‘Get Promoted’ Is a Terrible Long-Term Career Goal

Goal-setting is an opportunity to reflect on what you want, both professionally and personally.
Tammy Xu
May 25, 2021
Updated: May 26, 2021
Tammy Xu
May 25, 2021
Updated: May 26, 2021

If you have trouble pinning down your long-term career goals, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Ravs Kaur, who became CTO at Uplevel in 2019, once struggled to imagine what her future career would look like.

“When people would ask me early on in my career where I want to be in five years, I never had a great answer,” Kaur said.

Lots of people she knew had career goals. Goals provide inspiration and focus, and they can help you figure out good next steps to take in your career. But coming up with goals for the sake of having goals is not the answer.

HOW TO SET LONG-TERM CAREER GOALS

  • Add tools to your skills belt. Reap long-lasting benefits by gaining new skills and experiences, especially early on in your career.
  • Get inspiration from others. Look at how those who have careers you admire got there.
  • Ask for advice from your future self. How would your future self look back on the decisions you’re making?
  • Figure out the ‘why.’ Don’t go through the motions because it’s what’s expected.
  • Discuss your goals with your manager. They may be able to help you in ways you don’t expect.
  • Aim for specificity. Crafting more specific goals can help you determine if you’re making progress toward long-term goals.

Experts Built In spoke to said that when it comes to career goals, it’s important to dig into the “why.” Don’t set goals just because you’re supposed to — instead, treat goals as tools for making your career what you want it to be. Setting long-term goals requires introspection about what you want from your career and other areas of your life.

More Career Advice:Here’s How to Talk About Your Strengths In a Job Interview

 

Early Career Goals Are More About Exploration

It’s normal to struggle with creating a five-year plan — especially if you’re just starting out. People earlier in their careers naturally have a tougher time because they don’t yet know what they like, or even what types of work are possible.

It’s easy to set your next goal as simply reaching the next rung in the corporate ladder, but that can be a mistake. Goal setting is an opportunity to think deeply about what you actually want from your career.

“Early on in my career, I used to think of my goals as very much a vertical ladder,” Kaur said. “My short-term and long-term goals were, ‘I need to climb this corporate ladder, I need to get to senior, I need to get to principal’ — and it was very much influenced by the requirements of that next level.”

“Over time, I’ve started thinking of my career as more of a skills belt, as opposed to a vertical ladder.”

Eventually, Kaur realized that taking her blinders off and getting a broader view before pursuing specific long-term goals could be beneficial. So while holding a role as a tester at her company’s software engineering team, Kaur dabbled in UX design and product management. She deepened her technical software testing skills and also sampled other types of work to see what she enjoyed.

“Over time, I’ve started thinking of my career as more of a skills belt, as opposed to a vertical ladder,” Kaur said. “I focus more now on just getting different experiences and learning new skills.”

This investigatory period is important. Trying out different roles and responsibilities can help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, and prevent them from pursuing goals they later realize aren’t actually what they want.

“It’s a little bit like when you enter college and you don’t quite know which specialty to get into,” Kaur said. “You’re exposed to a lot of different things and find your activities. I feel like those early years also serve that purpose.”

 

Investigate Real People’s Career Paths

Another way to expand your horizons is by doing research into other people’s career paths.

Kyle Elliott, a software development career coach based in San Francisco, said researching other people’s career paths can spark ideas for those who don’t yet have any definite goals. Elliott tells his clients to look up people with jobs that seem interesting, and consider the paths they took to get there.

“That doesn’t mean you have to follow it,” he said. “But it can give you a blueprint, an idea of how they got there.”

Real career paths can give insight into the diversity of people’s experiences. Look at the types of companies people work for and their job titles, but also the types of projects they worked on and certifications they have collected.

Perhaps pursuing similar projects or certifications would be helpful for broadening or deepening your learning. Activities such as volunteer work can build leadership skills and ongoing education can stretch and enhance your understanding of an industry, and allow you to contribute in new ways at your company.

More Career Advice:Your Resignation Letter Shouldn’t Burn Bridges

 

Set the Longest-Term Goals, Then Work Backwards

Elliott uses an interesting exercise when discussing long-term goals with clients. Instead of asking them to think five or even ten years into the future, he tells them to imagine themselves well into retirement. How would that version of themselves think back on their life?

“Let’s imagine your 80-year-old self is on the phone,” Elliott said. “What advice is she giving you now? What does her life look like? How do we get there?”

This technique helps his clients consider whether the goals they are currently pursuing feel worthwhile. For those who pull long hours in pursuit of a focused set of goals, the exercise can help them step back and evaluate whether those goals still make sense for them.

“Let’s imagine your 80-year-old self is on the phone. What advice is she giving you now?”

