Forget all of your career goals

August 31, 2015

Dr. Conrad Pramböck of Pedersen & Partners explains what is better than goal setting for a personal career path.

By Dr. Conrad Pramböck

We live in a society that drills into us that we need to set ourselves goals and reach them.  Specific goals may be useful in the short run, but as far as long-term endeavors such as a successful career are concerned they are complete nonsense. 

For many people, there is nothing more frustrating than a dream come true. After all, goals mark temporary endpoints. Shortly after reaching a goal, you will start making new plans and set yourself new goals. If you keep going on like this, you will soon end up in the straitjacket of ambition, as it were.

So, what is better than goals? Intentions.

Intentions have a long-term effect and broaden our horizons. Goals, by contrast, have only a short-term impact and narrow our vision. If you want to achieve career success, you will need to adopt a long-term perspective. This is because the future is impossible to predict. The world has become so complex that we cannot look more than approximately six months ahead with any degree of certainty. Planning a business trip a year in advance is borderline negligent. Life is completely unpredictable—it is lived forwards but understood backwards. We meet new people; the economic landscape changes fundamentally; cruel twists of fate challenge us; job-related requirements and duties keep evolving; the competition launches new products, or our private lives turn upside down overnight. In today's fast-moving world, you simply cannot plan your career by setting yourself short-term goals that serve as the yardstick by which you measure your progress. Great careers need broader perspectives—they need intentions.

Goals and intentions

Imagine you stand in the middle of a circle. The 360 degrees around you are all the possibilities that exist. Your goal is a single point on the edge of the circle. No matter how good your planning is and how focused you are, it will be virtually impossible for you to reach exactly that point. Those who say that life is a straight line ignore the difference between theory and reality.

Setting yourself concrete long-term goals usually leads to disappointment because you have specific expectations as a result of your goals. However, expectations narrow your mind. You often do not get from life exactly what you expect. This, in turn, may make you come across as ungrateful.

 For instance, if you expect your partner to invite you out to dinner on your birthday, but he or she takes you to a concert instead, you may be disappointed and may make him or her feel it. If, by contrast, your intention is to have a good time with your partner on your birthday, there are many ways in which your expectations can be met, and things will be more enjoyable for both of you. Perhaps your partner has a great idea that will exceed all your expectations.

Your intentions are not a single point on the edge of a circle. They are like a slice of a pie chart, as it were, representing all the things you consider desirable and reasonable. Anything outside this slice is not an option for you. Life will bring you many opportunities you would never even have dreamed of—whether your boss entrusts you with new tasks or a headhunter offers you an interesting job. Your intentions will help you make the right decisions, allowing you to keep your life on track. They provide the basis for deciding what offers to consider and what offers to decline right away.

How to define your intentions

In order to define your intentions, you first need to cast your mind back to the most enjoyable and the most horrible events in your life. Then, complete the following sentence: "Because of this experience, my intention from now on, for the rest of my life, will be …" For example: When I was about 20 years old, I performed a rhapsody by Franz Liszt in concert. As I played the final chord on the piano, I felt that this had been my best performance of this piece ever. I got up to take a bow and was both surprised and overwhelmed to see that the audience was giving me a standing ovation. Because of this experience, I have made it my intention to take the stage as often as possible in my career, do my best and ultimately enjoy the audience's applause. Today, I get the wonderful feeling I had during my piano concert in the course of giving speeches and lectures. Another example, this time a negative one: Some years ago, I lost my job when my former employer filed for bankruptcy. I was out of employment for only nine weeks, but this was a really horrible experience for me. Back then, I was a young father, and I did not know how to feed my little family. Because I saw for myself the great support that my professional network offered me in finding a new job, I have made it my intention to do even more to foster relationships of trust with all my business contacts. One more example: I was once pondering the question of how much money I would have to have in my bank account in order to be able to live my life without experiencing any feelings of angst. At some point, I realized that even all the money in the world could not possibly give me complete peace of mind. Because I came to understand that my feelings of angst had nothing to do with money, I have made it my intention to do only things in my career that I am good at and enjoy doing. My feelings of angst disappeared and have never returned.

Good intentions alone are not enough

Defining your intentions is a first and important step. However, leading a successful, fulfilling and happy life within the context of your intentions requires strength of character. Above all else, you have to be courageous, determined and firm. You have to be courageous because others—initially your parents, later your colleagues and perhaps your partner—will question whether you have made the right choice. These people are well-meaning, but their concerns may make you feel uncertain. Hence, in order to be able to get things going and fulfill your intentions, you will need the courage to defend your decisions and visions. You have to be determined in order to carry on. All the great people we look up to, whether it is the entrepreneur working on entering overseas markets or the writer who has just published her first book, know this only too well. Those who want to be really successful, need to make sacrifices. Usually, these sacrifices are not advertised, and hence go largely unnoticed by outsiders. Your determination will help you keep going when the going gets tough. You have to be firm and say no to anything that is not in keeping with your intentions. If you intend to surround yourself only with cultured and intelligent individuals, you will need to get rid of all the idiots in your live. You have to be prepared to be uncompromising. Since I know the indescribable joys of fatherhood, I, for one, have made it my intention never to accept a job offer that would require me to permanently relocate to a faraway country—no matter how tempting the paycheck may be.

Follow your intentions

By making yourself aware of your intentions, you set the scene for a successful and fulfilling life. Whatever you achieve within this context is a success, irrespective of whether or not it corresponds to a specific goal. If your intention is to lead a wealthy and affluent life, it does not matter whether you earn, marry or win the money to do so. Life holds a wide variety of opportunities in store for you. Some of them result from your actions while others simply come your way. Your intentions help you separate the wheat from the chaff, allowing you to live your life exactly the way you want it to be.

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