I remember my senior year of college. I was just months away from graduating with a degree I had worked long and hard for. I had always enjoyed school – the classes were interesting but it was the in-depth, analytical conversations with my peers that excited me most; so much so that I considered furthering my education to become a college professor at one point.
And here I was… graduation was so close I could taste it. I clung to the vision of me wearing a cap and gown as I tried to maintain focus and plow through difficult essays, research papers, and the dreaded finals week. But somewhere mixed in with all the excitement I had this crazy fear that was starting to surface, and with it, one simple question I kept asking myself over and over again: “what’s next?”
I was newly married, so I wasn’t just thinking about myself anymore. I enjoyed school, and if “full-time student” were a career option, you better believe I would have been the first in line for it. But school didn’t pay the bills and my other ideas of continued education weren’t going to add to my already modest income.
I was really eager about the idea of being able to work full time. Finally I was going to have a big-girl job. Finally I could be a real career woman. But what did that look like? Where was I supposed to start? As I thought more and more about my next steps, the insecurities started to creep in. Here I was with a college degree and no real direction, experience, or insight as to where I should begin.
If there is one thing I could tell my 21-year-old self, it would be this: let go of the plan you think you should have and be willing to take one small step toward a direction you have interest in. Your future is going to look very different than you imagine, and that’s actually okay.
Letting Go of “The Plan”
It sounds simple, but many of us are stuck because we think we need a plan in order to take a step forward. Because of this, we often stay “stuck” for years upon years, until one day we open our eyes and wise up to the reality that there’s risk in following your dreams because our dreams are uncertain.
But the truth is, your future is uncertain. But this shouldn’t scare you… In fact, it should encourage you. Encourage you because, no matter how much we plan or prepare for what we think is going to happen or what we think we want for ourselves, we can’t control the future.
So relax a little. Let go of the grip you have of needing a plan for your future. Release the need to have it all figured out and be willing to step toward a direction with an open mind, because every opportunity, relationship, and experience along the way will hold value in shaping your future while bringing clarity for your dreams.
You may be thinking, “that’s all find and good, but how? How do I start when I’m still unsure of the right steps to take?” This is a great question. There are many ways you can start working toward your dream and creating goals to help you chip away at what it is you’re working toward.
When it Come to Your Goals, Just Start
Think about it: a doctor doesn’t wake up one day and become a doctor in the same way a marathon runner doesn’t just wake up and run a marathon. There are years, months, weeks, and days required to get from here to there. And within that long stretch of time you have a million intentional smaller moments – steps – that require action and follow-through.
Look at having a plan for your goal as a broad overview or roadmap that has flexible detours. Yes, there are some non-negotiables to get from point a to point b, but there’s always a messy-middle that exists on the journey. Embrace that and be willing to learn from all the little detours along the way. Sometimes the unplanned things are the best things that can happen to us.
So how do we get started? Here are a few simple steps to get you going….
- Embrace the journey right where you are
It’s likely you have some big dreams and that’s amazing. Dreams give us vision for the future we are after and serve an incredible purpose in building and maintaining momentum when it’s time to put your head down and get to work.
But don’t hold so tightly to the BIG DREAM you’re after that you miss out on the millions of little dreams, accomplished goals, and realizations you experience along the way. You see, life is so much more about the journey then it is about that big thing you’re after. In fact, most of us will spend a great deal of time going after something only to realize that we’re just going to raise the bar higher or go after something else when we get there.
One of the best ways to start is to first embrace your present reality. Enjoy the moment you’re in and learn everything you can right now as you work towards bigger and better things.
- Identifying your vision and the why behind it
Identifying your goals is essential. You can’t create an effective plan without knowing what you’re aiming for.
Don’t be afraid to sit down and take some notes. Assess where you’re at right now. Did you just finish college? Are you considering grad school? Are you in the middle of a job you love/hate? Do you find yourself thinking about starting your own business but unsure of what that looks like? Are you wondering if you’re cut out for entrepreneurship?
Start naming the things you know right now. Here are some helpful lists you should be making when identifying your goals and working towards your dreams:
- Identify your work-related skills (this could be systems or techniques you’ve learned as well as those you’re just naturally gifted in).
- Identify your people-related skills (are you a good communicator? Do you handle conflict-resolution well? What personalities do you gravitate towards and which do you shy away from? What characteristics describe you when it comes to the way you relate to and interact with others?)
- What type of work environment do you love/hate?
- What characteristics are non-negotiables when it comes to your job?
- If you could have any job in the world, regardless of experience, what would it be?
- What would be the absolute worst job you could have?
It’s very common to have lots of feelings and ideas about our goals without really knowing the core motivations or reasons behind them. These types of lists will help bring clarity to your future vision and help identify things about yourself that you maybe hadn’t considered.
From this list, think through where you see yourself in 5 years professionally. Write it down. Maybe you have a vague vision of what that looks like or maybe you know exactly what you want – either way, jot down your ideas as best you can. Now let’s think about 1 year from now.
Where would you like to be? What would you like to see changed?
Is it a new job?
Launching a business?
Getting a promotion?
Hiring a team or additional staff?
A career transition?
Growth in a certain skill?
Licensure of some kind?
Write it down. In fact, write 3 specific goals you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Now let’s look back at your 5 year vision. How do these 1-year achievements compare to your 5 year vision? Do they support it or contradict it? Why?
- Create a plan
As you know, in order to make your dreams a reality, you’re going to have to create a plan to help you get there. The good news is, you’ve already done some really good work by following the prompts above. The truth is, understanding yourself and the motivations behind your behavior is a really important step in your professional development and personal growth.
Now that you have 3 goals for next year, you need to create a plan to help you actually achieve those goals. Remember, this plan is more of a roadmap. There may be some detours along the way and that’s okay. The roadmap should guide you, help you stay focused, and keep your eyes on what you’re working toward rather than the many distractions that will try and steal your attention along the way.
When it comes to actually executing these goals and following through on your plan of action, there are a variety of different methods that can work. Depending on your personality type and how you operate best, implementing these methods in a way that works for you is completely up to you. The point is to actually follow through and hold yourself accountable.
Here are some best practices when it comes to goal-planning:
- Use your calendar. Schedule reminders and daily/weekly/monthly to-do’s to keep you on track, and keep your goal in front of you. Consider block scheduling and block out specific chunks of time on your calendar as often as you need to work on your goal.
- Communicate your needs with others in your circle. Working on a goal requires time. If others depend on you in any way, make sure to communicate your needs and schedule changes ahead of time as you work toward your goal in this new season so they can best support you.
- Work backwards. Start by thinking about the goal, and then think through all the steps needed to get there. Break those down and start at the beginning. Some goals may be more ambiguous than others. For example, if you want a pay increase, it’s not guaranteed, but your intentional steps to get that could include: determining your company’s fiscal year and finding the right time to ask for a raise, scheduling a time with your boss, create a proposal or documentation in support of what you’re asking for, etc. Research and gathering documentation could be step 1.
The Future is Bright
Perhaps you’re struggling with identifying what your dream is. Or maybe you have multiple dreams taking you in a million different directions. Either way, know this: it’s normal for your dreams and plans to change. That’s why stepping into uncertainty doesn’t have to be as scary as one might think. Each experience, new relationship, and opportunity will shape your future by shedding light on where you excel, where you need to grow, what areas you’re naturally gifted in, and others you need to stay away from.
At the end of the day, being intentional with your time will get you to your goal, even if those goals end up looking a little different than you imagined. Keep your eyes open to the possibilities surrounding you along the way, because the future is full of open doors of opportunity and it just takes a willing step to discover what those are.