How To Set Ambitious (And Realistic!) Career Goals


In my full-time job as an attorney recruiter, I work with a lot of people who are looking for a new job. I often find that job candidates are in one of two positions. Either they spent their entire career moving without much thought from one job to the next and now find themselves in a job that isn’t satisfying and they have no idea what to do next, or they stayed many, many years in a job they didn’t enjoy.

Either way, you’re pigeon-holed. It’s hard to re-define your career after 25-30 years of doing the same thing. It’s possible, but it’s not easy.

One way to avoid that problem is to set career goals and then create a plan to reach those goals. That way you can be sure you are moving along the right path for you, and you will eventually be exactly where you want to be. It’s never too early or too late in your career to set goals.¬† Even if you are 60, you probably have things you want to do between now and when you retire. Use this guide to set career goals that are ambitious and realistic and to create a plan to get there.

The first step is to think big

You might have to do a little brainstorming in order to figure out your career goals. Ask yourself these questions, and remember this is the time to think BIG! Be ambitious as you answer these questions:

1. What would my ideal career look like? Is your current job in line with that ultimate ideal career? Do you need to shift industries or get more training or maybe get licensed?

2. Do I like what I’m doing now? What are my most favorite and least favorite aspects of my current job?

3. What kind of money do I want to make? Be realistic, but ambitious.

4. What’s my ideal setting? Large office with lots of people? Small, close-knit group of co-workers? Do you prefer a fast-paced environment or deliberate, methodical work? Maybe you’d like a job where you can work from home, or one where you travel a lot, or one where you’re out of the office a lot to meet other people.

5. What specific job do I want? The Million Dollar Question!

Give yourself enough time to really think about your answers to the above questions. When you are through, you should be able to have a good idea about your ultimate job goal.

Now turn that big dream into a realistic goal

After you’ve done some brainstorming, it’s time to make your goals very clear. Ask yourself the following questions to help you determine whether your ultimate goal is realistic:

1. Do I have the time that’s needed to achieve my goal? Keep in mind your other commitments and really take a hard look at how much free time you have now and whether you can free up some additional time.

2. Do I have the right education or training to achieve my ultimate goal? If not, is there a way I can get that training? What kind of time and money commitment would that require?

3. Is my ultimate goal one that would fit well with my ideal lifestyle? For instance, maybe your ultimate goal is to be a motivational speaker who travel the world to give speeches. But if you have young kids or want to be available to aging parents, that goal might not fit well with the type of lifestyle you envision for yourself. It’s important to envision the whole picture as much as you can.

4. Can my goals be achieved in the time frame I’ve set? If you’re 28 years old and want to be a doctor by the time you’re 30 but you never went to college, that’s not realistic. But it might be realistic to get there by the time you’re 38. Think about both best case and worst case scenario, and try to set a time frame that seems reasonable.

 Create your master plan

Now that you’ve taken some time to dream big and also to make sure those dreams are attainable, you need a plan to get where you’re going. One of the best ways to do that is to make a list of all the intermediate steps you need to take to get from where you are today to where you want to be to reach your ultimate goal.

Think of those steps as mini-goals. For instance, if you currently have a job delivering papers, and you want to eventually run the whole newspaper, what would that take? You’d probably have to finish high school, graduate college with a journalism career, start working as a journalist, ask your boss for more administrative responsibilities, earn enough money for a graduate degree, go back to school, network with the higher-ups, etc.

Once you have an idea of your mini-goals, write them all out in chronological order. Put today’s date at the top and the date you want to achieve your goal at the bottom. Then next to each mini-goal, make a note when you want to have that step achieved and what you need to do to get there. Write down as many details as necessary and be sure to include a time frame for each mini-goal.

You have now created a road map to reach your ambitious and realistic career goal! You’ve already done more career planning than most people do in their lifetime. Keep your road map handy and refer to it often. Tweak it when you must, but also push yourself to reach the goals by the dates and deadlines you set. Keeping on track is the only way to get where you want to be.

Many studies have shown that people perform best when they set goals that are both specific and challenging. They perform much better than people who have goals that aren’t clearly defined such as “do your best” or “do what your boss asks”. Push yourself toward clear and ambitious goals, and you’ll be more highly motivated, do better at work, and move closer to your dream job. Good luck!

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Career Balance and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great tips for setting goals that are "just right." It's so much easier to accomplish your goals when you're clear on what you want.

  2. Anita Fiander

    I did this at 39 and I am still a work in progress. I had 15 years in though. Love the challenge for sure!

    • We're all a work in progress! I just want to make sure everyone remembers the "in progress" part. I can't tell you how many people get complacent in their jobs and later regret it.

  3. jamiegall1930

    Thank you so much. I needed to read this. I'm in the midst of redefining my future career, and you've brought up what I need to be thinking about.

    • Yay! I hope the article gave you some things to think about. I'm glad to hear you're thinking about how you might redefine your career. So many people never really spend any amount of time doing that at all.

  4. GREAT list of tips Nisha! THANK YOU and hope lots will read this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *