The 3 Keys to Achieving Your Career Goals

Who doesn’t want to improve and achieve their goals? Sounds like a rhetorical question, I know. I can’t name anyone within my professional circle who wouldn’t have some desire to “take it to the next level.” In this blog, I take a closer look at the three factors that will determine your ability to make serious and deliberate progress towards your goals, whether they are personal or professional. This will help you move in the direction of “better” instead of sitting on the sidelines, magically hoping for a better tomorrow.

Whether we want to become a more effective leader, open a business, obtain funding, reduce our stress level, take our company public, or improve the quality of our marriage, we all have goals, large and small. But we can get stuck along the path to achieving them and sometimes we may not even get started. In the spirit of celebrating the start of the baseball season, you can’t get a base hit, let alone a home run, if you don’t step up to bat with the specific goal of hitting the ball. Whatever your desired, future state might be, “better” is what you want it to be, not me. I’m not here to tell you what “better” should be and I’m certainly not here to judge. Furthermore, to make sure we don’t just talk about this conceptually, we’ll look at a practical approach to achieve that goal for you or your company in three straightforward steps.

I formulated these steps after hundreds of hours coaching clients across a wide spectrum: brilliant college kids, early-career professionals, mid-career folks wondering "what's next?," entrepreneurs, and accomplished executives. The common thread is each person wants to take their performance to the next level.

There are three key ingredients to achieving your goal:

  • make it clear,
  • make it approachable, and
  • make it important.

Let's look at each of these in more depth.

  1. Make it clear

Clarity, or concreteness, is the answer to “what”?  It’s the green light, signaling you can go to exactly where you want to go/take it. The operative word, is “exactly.” You must have a precise understanding of what success looks like. Without this clearly defined goal, how can you possibly “go?” Go where? You need to know where you are headed.

Imagine a somewhat benign scenario/illustration where you ask your friend to join you for lunch.

You:     “Wanna go to lunch?”

Friend: “I’m game!” … both of you hop in your car and you start driving...


You:     “Where do you want to go?”

Friend: “I don’t know.”

You:     “How ‘bout sushi?”

Friend: “Aw man, I just had sushi last night.”


You:     “Italian?”

Friend: “Meh, pasta gives me gas.” … this goes on for another 10 minutes as you aimlessly drive around…


You:     “how about we grab a burger at the diner?”

Friend: “Sounds perfect. Let’s do it!”

Something magical happened when you decided to go to the diner for a burger. From that moment, the abstract notion of going to lunch turned into a very concrete goal. It’s not until you had a clear understanding of success that you were able to take a very deliberate step (drive) towards where you are going; the diner for a juicy burger. You immediately laid out a map in your head on how to get there. There isn’t a doubt in your mind.  You’re about to be eating a burger and you know exactly where and what that’s going to be like. The satiating feeling when you take that first bite… you can almost taste it.

Tip: When you have a desired future state towards which you want to work, make sure you have a vivid picture in your mind of what that is.

  • Succinctly articulate (perhaps to a confidant) what that “future state” looks like.
  • Ask yourself how, exactly, you will know when you’ve achieved it?
  • What other indication might there be to let you, or anyone else, know you’ve arrived?

Now that you know your precise destination, the only thing that’s left to address is your motivation to actually go for it. Motivation is stepping on the gas when the light turns green. It will be driven by how (relatively) important it is for you to reach for that goal and how confident you are in your abilities to successfully do it (self-efficacy). Sounds simple enough, almost anecdotal, but let’s peel back a few layers and see what this means in real life. How can you ensure to make progress towards your goal, once the light turns green?


  1. Make it approachable

You need to make sure your goal is approachable and that you have the confidence to begin working toward it. This confidence is frequently referred to as “self-efficacy”.

You’ve heard the saying “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right”. When you think you can do something, you gain confidence, and you are much more likely to mobilize and go for it.  And now that you are in a position to start with the end in mind from the perspective of your desired future state (established in #1), you are much more likely to make progress. Begin solidifying your plan and jump into action. Remind yourself very few errors are irreversible, unless you are jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

But what if the goal is truly monumental, and you don’t even know where to start. All of a sudden, your confidence begins to wane, and along with that the likelihood of any progress. 

In a case like this, recall a time when you achieved a similar goal:  how did you get there? what steps did you have to take?  How can you apply what you did, or learned then to your current situation? Any goal worth pursuing you will likely not reach in a single step. Also, break it down into smaller steps you are more easily tackle. Once you start moving in the general direction of “success”, your confidence will grow. Small steps lead to big changes, so what would be a good, first, small step in the direction of where you want to go?

Tip: If you are unclear as to how to reach a desired future state:

  • Small steps - think “small steps, big changes”.
  • Recall past success - Look back at past successes in similar scenarios. What did you do back then, that you can apply here?
  • Learn from others - If you don’t have past successes (in that area), do some research, educate yourself, ask for advice from experts.
  • Try an experiment - Remember, experiments are not meant to always succeed. They do, however, frequently lead to new awareness. After each experiment, ask "What did I learn? What has been validated or invalidated?"
  • Maintain a positive perspective – See failures as new learning, not as failures.
  1. Make it important

You will need to understand the relative importance and full weight of what difference you will make, or experience if you achieve your goal? What benefits will you enjoy? What disasters will you avert?

Once you have clarity about your plan, you can leave your comfortable, less productive, status quo state and begin making progress towards the next level.  Think of it as being in your car. When you know where you are going (driving), and you see the light turn green, you can confidently step on the gas.

What if you know where you are going, you know how to do it, but you’re still not making progress? This is where the notion of “make” (it important) comes into play. For example, if you want to lose weight. You may know what losing 10 pounds would look like, what it would feel like, and how to get there. But you also enjoy food, and not always the healthy kind. Given a choice to work out or take a nap, you’ll choose the latter, thank you very much. How can you change your perspective of this situation such that losing weight becomes more important to you? More important than eating unhealthy foods or skipping too many workouts.

This is why I used the term "relative importance", above. In life and in our careers, we face daily choices between many competing ideas and activities. Say, you can perform A or B, but not both. If A is more important than B, you’re far more likely to make progress towards A, not B.  How we spend our time reveals the importance we place on activities. Often, the importance is not a conscious decision we make. You may choose sleeping and eating over working out. The only way this situation will ever change, is if you shift your perspective.

As an example of perspective, imagine I put a coke bottle between us. I ask you to describe the Coke bottle. You notice the Coca-Cola logo, that the bottle is half full, that the top is off, and you notice the trademark by the logo. Now it’s my turn.  I don’t see the logo from where I’m sitting. I notice the ingredients and the nutritional facts. Whose description is correct? Well, we both are, but the answers we gave were a function of our perspective. Ask yourself some powerful questions which (figuratively) cause you to walk around the coke bottle to see it (the situation) from a different light.

Tip for changing perspective.

A great exercise I’ve used is to make three columns on a sheet of paper. First, briefly describe the situation. Second, write down your current perspective. Third, write down several alternate perspectives. Try one of those alternate perspectives out for a week. What changes are you noticing when you look at your situation from this new perspective? How does this perspective suit you? Treat this as an experiment

In summary, many people have aspirations and the degree to which you follow through on yours is a function of you:

  • Knowing vividly what your desired future state looks like,
  • Having (creating) the confidence (self-efficacy) to achieve it, and
  • Gaining a perspective which makes your desired future state important enough to pursue.

What are you going to do to get off the sidelines and make some ser...Remember, if you want to make progress, but appear to be stuck, use this simple three-step process. It will minimally open your eyes to an alternate way of seeing the solution, instead of the problem.

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