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Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

October 8th 2019

This is part 2 of our 4-part Skill Up guide on career goals, where we reset some common perceptions on effective goal setting and break apart how to think about goals in a creative way, for creative people. Part 1 is here if you missed it. Today, we're diving deeper to explore the foundation of it all: you. We'll also explore the different ways to think about goals so that you can harness their power to drive momentum and progress.

There seemed to be a cultural fetish for hoarding not too many years ago, more recently replaced by a cultural fetish for sparking joy, courtesy of Marie Kondo. Two opposite concepts held by the same thread: that our belongings are intertwined with self. I take our fascination and fervour as a metaphor for a very positive force shaping our lives today: proactive aspiration aka deciding exactly what you want and going for it, an opposite approach to hoarding and being afraid to let go of the past or circumstance.

And this is where we’re starting: by shedding all the things we thought we wanted and painting a clear picture of what we want now. We can, as Marie does, thank the remnants of our past selves, all the dreams and ideas we once held dear, and move forward, lighter than we were, clearer than we were. And from there, add new ways of thinking and doing, including rewiring how we think about goals so that you feel good, motivated and aligned.

Know who you are

Who are you, really? I know this is a hard question to answer. The hardest. But I think the clue isn’t in who we were but more so in what we feel pulled towards, what we’re curious about, where our inclinations lie, aka what we want.

Aspiration is the heartbeat of growth: we adapt to our desires via technology, economy, politics, art, knowledge. We actively create the worlds we want to live in.

When I was a kid, I loved creating mood boards from magazine cutouts. I’ve since moved onto Pinterest to curate visual inspiration. For me, it’s not just a place to hold design ideas or colour inspiration. It’s a mood board for my life. Some people call this a vision board, but I think that term can be an automatic write-off for some. So I like to go with the much less intimidating “mood board”: what do I want my life to look and feel like this year? What am I inspired by? There’s an eclectic collection here, from the kinds of clothes I want to buy to the things I want to learn, the places I might want to go, the “vibe” of my year. Here’s the funny thing: the very first thing I put on my private mood board for 2019 was SuperHi (not even as a job, just as an aspiration to learn), and now here I am, working here.

But really, you have to know what drives you and what gets you going. Mood boarding might not work for you. It does for me because I like seeing the string of connectivity in my life, and I like it when it’s visual. It’s creative symbolism for me.

Motivation is a funny thing but it’s core to how people operate and how we build our own futures. If there’s one thing you can do for yourself, learn more about what is core to who you are and why you do anything you do. What do you value? What do you find interesting? It’s a more approachable way to say what is your passion? Instead of restricting that concept to something many of us aren’t sure we’ve ever really felt, take stock of anything you ever did, that you did because you wanted to. Why did you do it?

“What do you value? What do you find interesting? It’s a more approachable way to say what is your passion? Instead of restricting that concept to something many of us aren’t sure we’ve ever really felt, take stock of anything you ever did, that you did because you wanted to. Why did you do it?”

SuperHi founder and CEO Rik identifies as being driven by competition. So he’s always just looking to get better. There isn’t a set target he’s reaching for, just a vague concept of doing the best thing.

Be open to challenging your own perception of why. I used to think that my whole career path lie in the world of fashion - first design, then business, then technology, then brand. Anything I was interested in, I somehow found a connection to the apparel industry, so I spent a lot of my twenties trying to build businesses in that space, because I also thought I was passionate about entrepreneurship. After reflecting on why I could never stick with any one project (more on that later), I was able to get deeper and realize that it was the concept of being free from boundaries and the industry-intrinsic drive towards newness that really drew me in. Well, that and the sparkly clothes.

So, what is it that drives you? Is it money, knowledge or security? Growth, achievement or being helpful? As Joni, another one of my colleagues, pointed out: our brains get tricky. Before we know it, we’re led down a wandering path that doesn’t quite feel right, because we rode the string of temporary highs that come from achievement. So, understanding what really drives you is key to aligning your goals and moving forward. We’ll leave the why for therapy.

Goals need actions

If there’s one thing that makes the difference between a goal and a dream, it’s action. Without that, you’re just doing wishful thinking. It’s such a shame when that happens too, because deciding on and setting that broad goal is the hard part — but without the last piece, the actions attached to the goal, that goal often ends up going nowhere. And a lot of us, once we’ve decided on the goal, stop right there, thinking that’s it.

