The One Question to Ask Yourself Daily to Achieve Your Career Goals
What job can my resume get me? What should I say in an interview so I get the job? These are two common and completely useless questions students ask when meeting with me. I get the appeal of these particular questions -- they offer a deceiving sense of certainty, of finding the one right answer that’s going to get you the job or internship. The truth is that there isn’t one simple answer to career success, but there is one simple question you can ask yourself every day to ensure you are moving in the right direction: What one action are you taking today to move closer to your career goals?
Once you’ve explored your options and identified which career you’d like to pursue, you want to move toward achieving those goals. That’s the moment in the coaching relationship when I introduce available resources and discuss possible actions. That’s also the moment when I catch a look of despondency in my students’ eyes as they realize how much time and effort it takes to secure a position that will put them on a desired career path. In that moment, it’s easy to become discouraged and avoid even starting. Therefore, I remind students that as overwhelming as the work seems, focusing on small steps is key.
“I’ve learned from interviewing lots of guests that achieving your goals is a culmination of small steps and choices that you take every day that add up over time,” says John Lim, host of the Moving Forward podcast. “It goes back to that old saying it only took 20 years to become an overnight success.” A question Lim asks each guest is “what’s one small choice or activity you did today to help you move forward?” It’s my favorite part of the episode because it shows that even those who seemingly have it all figured out need to keep thinking about the next step. Whether it’s the snazzy internship at a big-name company, the core network of meaningful connections or hours of volunteering at organizations in need, accomplishments along your career journey take small steps, and that simple question can help you stay on track. Below I’ve listed three reasons why asking yourself this question works:
It Allows for Attainable Goals
You may have heard of the importance of setting SMART goals when planning for the future, and one aspect of a smart goal is that it’s attainable. Depending on your schedule each day, you can decide whether to spend two minutes, twenty minutes or two hours on your career. The amount of time is not as important as the fact that you spend some quality time on your career each day. For instance, you can attend a networking event or a professional seminar, schedule a 30-min coaching appointment, listen to a podcast episode, send an outreach email to an industry expert or simply read an article on a topic of interest. No matter how small the action, at the end of the day, you should feel good about yourself and know that you have moved forward.
“Small steps are realistic and doable,” says Lim. “If you look at any large goal only in terms of the end point, it can seem very daunting or impossible to achieve.” And when a task seems insurmountable, you are less likely to start working on it. That’s where breaking the large goal (a successful and meaningful career) into bite-sized actions can be of great value. “If you ask yourself 'what small choice or activity can I make today to move forward (toward that goal),' you’ll establish a mindset and framework that will much better position you for future success,” adds Lim. The small win at the end of each day reinforces a positive attitude that is key to continued productive behavior and success.
It Prioritizes Consistency Over Intensity
In one of my all-time favorite TED talks, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban, co-founder of Wait But Why, opens with a story about writing his 90-page senior thesis in three days because he couldn’t quite motivate himself to start ahead of the deadline. His now-funny story points out an important lesson: Waiting until the last minute to accomplish something meaningful often doesn’t work. That’s especially the case with activities that don’t come with hard deadlines, and pursuing a dream career is for many people one such activity. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Career development is a process that requires consistent attention, and the earlier you start working on it, the more valuable the process will be.
As a career coach, I see bursts of energy from some students at certain times of the year and I also see students who slowly but surely advance in their career exploration every single day. The latter are more successful in the long term. If you want to review all resources today and talk to all industry experts today and research all possibilities today, you will face failure. Instead, focus on starting small and doing at least one thing every day that brings you closer to your goal. As Lim points out, “whether it’s an author who has written a bestselling book, an entrepreneur who has built a successful business or an artist who is performing on film or stage, the one commonality I see in all of them is that their successes and achievements result from many small incremental steps taken over many years.”
It Reminds You That Career Development is a Lifelong Process
Whether you are in the beginning, middle or end of your career journey, taking at least one small action each day can help you focus on where you are going and what’s yet to be achieved. In addition, your career goals and aspirations may shift as the world of work changes, and this question can ensure you are doing what’s needed to move in the direction you want to go. Course corrections are inevitable across your lifetime, so when you find out that what you are doing is no longer what you want to do, start taking small actions to move in a different direction.
According to the World Health Organization, one-third of your adult life will be spent at work and your physical and mental well-being very much depend on what that work is. As such, you may want to make conscious and educated decisions on what to do career-wise throughout your lifetime. My role as a career coach is to help students achieve that. Career coaching is not about getting you a job or an internship; it’s about teaching you the skills and intentional practices that help with long-term career planning and professional and personal well-being. Career management does not need to only be the focus of mid- or high-level professionals. Even if you are still in college, think about your current activities and engagements and reflect on their value for a life of growth, meaning and financial stability. Today more than ever, career management is the responsibility of the individual, and that means you.
So, what’s one action you took today that moved you closer to your career goal?