Career Advice

Charting Your Career Course: Setting Goals for Long-Term Fulfillment

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By Robin Landa

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” – a question frequently posed by prospective employers during job interviews, often leaving candidates uncertain about their future direction. While it’s challenging to predict the distant future, this inquiry seeks insight into your career intentions, your aspirations within their organization, or your broader professional trajectory.

Yet, most individuals, especially early in their careers, find it challenging to envision their paths precisely years down the road. Careers seldom follow a linear trajectory; they weave, pivot, and evolve, and aspirations change along the way.

Career aspirations are typically loose concepts – the desire to achieve greatness or wealth without a clear understanding of what, why, or how. Many start without a definitive direction, influenced by diverse factors including family, opportunity, or financial necessity.

3 Types of Goals

Regardless of the starting point, setting meaningful goals are crucial steps in navigating a fulfilling career path. There are three key types to consider: life goals, macro career goals, and micro or concurrent career goals.

Life goals are the grand ones–the pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow ones. For example, someone’s life goal might be practicing human rights law or playing the cello for a symphony orchestra, or someone might want to be both a human rights attorney and a performing musician, or being a human rights attorney and caring for their nuclear family. Undoubtedly your life goal also includes family, friends, romantic partners, hobbies, leisure, community affiliations, perhaps charitable works, and your overall well being. To achieve a life goal you need to plan incremental goals to get you where you want to be. A macro career goal is a huge one nested within your life goal.

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Macro career goals serve as guiding stars, steering your career trajectory. A macro goal can be a number of major target plans: finding a career that best matches your interests, mastering your discipline, becoming a thought leader in your field, making an impact in your discipline or on the world at large, expanding your knowledge through higher education or continuing education, improving the quality of life of others, or even finding a job that challenges you to grow.

Micro career goals are smaller, actionable goals that you can pursue in tandem with your macro goal. It makes sense to first consider and set your macro goal, and then work backward setting your micro goals to help you reach your bigger or macro career goals. A couple of micro goals could be concurrent as well. For instance, gaining a new skill could be concurrent with arranging informational interviews with potential mentors and industry leaders or networking or attending leadership training workshops. Whereas earning an advanced degree is best as a single goal due to its inherent demands on your time and resources.

“What I Don’t Want” Assessment

 If you’re unsure of what macro goal to set or what would make the most sense, a good way to start is to figure out what you don’t want to pursue. Misalignment of one’s goals and career can be the source of not being fulfilled in your job.

To assess what you don’t want, answer the following seven questions:

  1. Which careers do not suit my personality, interests, or expertise? For instance, if you’re a people person, a career without collaboration or direct interaction with coworkers or external stakeholders is likely not best-suited for you. Or if your expertise or interests lie in the digital space and you have to spend a good deal of your time in-person with customers, well, probably not a good fit either.
  2. Which roles or functions do I not want to perform? Within a general job category, for example, would you not want to perform essential support, operational & technical, supervisory or managerial roles, sales, cross-functional, or other professional roles?
  3. What work-life balance conditions would not work for me? What would not be a sustainable work-life balance for you? Working extremely long hours? Being on call? Work that doesn’t energize you so that you have some energy left when you get home?
  4. What am I not willing to sacrifice? Many professional occupations involve sacrifice of some kind. For example, if you would not be willing to sacrifice your weekends or nights to work for a long time period or time with family due to work travel, that’s good to know at the start. (Though it may be hard to avoid during the early career years.)
  5. To determine whether I will “fit in,” what kind of company cultures would I not thrive in? Think competitive, global, very high management expectations, many hours beyond the conventional work day, lack of world-class talent, fast-paced environment, innovative, performance-based or traditional, or top-down ideas.
  6. What type of projects do I not enjoy working on? Think about whether you would not find fulfillment writing reports, working in a lab environment, working on cross-disciplinary or cross-country projects, administrative work, planning events, systems installations, year-long projects, and so on. (For example, in my university faculty role, I also can elect to be an administrator of an academic program or programs but I don’t relish that; I much prefer teaching.)
  7. What would make me feel down at the end of the day? There are all types of stressors. For example, would any of the following cause mental health issues: multitasking, how management judges your performance, non-inclusive teams, you don’t believe in the work you’re doing, competitive coworkers, a long commute, remote work, poor remuneration, not being intellectually challenged, being overwhelmed with work, and so on.

While these questions may seem broad, they can help you identify red flags to avoid as you pursue your next role or work to improve your current situation — and ultimately give you insights that will move you closer to your macro goal. For example, maybe you discover that you don’t want to perform in a leadership or management role or you don’t want to work in a place that doesn’t offer flexible or remote work arrangements. Knowing this, and given your current expertise and job, are you on the right path?

Visualize Your Goals

Break your macro goals down into macro and micro goals.

Creating a simple tree map to establish a macro goal and then categorize or detail the micro-goals underneath can be an easy and beneficial method. Visualizing your goals in this way helps organize them by priority.

Mapping your goals:

  • Write your macro goal at the top of the page.
  • Under the macro goal, list three micro goals that help you achieve your macro goal.
  • In hierarchical order, number the micro goals, which are concurrent with your macro goal.

Visualizing these goals helps organize them hierarchically, creating a roadmap for progression. Even if your macro goal is uncertain, selecting one closest to your life goal can serve as a starting point, fostering a step-by-step approach to progress.

One Goal Leads to the Next

When you think about the outcomes of your career goals, rather than see each as an end result, try to focus on accomplishing one that leads to the next. And if one doesn’t work out, you have others to work on. Ultimately, understanding and defining your aspirations—both grand and incremental—shapes a fulfilling and purpose-driven career. The time invested in this self-reflection and goal setting is akin to winning a long-term lottery, ensuring continuous personal and professional growth.


Robin Landa is the author of A Career is a Promise, a distinguished professor at Kean University, a globally recognized creativity expert, and an award-winning author and designer. The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.” Robin is the best-selling author of twenty-five other books, including Strategic Creativity, Shareworthy: Advertising That Creates Powerful Connections Through Storytelling, and The New Art of Ideas. Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, among others, have published her articles. Through her teaching, writing and presentations, Landa has had a profound impact on thousands of careers, inspiring and educating countless creative professionals, CCOs, and CMOs, helping to shape the future of the creative industries.

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Much more than a how-to guide, the roadmaps, prompts, inner-directed questions, and self-assessment tools will help you discover what most excites you professionally and how to set worthwhile career goals.

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07/15/2024 05:51 am GMT

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