May/June 2019

Why Setting Up Personal Career Goals May Be Counterproductive

By Rama Vasudevan

Setting up personal career goals may be counterproductive. “How absurd,” one might think. After all, are we not supposed to tie ourselves to goals, work toward achieving them, and feel a sense of accomplishment when we do so?

Having such goals might be an acceptable norm. Perhaps you’ve been asked this question at some point in your career, or maybe you’ve asked yourself, “What do I see myself doing in 5 or 10 years from now?” I don’t remember what my answer was in the past, but if someone asks me the same question now, my answer would likely be, “Whatever the company believes in, and whatever the company wants me to be or do in the areas of my strengths.”

There are many approaches to shaping one’s career, but I have seen mainly these two:

  • Having planned goals and doing what I can to achieve them.
  • Taking things as they come, aligning myself to changing circumstances, and giving those circumstances my best shot.

I’m sure both approaches have pros and cons, but if you’re leaning toward the first, here are a few questions that are worth considering and that might shed light on why setting personal career goals might be counterproductive.

  • Are you happy with the results, or are you ecstatic?
  • Are you OK to settle for achieving these few goals at the end of each year? Are you OK with setting a ceiling for how far you can go?
  • Did these goals make a difference to your team, group, or organization? To you?
  • Most of all, did these goals—the goals that you had planned for, worked toward, and achieved through determination and hard work—take you beyond where you wanted to go?

If your answers to the above questions are borderline, “Yeah well, it’s OK, but it could be better,” read on.

Trying the “Go With the Flow” Approach

I decided to try approach #2 (I call it the “go with the flow” approach). This approach caused me to:

  • Open up to opportunities where I can align myself to my organization’s goals, and if they change, I try my best to change as well;
  • Open up to, or accept, most, if not all, of the challenges that came my way; and
  • Be there for people in the best way that I can .

By being this way, I found that I became more dynamic, swiftly adapting to the changing circumstances. I realized that when things need to get done, it’s best to be an early adopter of your team’s initiatives than to be among the early majority or the late majority.

The question, of course, is, “Did this approach help you in your career?” I’ve seen many interesting opportunities come my way that added valuable skills to my skillset.

If you adopt this approach, at the end of the year you might be surprised to see how far along you are in developing new skills and learning new things, how you’ve managed to reach beyond what you thought possible, and how good you are at any number of things that play a key role in the organization that you work for. There is a good chance that your newfound and on-demand skills might lead to newer responsibilities and professional growth. You might find yourselves doing things at work that bring a sense of joy and accomplishment.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, because you are in a job that you enjoy doing, you may never have to work a day in your life!

How does that sound to you? Doable, phony, or something else? It might not come as a surprise, if you just said, “Are you kidding me? OK, even if I decide to try this approach, what if I’m supposed to learn rocket science?” I might reply, “Learning rocket science might actually be fun. We don’t know until we try it.”

After giving it your best, if you still believe that it is an insurmountable mountain, or believe that it is not for you, is it possible to still explore it? If there is anything in the task, at least some parts of it might match your expertise and interests? How about aligning yourself to those parts where you can excel and contribute to the bigger picture? I believe, any job—small or big—when done well, makes a big difference. Do you agree?

How to Move Forward

Here are some things that have helped me in my approach.

  • Keep an open mind and welcome tasks or issues as opportunities to learn something new and contribute to achieve something bigger.
  • Have the courage to take the first step toward the unknown. When opportunities knock at your door, they might be camouflaged as problems or additional responsibilities that you don’t yet understand. Though at first, they might appear to be daunting, you might find that many were not a big deal at all.
  • Be aware of your limits. It’s great to push your limits, but there is only so much that you can do. Just give your best to whatever you do. It is OK to say that you cannot fly if you can’t and that’s what the task entails.
  • Don’t say “no” when you can say “Yes, I can, if…” People say that we should learn to say “no,” but what I learned is that it’s OK to say “yes” when it comes to working on tasks that align with organizational goals. Look for ways to achieve what the company believes in without compromising on the quality or your values.
  • Enjoy everything that you do at work. When you do something because you enjoy it, you’ll be amazed at your own results. Whatever you are looking for on the job, such as moving up the ladder or working on moonshot projects, those opportunities likely to follow when you enjoy what you do in the first place.

To try this “go with the flow” approach (#2), and make it a win-win for everybody:

  • Identify your strengths
  • Question how you can best contribute to, and align with, the company
  • Pitch in on tasks where you have expertise
Example of the Difference Between the Two Approaches

In approach #1, I came up with goals that aligned with the organization, but they were focused more on personal growth. For example, at the start of the year when we set our business objectives, one of the goals that I came up with was to learn a new drawing tool. Of course, this definitely helps in the tech writing work that I do, but how much does it help the organization that I work for?

If I were to make such a goal now, I would try to understand whether the company really needs me to invest time in this area, or does it need expertise in something else. If it does need that expertise, however, what will get the best result? For example, if we are moving to the .svg graphic format, I would do research for a tool to deliver the best .svg output. I would also research whether there are any pitfalls in using this format, and if there are, what we can do to overcome them, if there is a tool that could help us perform .svg file compression, and so on.

If I had taken approach #1, probably I would have mastered the most popular graphics tool, so that I would have an edge as a tech writer, but in the latter approach (#2), I not only added value to the team’s and company’s objectives, but I added value to my portfolio as well, in a well-rounded manner.

This is all easier said than done. Something that has helped me is that I have wonderful mentors to learn from, and they show me the way.

Back to the original question: Should you stop setting up personal career goals? In the end, of course, it’s up to you; you should use the approach that takes you forward and beyond. My only suggestion would be to not restrict yourself from exploring wonderful opportunities, because you’re so focused on your planned goals. When we leave our doors and windows open, not only does it bring in fresh air, glorious sun rays, and many other good things, but it might also be your chance to fly to interesting places! To professional develop, you must charter your own path and make your own luck, so put yourself in situations to help you progress and succeed!

Rama Vasudevan ( is a Senior Technical Writer at Synopsys. She has an engineering degree in Electrical and Electronics with over 13 years of experience in multiple high technology companies. Being a firm believer in all things that enhance information experience, she constantly strives to explore new avenues that make things simpler and clearer for the audience. Her motto is ‘By working together we can make a difference’.

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