Why is it important to set goals?

Let’s begin with some common interview questions:

  • Where do you see your career in five years’ time?
  • Why did you choose that course?
  • Tell me about yourself

These questions assume you’ve not only thought about your career goals but you are able to articulate them. So having a ‘goal story’ is important in recruitment.

But is goal setting a good idea, generally within a careers context?

The evidence would certainly suggest that is the case. Goal setting has been around a long time and features prominently in management and personal development literature. If you search online, you’ll get lots of useful tips on motivation, SMART goals, top tips and golden rules etc. You can read success stories from sport to education. So it can be an incredibly useful tool to support motivation, prepare for pitches and for career planning.

However goal setting, or a least the pressure to set goals, can be unhelpful.

Let me explain.

At LSE you’ll be surrounded by students who have set themselves, and then achieved, some amazing goals. This is great. However if you haven’t established your personal goals LSE can be an uncomfortable place. The pressure to make a decision about your career goals and plans can have some unfortunate consequences: feelings of anxiety, a belief that everyone has a goal except you, a tendency to book on to lots of career events, and feeling that once you’ve established your goals everything will fall into place. There is in effect a rational linear process to help to achieve your career aspirations. This is true, but only in part.

I see students every day who use their critical thinking skills to decide on the best career for them. They set themselves goals and they achieve them. However, for many more students it’s been a much less linear and a more fluid process. It’s been more a case of trial and error, experimentation, reliance on gut instinct, and reactions to coincidence or chance. Some career theorists have picked up on this and have suggested that it’s ok to not always have a plan.

Personally, I do think it is a good idea to have a plan and to set goals. I have found it useful break goals down into short term (up to six months), medium-term (up two years), and long term goals (2-5 years and beyond). But most of all I have found it useful to consider five principles as guides to action when it comes to refining goals.

Principle 1 – vision is crucial

Whether it’s a great business, a great entrepreneur, or a highly skilled professional, having a simple well-articulated vision can help inform choices and goals. Spending time thinking about your career vision/purpose can save you a lot of time in the long run. There’s lots great advice available on career planning and finding your purpose. Similarly thinking like a business and using business tools like SWOT can help you reflect on your current situation.

Principle 2 – goal setting is a team sport

Recruit a team to help you set your goals. This might involve students from your course with a similar career vision. A group of your fellow students can generate a much richer plan than you can by yourself. Try to find ‘expert witnesses’ within the sector or function that best represents your evolving career vision. It’s good to partner with as many people as possible to support you with your goals. For example, you might want to improve your case study skills. Individual practice is a good idea but forming a case study practice group can take your skills to another level. Your ‘team’ should be constantly evolving through your networking activities and helping you refine your vision and goals.

Principle 3 – less is more

It’s important to balance your activities. Time is in short supply so spend it wisely. Avoid repetition and check your goals are contributing to your vision. Goals that give double pay offs are best. So you want to improve your English language skills? You could take course but a better option might be to enrol on a dance class with English speakers where you can have fun, build new networks and relax (if you want to dance of course!)

Principle 4 – be flexible

It’s good to have a structure and a time line for your goals (short, medium, long term) but equally it’s good to be flexible and make changes with new information. Careers are constantly changing; they require new skills and new approaches (particularly true of the emerging ‘Gig economy’). It’s good to consider what’s important to you right now. The priorities for a first year PPE (four year programme) will be very different to a student on a one year master’s and this will have a big impact on your timeline. Goal setting is a process and it’s good to sense check regularly with like-minded colleagues.

Principle 5 – have fun

For many students career goal setting is a very serious business but it’s important to not to invest too much into the career process. Make it manageable and reward yourself when you reach your particular milestones.

Good luck with achieving your goals!