Be a Long Term Visionary
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question I am still asking after more than 3 decades of consideration. And that’s as it should be. We are always becoming. It takes a lifetime to realize your full human potential; the journey never ends. So look ahead into the future: imagine, visualize, and design. Think long term and dream big. Here are three questions to revisit periodically:
- What are my long term goals? Where do I want to be in 5, 10, 20 years?
- What legacy would I like to leave behind during my life?
- When I retire, what would I regret not having achieved?
Steven Covey called this “beginning with the end in mind,” in his famous book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. At each step of your career, you will learn more about jobs, industries, and causes that inspire you. Evaluating and incorporating each new inspiration into your long term vision will help you refine your understanding of your own values and make better choices in the short term.
When my clients struggle to envision their long term futures, it happens usually for one of two reasons.
The first I like to call Option Paralysis. The fact of the matter is, we live in truly amazing times. Never in the history of humanity have so many possibilities been immediately available to so many of us. The options force us to confront the fact that our potential is infinite and our possibilities are unlimited. It means we have to confront the reality of our freedom. We are free to choose EXACTLY what we want from the endless buffet of career options.
It is hard enough for humans to choose among 3 or 4 options, never mind from among an unknowable infinity of choices. And even understanding your values doesn’t help much because if you look at the things you care about and love, a still baffling array of jobs, roles, companies, and industries align. Add to that the fear of make a wrong choice, and you end up with a recipe for existential angst – an ongoing feeling of anxiety that you aren’t being all you could be and it’s entirely your fault.
The second reason people struggle to envision the long term is what I like to call Short Term Myopia. This means that your preferences are anchored to where you are now, and you can only imagine yourself one or two steps away from here. Maybe you’re an accountant, and you don’t mind working with numbers, but you find accounting boring. So you know you want to move away from accounting, but it can be hard to really separate yourself from the past and imagine a truly different future that fully inspires you. This, again, is just human nature. Our thoughts are consistently conditioned by what we see and know, and it can be hard to set them aside and create a new vision.
The solutions to both of these problems are the same when you are creating a long term vision: ignore reality and just dream big. Here is one process that will allow you to do that:
- Find a time when you can have an uninterrupted hour alone.
- Sit in a quiet, comfortable place and relax.
- Meditate for a few minutes if you know how to do so. If not, just sit for 10 minutes and listen to the sound of your own breathing. Notice all the other sounds in the room. Just observe quietly.
- Then ask yourself: if I could do anything with my life, what would I do?
- Follow your mind as it wanders, notice that some pictures will be very vivid and specific, others will be vague and foggy. Some will have very strong feelings attached and give you a rush of energy.
- As you notice things you want to remember, write them down. Don’t censor yourself, just write down the things that occur to you to write down. Pay particular attention to the ones that give you energy and feel uplifting.
- Then go back to imagining.
- Repeat until an hour is up or you are out of ideas.
What you do with your notes is up to you. You could revisit them immediately and try to shape them into a concrete picture of your future. You could look at them later and see what new ideas they inspire. You could repeat this exercise on a weekly or monthly basis and see what emerges as your path to fulfilling your dreams.
Think of your long term vision as the North Star to a sailor. He’ll never reach it exactly, but it will always tell him if he is on the right path. The purpose of a long term vision is to inspire you and to help you make good choices in the present. No matter how specific your vision is, it will likely manifest differently from how you imagine it – very likely in a way that surpasses what you thought was possible when you dreamed it up.
So avoid the temptation to turn your long term vision into a concrete goal and follow a detailed plan to achieve it. Instead, just hold it in front of you as the inspiring place you are headed and then make smart choices in the short term to move you closer to it.
Be a Short Term Pragmatist
Got a big vision for your future? Awesome!!! Now you’ve got to be patient. Anything you can dream up, you can achieve, but great accomplishments take time. So in addition to being a Long Term Visionary, you’ve got to be a Short Term Pragmatist. Recognize your vision for your career will take a few steps to achieve. Your first job, probably won’t be “it.” But even Rome began with a single stone. Take steps in the short term that get you closer to your long term vision.
For example, if your vision includes starting your own company and you are very interested in technology today, what are some steps you could take to get closer to being entrepreneur-ready and savvier about technology? You could…
- Take a coding class
- Do an internship with a startup
- Start following the blogs of successful entrepreneurs
- Consider a full time job in a bigger company that gives you a firm foundation of business skills (think consulting, product management, venture capital)
- The transition from your current firm to a smaller more entrepreneurial one in your field
Weigh your short term options against your long term vision, and make choices that move you in the right direction.
More to Ponder
So we talked about creating a long term vision that inspires you and using it like a North Star in your career. This is one of the best cures for both Option Paralysis and Short Term Myopia. But practically speaking, you need to both begin with the end in mind and start where you are. If your long term vision is to be CEO of a major company and today you are an engineer, you will need to take many steps to achieve that vision. Use the vision to organize your short term options. Some questions to ask:
- Given that I one day want to be CEO, what skills will I need to develop?
- What kinds of relationships do I need to have?
- What experiences am I lacking that will make me an effective CEO?
- Do I know exactly what kind of company I want to run? What industry/product/service? If not how will I decide? If so, what else do I need to learn about that industry/product/service to be a leader in the space?
- Which opportunities that are available to me right now get me the most of what I need?
This last question is the most important. Once you understand what you need, you want to weigh your short term options against those needs and pick the ones that get you furthest. It is this process that leads so many people to business school. While an MBA isn’t really a necessary step for anyone, it is certainly an accelerator towards the career endgame for most.
Use this framework every time you need to make a major career decision, and you will maximize the likelihood of making confident choices that get you where you want to go fast.