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Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Positive Focusing: Become a Goal-Driven Career Strategist

Have you ever been to one of those big gatherings of motivational speakers, where people like Norman Schwarzkopf and Christopher Reeve get on stage with Zig Ziglar to raise the roof with 20,000 screaming real estate and automobile salespeople? If you haven't, you should try it sometime, because it is quite an experience. I still love the energy of an excited crowd, and will drive for hours to get to one of these meetings, even though I know that much of the rush will be gone in a couple of hours ... just like the buzz from my double latte.

It wasn't always that way. I used to think that I could go to one of these meetings and receive a life-changing experience. And although I'm certain that the cumulative effects of a lifetime of inspirational talks could indeed be life altering, I no longer believe that motivation is quite what these folks think it is. You can't just listen to an inspirational talk and then charge forth into the world like the Eveready Bunny, realizing goals right and left. Instead, motivation is something that you have to find inside you, a force that you can tap to help you reach your own personal goals, one at a time.

The Importance of Setting Clear and Achievable Goals

As a scientist, you're used to hypothesis-driven work, and so--if you're like many of the scientists I meet--you tend to get uncomfortable any time you find yourself working directly toward a preconceived result. But don't confuse goal setting with the scientific method. In this instance, it really is ok to do everything in your power to force a certain outcome.

And certainly it isn't just real estate and car salespeople who set goals to jump-start their internal motivation and drive their careers forward. I know this because I ask this question in my interviews with scientists:

"What are your goals for the next 5 years?"

Everyone seems to understand that questions like this will show up in an interview, and for that reason you can expect that the question will usually have a prepared response. But it is so easy to tell the difference between a person with a canned interview response and a real, honest-to-goodness goal-driven scientist. Here are two examples from my recent interviews:

Response #1: "I'd like to be a part of a well run company, where I can have a management position in a team that is bringing a new drug to market."

This interviewee states a lofty goal and throws it in almost without any thought about what the process would be to reach that goal. It sounds glossy and canned, almost as if it came from the front page of a resume.

Response #2: "My first step would be to learn how to use my skills in fermentation optimization and microbial physiology in fermentors larger than the bench-top size we have at the university. I'd like to gain some experience doing scale-up work in a top-notch industry pilot plant, so that I can then apply my ability to work well with people and my understanding of process development to a leadership role in the company. In 5 years, I would like to be directing the development team for a new protein therapeutic."

This response, by contrast, makes it clear that the interviewee recognizes the process that must come before the lofty goal is achieved. It is a determined, well-thought-out response. The recruiter's reaction to hearing this one? Stop everything and get this person in front of the client employer. Now!

Eating a 32-oz Sirloin

Down here in Arizona you can order steaks that are big enough to have names: "The Big Gun, a 32-oz. Humdinger of a Meal," or "The Chuckwagon Special, a 36-oz. Wagonload of Mouthwatering Goodness."

Response #1 above was much like eating that 32-oz. Humdinger in one or two bites. Not even those guys with cowboy hats permanently attached to their heads can do that! But you can get all the way through the steak if you're hungry enough and if you cut it up into smaller, bite-sized pieces. And that is exactly what you need to do to reach a lofty goal. You first set the lofty part, and then you plan out the much more achievable smaller goals that you must reach along the way.

Motivate Yourself to Reach Your Goals

Instead of rah-rah positive thinking and Pollyanna attitudes, you need to remember the term "positive focusing." That is what I call it when a person combines an enthusiastic and expectant attitude with the process of advancing through a series of incremental goals. Put simply, you have to believe that each piece of your strategy is actually possible.

So, how do you go about developing that lofty goal and the many smaller goals that will be necessary for you to reach along the way? Well, here are some suggestions that should help to get you started:

  • Is your current supervisor or mentor going to be critical to your success in reaching your goals? Or will she be a roadblock? If there is a way that you can convert her into a useful resource, then what is the first thing that you can do to get her on your side?

  • Identify the major transition points in the series of goals that you have developed. One of them may be to move from academia to industry, for example, and another might be to move from science to business. Subdivide your list of goals at each of these transition points and reflect on each sublist in greater detail. "Move from academia to industry" may actually require you to reach 15 separate smaller goals. And it doesn't hurt to have more goals; each time you hit one, you get to celebrate!

  • Make sure you include goals that are very easily quantifiable. Although it is great to see a list that includes position titles and future status, nothing beats listing a specific income that you want to reach by a certain point in time. Quite apart from the fact that goals of this sort will help you organize your thoughts, I've heard from many people that they have an almost magical facility to come true.

  • Remember that one goal cannot contradict another goal. For example, it wouldn't be appropriate to shoot for a million-dollar Bay Area house over the same period that you hope to realize a $70,000 salary.

The best analogy I've heard about why you need a set of clearly defined career goals is the one that Zig Ziglar used at one of those big motivational meetings I attended: "It's a road map," he said. "It's how you get from here to there. If you didn't have them, you could be wandering in the forest." Just like Alice.