It’s a holistic way of thinking about goals, not just as ends unto themselves, but as useful tools that can help you build a meaningful and satisfying life.

The exercise can help people consider what they don’t want from their careers as well. Whether you prefer working on close-knit teams or for specific industries, factoring your preferences into long-term goals can affect whether you get to do that.

Taking this long view of goals promotes balance. It gives people a chance to think about how their jobs affect other areas, such as their families and their health. Are there any negative impacts on their lives from their careers? And how would that affect that 80-year-old self?

 

Goals Are All About the ‘Why’

One of the most important things Elliott emphasizes to his clients about goals is to always dig into the “why.” What’s the real reason they are pursuing their goals in the first place?

“People often just have this idea of what they should be doing next, because that’s what career chronology looks like, when often that’s not what everyone wants or needs,” Elliott said.

Kaur has seen this often when software developers talk to her about their desire to move into management roles.

“A lot of times, people just think that is the only way to grow in their careers,” Kaur said. “That there isn’t another technical option. That’s not true, for the record.”

For those who work in technical roles, such as software development, Kaur said employees who enjoy solving technical challenges may find management frustrating, and may not be a good fit for management. But there are more ways to advance within a company than going into the managerial track — for instance, software development companies always need senior employees who are deeply technical.

“A lot of times, people just think that is the only way to grow in their careers.”

To figure out whether management is right for you, Kaur recommends taking on management-related tasks that give a taste of what management is like. That can be something like managing interns; it’s a similar role that not only involves onboarding them but helping interns be successful as well.

For those in technical positions, taking on technical leadership roles, such as being an owner or point of contact for certain projects, can help employees get a sense of what management is like as well.

“Thinking through dependencies and being accountable for the end execution of a particular project, can also involve a lot of — and I say this lovingly — herding cats,” Kaur said.

But even if you take the plunge and later realize management is not for you, there’s no need to resign yourself to a lifetime of regret.

“It’s not irreversible,” Kaur said. “At the end of the day, if you try it and it isn’t for you, you can come back to being a developer. It should never be viewed as a promotion and demotion, it’s just a different role.”

 

Talk to Your Manager About Your Goals

Sometimes, the long-term goals you set don’t seem possible to achieve at your current company. In those cases, it’s best to talk to your managers about your career goals, because chances are they might be able to support you in ways you may not have considered, Elliott said.

Companies like to keep good employees because it’s costly to recruit and train new hires. They are often willing to work with employees and help them develop new skills.

“And I think oftentimes employees forget that their boss is also an employee who has their own goals,” Elliott said. “Their boss is a human who will often be on board with it.”

Companies might allow employees to take time to work on passion projects or attend classes. Employees can also look for opportunities to grow outside of the office, such as volunteering or extracurriculars.

Kaur said an employee’s current company is actually the best place to try new things and experiment with different types of career paths. The employee is already familiar with the company and the business, so compared with starting fresh, working in a new role at a familiar place can help employees bring value to their employer faster.

More Career Advice:Here’s How to Get Better at Active Listening

 

Recruit Others to Help You Stay Motivated

One of the most difficult aspects of long-term goal setting is that it’s hard to stay motivated over long periods of time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re making progress toward your goals at all.

Kaur said the trick is to make goals as specific as possible. She brought up an example of long-term goal setting in her personal life, when she wanted to develop a deeper bond with her children. But setting that as a goal is vague, because it’s hard to determine what constitutes a “deeper bond.” Instead, Kaur made the goal measurable by basing it on the types of conversations they had.

“A potential measurement was how many times they would come to me with a problem or challenge, as opposed to me probing,” she said.

It can also help to break big long-term goals into smaller ones. A technique that worked for Elliott’s clients was crafting goals so they fit into two-week sprints, and only tackling the ones that can be accomplished within that time.

Elliott also encourages clients to take stock of all their goals and figure out which ones are dependent on others. Starting with easier ones can be a good technique to gain momentum, but first tackling the ones that other goals are dependent on is a good strategy as well.

It can also be helpful to talk to others about goals. Mentors and colleagues can check in every once in a while to help with accountability and make sure things are still on track.

Elliott said it’s important to celebrate reaching goals successfully as well. Apart from enjoying the sense of accomplishment, it can also be a good barometer to gauge whether your goals are still right for you. If you’ve achieved something but don’t feel any pride or satisfaction, it may be time to recalibrate.

“I see people not having an upper limit. They say, ‘Okay, I want to make $100,000,’ then they hit that. And then they set a new goal. And there’s never a level of satisfaction,” he said. “What’s the point of achieving all these things if we don’t celebrate them? It’s so important to enjoy the ride so you don’t get to 80 years old, and then you’re like, ‘What was the point of all this if I wasn’t having fun along the way?’”

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