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Get What You Want: A Guide to Self-directed Career Development

Dec 27, 2023 | Guest Author, Professional Services

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We’re trained to look externally for a path forward from an early age. Go to school, get good grades, land a job, make more money, get promoted, and plan for retirement—all of it to be successful. Success is a moving target, though. Each time you reach a new milestone, success gets redefined.

Is chasing success getting us what we want?

In January 2022, Gallup reported that Americans’ happiness levels have hit record lows. The American Psychological Association found that our stress levels have been increasing since 2016, well before the pandemic. According to the Work Institute, 34 percent more people quit their job last year than the year before.

Unhappiness, stress, and turnover cost businesses in terms of lost productivity, lost efficiency, and lost opportunity. Individuals bear personal costs, too. Your physical and emotional health suffers when you’re stressed and unhappy.

What can you do to change this?

Be selfish in your career development. Instead of letting external factors direct you, create a self-directed and sustainable approach to career development. Take the initiative, decide what you want, and go after it.

Use an Incremental Process

Self-directed career development is similar to implementing new systems in a business. I once helped an organization implement a new case management system. They had grand ambitions to streamline operations, create transparency, and improve efficiency. The project failed because the administrative staff became overwhelmed with having to re-create all of their processes in the new system at once. An incremental approach would have allowed people to react and adjust as changes were introduced.

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The same is true for your career. As you make changes and see results, new possibilities arise. What you want today will change tomorrow.

Self-directed career development is a series of small steps executed over and over. Perfecting the process will generate momentum and confidence, allowing you to pursue even greater ambitions that are meaningful to you.

Start with the Hard Part

The hardest part of this process is identifying what you want. Here is a simple strategy to help you choose one thing.

Start by choosing a category:

  • Greater Challenge: Use your skills and abilities to your full potential.
  • Career Advancement: Promotion, a leadership role, or a higher salary.
  • Career Change: Pursuing something more aligned with your interests or values.
  • Increased Autonomy: Greater independence over your work and decisions.
  • Personal Fulfillment: Work that provides a sense of purpose.
  • Work-life Balance: Flexible work arrangements or work hours.
  • Work Environment: Supportive culture, collaboration, or changes to the physical workspace.
  • Recognition or Rewards: Bonuses, awards, or public recognition.
  • Skill Development: Training, mentorship, or continuing education.
  • Impact and Influence: Positively impact your organization, industry, or community.
  • Job Security: Increased stability in employment.

Then identify one personal thing in the category that would be meaningful to you.

Here are some examples:

  • Leave work at 1 pm every Friday.
  • Be the team lead on the next big project.
  • Get a 10 percent raise. Get promoted.
  • Get a standing desk. Get an ergonomic chair.
  • Attend a conference. Present at a conference.
  • Learn a new programming language.

It doesn’t matter what it is or how insignificant you think it may be. Remember, this is your first iteration. Write it down.

Have a Purpose

Now you need to ensure the goal you’ve just recorded is something you want. Intrinsic motivation is crucial for sustainable results. To do this, you will interrogate yourself to uncover your motivation.

Ask yourself why you want the thing you wrote down. Keep asking yourself, “Why is that important to me?” until you get the answer, “Because it makes me happy,” or “Because it makes me feel good.”

You say, “I want to leave the office at 1 p.m. on Fridays.” Why? “Because then I can get ready and leave town for the weekend.” Why is that important to you? “Because when our family is out of town for two nights, we relax more.” Why is that important to you? “Because I enjoy relaxing with my family. It makes me happy.”

If you choose something that translates into more money, push yourself to go deeper. What would you do with the extra money? Why is that important to you?

If you can’t get to “it makes me happy,” start over and choose a different category. Life’s too short to compromise.

If you’re stuck, choose one of your strengths and one thing you could do with that strength. Or use reverse engineering: ask yourself, “What makes me happy?” and pick one thing that would allow you to do more of that.

Now, use this information to create a Purpose Statement. Here’s the format.

I want [insert what you want] so that I can [insert what you will do with it] because when I [insert your why] it makes me happy.

For example:

I want to leave work at 1 p.m. on Fridays so that I can go away with my family for the weekend because when I spend time relaxing with my family, it makes me happy.

Self-directed career development is a series of small steps executed over and over. Perfecting the process will generate momentum and confidence, allowing you to pursue even greater ambitions that are meaningful to you.

Plan and Act

You have a purpose, and now you need a plan. Creating a plan will give you insights and ideas on moving forward so you’re ready to take action.

Here are the six components to consider when creating your plan.

  • Activities: What will you do, and how often will you do it?
  • Timeframe: How long will you do these activities? When will you review progress?
  • People: Who in your network can help you with this?
  • Resources: What other resources are available to you?
  • Accountability: How will you hold yourself accountable to progress?
  • Risks: What risks jeopardize progress, and how can you mitigate them?

Now you’re ready to take action and move forward.

Persevere

Perseverance is the secret ingredient. Making changes, pursuing dreams, and achieving goals isn’t easy, but it is achievable if you persevere.

For most people, the biggest challenge is finding the time. To find time in your schedule, try to consolidate existing responsibilities. For example, do group meetings with your direct reports instead of one-on-ones. You can also integrate new activities with existing ones, such as listening to a podcast when you take a walk.

Reading your Purpose Statement often will also help you stay motivated. Print it out, write it in your journal, or put it on your computer desktop. Reminding yourself why this is important will help you overcome obstacles and persevere.

Selfish Success

We want a rewarding career, healthy relationships, and an enjoyable life. The current model of success, driven by external forces and motivators, isn’t getting us the desired results. It is time to redefine success as a process. I propose this formula: Success = (Purpose + Perseverance)x

Start small and choose something you want right now. Create a purpose and a plan to take action and persevere. And the “x” represents repeating again and again for exponential results.

Self-directed success will transform you and your organization. It will expand what you believe is possible. It will lead you to a happier and more fulfilled life, which is good for your health, relationships, and community.

Who knew that being selfish could be so good for the world?

Brian Walch is the owner of Shiftfocus Coaching and Consulting. He provides services to help empower managers to lead themselves, their teams, and their organizations. His Integrated Life Framework supports individuals as they lead themselves and their teams. His Integrated Business Framework supports managers and executives as they lead their teams and organizations.

To find time in your schedule, try to consolidate existing responsibilities. For example, do group meetings with your direct reports instead of one-on-ones. You can also integrate new activities with existing ones, such as listening to a podcast when you take a walk.

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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