Monday, March 16, 2009

The one about goal setting...

As promised, this is the one about career goal-setting. The four questions that I asked are essential to configuring career goals and moderating your satisfaction along the way. I have discovered over the years that we have a knack for setting goals that are at the extremes of two axes: One is anchored by goals that are either very specific or very general and the other with goals that are easily attainable or well out of reach. Worse, we seem to forget that the nature of goals is that they exist in the future and yet we aspire to things with the most relevance to the present.

Case In Point.

Several years ago, during a career counseling graduate class, I asked the class to explore the difference between the terms “job” and “career.” They readily understood that career was a dynamic process, while job was nominal construct. One differentiation that I appreciated was “career is what we do all the time, job is what we are doing right now.” The question came up about how counselors should go about the process of choosing job, so I asked the students how they had decided on their current job. One student said, “I really liked my last job a lot better than the one I have now, but I wanted a better car and bigger apartment, so I jumped ship. I hate my job now, but I was able to get a new car and we are in a three-bedroom.”

After some discussion, it became apparent that she hated her new job because she never left the office and the reason that she had wanted a better car was because she had previously been in the field all the time. Likewise, her she had wanted a bigger condo because she wanted more space at home, and ironically, the new job kept her at the office longer. She easily attained her very specific goals, only to discover that they left her a bit dissatisfied. Perhaps she would have made a different decision if she had thought about the four questions we posed last week.

1. Where do you want to be living five years from now? (Ten years, if you are under 35.)

A couple of weeks ago, I made the point that the willingness to relocate was terribly important to increasing your job prospects. Embedded in that advice was the notion that leaving your home grounds may be important to the possibility of doing WHAT you want WHERE you want to do it. When I first sit with career seekers, I pose this question a bit more obliquely by asking, “Where do you want to be five years from now?” I do this intentionally because I realize that most people will interpret it as career process question and they give answers like: “I want to be a professor,” or “I want to be a manager with ABC Widgets.” I then say, “No. I want to know where you want to be GEOGRAPHICALLY,” explaining that if they wish to be living in Minnetonka, Minnesota and they wish to be a nuclear physicist, they will likely have to rethink the where they wish to be or the what they wish to be.

I grew up in small towns in the Southeastern United States and while I remember those small towns as warm and welcoming, from early in my life I loved our trips to big cities. After twenty years in the Los Angeles metro area, I moved back to teach in a small college in an even smaller town. I had a great job that I loved with colleagues that I really liked, but I found myself constantly driving to “the city” for entertainment, culture, and the vibe. I lasted less than two years. It became very apparent to me that I having a great job in a place that didn’t fit me made it… well, not a great job. I have managed on my return to Southern California to find a great job and I get to be in a place that fits me well.

Where you do what you do is incredibly important… as important as doing what you do.

2. Do you REALLY want to complete another degree?

This has become much more salient in the past 18 months. As the economy faltered and failed, more and more students are coming into our center and asking about going on to graduate school. They do this for two reasons: Some think it will increase their chances for that “dream job,” but others are simply trying to ride out the storm in school. I am not sure that either serves as a good reason for pursuing an advanced degree. This is a prime example of my suggestion that we often set goals that are relative to the present rather than the future. Having been in higher education for the past two decades, I have been surrounded by folks who set the goal of a graduate degree with very little planning beyond that. I consistently see PhD students who are approaching the end of their degree program only to realize that they will not be able to stay in the area because the jobs are elsewhere (see #1 above) or they will be thrown into a system which is highly unpredictable (see #3 below). Worse, they find that while they have been in school living as a starving student, friends have begun careers and families and are several rungs ahead of them on the corporate and social ladders.

The essential questions to ask about further education have to do with the extent to which it is requisite for one’s career path. Certainly if you really want to be a doctor or lawyer, education past a bachelor’s degree is a mandatory, but if you are drawn to a career in corporate logistics and planning, it is not as clear that an MBA will be of benefit. Likewise, if you are seeking a career in social work or counseling, it does not appear that a PhD will add any flexibility or earning power to your Master’s of Social Work or Counseling. (Indeed, one of my fondest memories is that of a PhD colleague who chaffed at the fact that the director of county mental health that we worked for only had a master’s degree and made twice as much money as he did.)

The other thing to remember is that graduate degrees, particularly in professional fields, cost a great deal of money. For instance, if you pursue an MBA at a relatively decent school, expect to spent between $40K and $50K per year. (MBA Costs) That means between $80K and $100K to complete a two-year program. While MBA programs claim their degrees increase one’s earning power, it appears that holds true only for the top twenty or so full-time MBA programs. I would suggest that anyone who can get into Harvard, Wharton, or Haas, was likely headed up the corporate ladder anyway, so it is always difficult to say how much a person’s earning power has to do with their MBA and how much should be attributed to their skills and abilities.

Education should be an investment, not an encumbrance.

3. What is more important to you... salary or stability?

This one is quite simple. When I graduated from college, I went to work in the insurance industry. I am quite convinced that had I stayed there (perhaps earning an MBA along the way) I would be making considerably more than I do now. However, during my first three years, I was transferred four times, spent almost thirty hours a week traveling, and was pretty much at the beckon call of my corporate office. This was not how I wanted to live my life. Since then, I have pursued a path that has been offered me more independence and stability. I own a lot fewer suits and ties, but I make considerably more of the decisions that affect me on a daily basis. I have moved during that time, but primarily because I wanted to, not because I had to. I once sat down and figured that these things were probably worth about $20K a year to me.

The biggest myth that people adhere to when setting career goals is the mistaken belief that more money means more stability. Certainly poverty is inherently unstable, but more money is not causal to stability… ask the four or five-thousand investment banker who are looking for a new career because of the current economy. I am not suggesting that financial security is not important, nor am I recommending that you never select based on monetary considerations. What I am saying is be sure when you begin to set your goals that money is not the ONLY consideration.

Although the value of lifestyle is largely intrinsic, it is worth exercise to set it's value concretely.

4. What are the three most positive and negative aspects of your current job?

Here, I’ll model this one for you.

Starting with the negatives.
1. I work for a large institution and that makes change and innovation difficult.
2. Because we are a public institution, resources can often be difficult to come by.
3. The day to day waste is very frustrating for me.

The positives are as follows.
1. I am given a great deal of independence in basic decision-making.
2. The people that I work with on daily basis are bright, creative, and pretty darned cutting edge.
3. Continued education and training are highly valued and generally supported.

Notice that both the negatives and positives issue from the fact that I work at a large institution of higher education.

In some respects, we cannot have the positives without the negative and this understanding is critical to setting goals.

What Does It All Mean?

When I left the insurance world thirty years ago, I violated every single point that I have made in this post. I didn’t think about where I wanted to be, I just thought about where I didn’t want to be. I just assumed more education would help me, instead of calibrating the actual need for education. I made choices based on making money, instead of thinking about the lifestyle that fit me best. Instead of focusing on both the good and the bad of my insurance job, I sought to eliminate the bad. My first real job was in a very small non-profit agency, with very little protocol, that let me wear sandals and shorts to work. After a couple of years, I realized that all of the other pieces were important, too.

As you look to the future and begin thinking about goals, remember to do them holistically. I sometimes remind students that the present only exists as the intersection of our past and future… the plans we make based on the experiences we have had. Change is inevitable, so it makes sense that our goals and expectations will change as well. Better yet, our goals must be created so that they are concrete enough for us to aspire to them and flexible enough to change when the wind comes from an unexpected direction.

Oh yeah. About that tree thing. I'm pretty sure I would be a magnolia tree.

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