Setting that broad goal takes all the infinite possibility in the world and creates a funnel of much smaller, actionable steps. You’re taking a billion+ and narrowing it down to maybe a hundred actions (scale for illustrative purposes). A humble hundred still sounds like a lot, but doesn’t it feel a lot better than a billion? You can’t skip the last bit because if you do, you’ll be stuck in the land of regrets, the world so many of us enter and never leave when we become the person who says “I’ve always wanted to x” but never get there.

So don’t stop at “I want to be x” or “I want to get better at JavaScript”. You’re almost there. Now you need to figure out the how.

“So don’t stop at “I want to be x” or “I want to get better at JavaScript”. You’re almost there. Now you need to figure out the how.”

How do you figure out the right action steps? Make sure they’re things that you can do. Emphasis on you because these need to be things that you have control over, not things that you’re hoping will happen by chance or luck, and do because they also need to have a clear actionable (when I read this, I know exactly what I’m doing). Come to think of it, there should probably by emphasis on can too, because you need to make sure that these action steps, broken down, are things you realistically can do.

Here’s an example:

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  • It’s basically a way of making things easier for your brain to process. As in: let’s figure out the steps and actions while my brain is in goal-setting mode, not when I’m living my day-to-day and have a gazillion other things competing for mental capacity. It’s a shortcut, really.

    Designing projects and experiments

    This is important to realize: goals don’t need to be concrete, unchangeable plans. They don’t need to be forever commitments and you aren’t locked into anything. In fact, don’t expect them to be static. That’s a myth about goals, that they’re all about ambition lockdown. The way I see it, they’re more about cognitive freedom. Goals can change and should change. They need to be flexible because remember, they’re only based on what you want. And unless you never change, what you want could look very different between now and then, just as it was different from 13 to 30, and just as it will be different from 30 to 60.

“Goals can change and should change. They need to be flexible because remember, they’re only based on what you want. And unless you never change, what you want could look very different between now and then, just as it was different from 13 to 30, and just as it will be different from 30 to 60.”

So you may have to start thinking about goal-setting in the context of projects and experiments, letting go of your expectations and self-imposed restrictions. You can and should build temporary projects that are made to live and die. Similar to building yourself a curriculum for reaching your goals, it’s like going to school but way more fun because you’re in 100% control. And, this approach is tailored for anyone who thinks of themselves as creative (that’s all of you!) because think about any kind of artist and the kind of work they do. You can see a progression of their work through the projects they’ve worked on. We can take the same approach for our careers.

If you don’t have a specific goal in mind other than “get better” and all the wondrous fruits that come from growing your expertise, it’s worth examining what “get better” means to you and designing projects around that rather than continually commit yourself to the never-ending next rung. And if you do have a specific goal in mind (“get a job in UX”), instead of outlining skills as actions, use projects with built-in skill development as the action itself.

Here’s a clue as to what approach might work best for you: I once regretted not having a traditional university education, but when I thought about why, I realized that I felt that I had cheated myself out of dedicated, no-strings attached time in my life to learn. So I committed myself to learning through projects, because while I didn’t enjoy sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, I loved having a brief and creating, writing, making something to practice and see the tangible results of my learning. The end of term paper, the design project, the business case study — these are all projects that have their real life versions too. And the great thing is, they’re great career momentum builders. Were you like this? Then keep your eyes open for opportunities and get to work.

Starting small to dream big

One of the toughest things about setting goals is figuring out whether you should “dream big” or start small. Should you orient towards the realistic or the wondrous, the low-hanging fruit or the insurmountable peak? Should you go for the ultimate goal, or the next best “realistic” thing, the backup career?

Hopefully the answer according to me by now isn’t shocking: it’s really up to you and what drives you. Some people need big gains whereas others are extremely driven by incremental progress. The secret is that both could get you from A to Z, but not if you try to fit yourself into one model or another. Career goals don’t have to be larger than life, nor do they have to be “realistic”, even (though the action steps that lead there should be). After all, people do seemingly impossible things all the time. Someone did it. It could be you.

“Career goals don’t have to be larger than life, nor do they have to be “realistic”, even (though the action steps that lead there should be). After all, people do seemingly impossible things all the time.”

If you’re not well-practiced in the art of setting and achieving goals, starting small is a great way to build momentum to keep you going. You can’t really go wrong unless you’re looking at a goal and feel bored by it. That’s a sign that you might need to dream a bit bigger.

Try to stay away from this though: starting big for small or misaligned dreams. Who wants to hustle hard for goals not worth the grind? That’s the quickest path to burnout, doing lots to get nowhere.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for the next post in this 4-part guide to creative career goals, where we explore how to effectively prioritize goals and getting from idea to done. For now, get started on goal setting with our free PDF worksheet.

Read part 3 “Getting to the Finish Line” now.