While knowing where you want to go in life is an ambitious goal, I feel its value cannot be overstated. My experience is that you may not end up going where you wanted to go at first; however, actively revisiting your goals will help guide your decisions. Having goals will also avoid “going with the flow” and keep you on track. This advice is based on my personal experience of joining the workforce immediately after high school, having a reasonably successful career in the IT field, and going back to school for accounting and finance.
Here are a few tools that I felt were the most helpful in retrospect.
Have a Game Plan. Taking an hour to reflect on paper where you are and where you are headed on a one year, 2-5 year, and 10 year time table is a very powerful experience. Now, take that same exercise and do it yearly to amplify the experience even more. Once completed each year, hang your goals somewhere you will see them to help keep your goals from falling to the wayside. These goals can be professional or personal, and you should also be flexible about modifying the goals as needed.
This is a personal strategic planning exercise that I feel is very helpful, because it helps you think about where you are headed in life. Taking this approach helped me make the decision to go back to school and eventually change careers entirely to meet more of my personal goals.
The Informational Interview. While the informational interview is a common college assignment, putting an extra amount of effort into this task can be very beneficial. This comes in the form of looking for people in your network, or just outside of it, who are currently where you want to be in life. The ideal person will be a few years ahead of you in school or in their job, such as a high school student to a college student or a college student to a professional with 2-3 years of experience. You want the distance between the interviewee and yourself to be reasonable.
Once you have the ideal candidate pool, ask them if they would like to meet for lunch or coffee to discuss their job and career path since you have similar career aspirations. The great part about this exercise is most people enjoy talking about themselves. However, bear in mind some people may still be too busy or otherwise unavailable. If this is the case, it is not personal. Simply move on to the next candidate in your pool.
Next, take the time to create a list of questions that you are interested in finding the answers to. There are many places online with lists of informational interview questions to start with, and then customize them with personal details about your interviewee as well as yourself. After completing the questions, go about the informational interview in a humble manner and thank them for their time. Be sure to take notes about their responses and let the conversation wander if it wanders in a useful or interesting direction.
Perhaps the best result for your informational interview is an informal mentorship. Even if this is not the case, be sure to take time to analyze what is said afterward. On several occasions I was able to utilize informational interviews, both formally and informally, to learn invaluable information about career choices before actually steering my life in a completely different direction.
Mentorships. I have had the benefit of having several amazing mentors through the years. A few mentors were, and still are, a friend that also functioned as a mentor. They provided a lot of advice and perspective that helped shaped many of my life choices. If you look at your own life, you can probably find a few already. That being said, many of the larger accounting firms already have formal mentorship programs in place, which you should definitely utilize. In addition to those programs, I would recommend using a similar approach to the informational interview above and look for people who are where you want to be in the future.
The key here is that your mentors have already “been there and done that,” so to speak. They can help you navigate many issues and can function as your professional support network. Often, they will also help you understand a problem, the inner workings of a company, or even a challenging coworker much faster than you could on your own.
All three of these points can be summed up as know where you want to go and look for people that can help you get there. Hopefully, you will find these tools as useful as I have in your own lives. I would also like to end with one last piece of advice: be sure to take the time and be a mentor when you make it to the big leagues!