title, which ultimately didn’t reflect any of the things that were important to me. I had set my eyes on this title largely because it symbolized more – more recognition, more power, more money, more responsibility, more everything. And in setting more as my destination, I essentially ruined any chance I had of enjoying the journey.
Without understanding what I really wanted, setting a title amounted to little more than a meaningless fixation. Worse than that though, in setting my eyes on the title, I ended up neglecting the things that actually would have made a difference, both to me personally and professionally. Rather than worry about how to acquire skills, I was immediately more concerned with how to get promoted.
Forgetting the journey
There is a remarkable thing that happens when you forget about the journey. The act of getting to the destination ceases to have meaning. The progress you make everyday becomes less important to you. You gauge progress not on how far you have come but on how far you have left to go. In doing so, you end up missing a lot of the things that make work worth doing.
Taking pride in a good deliverable? Only if it helps get you promoted. Rejoicing in a team member’s success? Well, it didn’t really help you out. Celebrating a big win along the way? Too busy setting up for the next milestone.
That’s not to say that you end up giving up all the little things that make the journey worthwhile, but you really do start to sacrifice a lot of perspective. In the absence of that perspective, the journey becomes less enjoyable – more required grind than choice. And with the drop in enjoyment, your demeanor will invariably suffer. We all think that we can hide what is bubbling under the surface, but none of us really can.
Focusing on the journey
So what does focusing on the journey really mean? First, understand that a title or a position or even things like power and recognition are basically snapshots in time. They are great things to have but seldom things to fixate on. For most people, things like title are really a proxy for the real desire: recognition, impact, power, compensation, autonomy, whatever. You would do much better to identify the underlying desires, because as I found out, there are lots and lots of ways to get to what is really important.
If you care about impact, you might select projects that are less sexy but have high impact. If you really want recognition, maybe you gravitate towards projects that allow you a chance to exceed expectations, which is a different goal than being point on the largest project at the company. If you want compensation, you might find that a straight-up conversation about compensation is actually the right path forward. The point is that there are all kinds of ways to to get what you want. Focusing on the real desire, though, is the only way to identify them.
Second, you need to know that your destination will change over time. As your life changes (building a family, for example), you might find that what used to matter is not as important. If you treat the destination as the thing, it could be that by the time you arrive, the destination no longer matters. Fixation prevents you from adjusting. We know that rigidity in business is bad, but somehow it’s good in life? No way.
Finally, a purely destination-based focus steals little wins from us. Improvement is a reason to celebrate. The process of learning is a reason to celebrate. Progress towards a goal is a reason to celebrate. If we constantly measure ourselves based on how far we have yet to go, we run the risk of never renewing ourselves through celebration. It turns out that our careers are not like a marathon with some fixed finish line against we can constantly measure. Those of us who really push will always move the finish line out because we get uncomfortable if all of our goals are too close. In an environment with a perpetually changing finish line, the only opportunities we get to feel success are when we realize how far we have come. Focusing on the finish line feels more like chasing a mirage.
The bottom line
It is cliche to say that life is a journey, but it absolutely is. And work is no different. Too many of us don’t spend enough time understanding why we are setting destinations. We pick something and move forward. It’s not surprising that so many people feel burned out along the way, or even worse, unsatisfied when they get there. Fulfillment, both personal and professional, requires more than just setting a goal. Fulfillment requires purpose, and that in turn requires dedication to both the destination and the journey.[Today’s fun fact: The first lighthouse to use electricity was the Statue of Liberty in 1886. I didn’t realize it was a lighthouse.]
Read more: Mario as a Metaphor for Your Career