If You Don’t Design Your Career, Someone Else Will

A client once responded to one of my questions by saying, “Oh Greg, I am too busy living to think about life!” His off-the-cuff comment named a trap all of us fall into sometimes. In just one example, it is easy to become so consumed in our careers we fail to really think about our careers.

To avoid this trap, I suggest carving out a couple of hours over the holiday break to follow these simple steps for reflecting on your career.

Step 1: Review the last 12 months. Review the year, month by month. Make a list of where you spent your time: include your major projects, responsibilities and accomplishments. No need to overcomplicate this.

Step 2: Ask, “What is the news?” Look over your list and reflect on what is really going on. Think like a journalist and ask yourself: Why does this matter? What are the trends here? What happens if these trends continue?

Step 3: Ask “What would I do in my career if I could do anything?” Just brainstorm with no voice of criticism to hold you back. Just write out all the ideas that come to mind.

Step 4: Go back and spend a bit more time on Step 3. Too often we begin our career planning with our second best option in mind. We have a sense of what we would most love to do but we immediately push it aside. Why? Typically because “it is not realistic” which is code for, “I can’t make money doing this.” In this economy—in any economy—I understand why making money is critical. However, sometimes we pass by legitimate career paths because we set them aside too quickly.

Step 5: Write down six objectives for the next 12 months. Make a list of the top six items you would like to accomplish in your career this year and place them in priority order.

Step 6: Cross off the bottom five. Once you’re back to the whirlwind of work you’ll benefit from having a single “true north” career objective for the year.

Step 7: Make an action plan for this month. Make a list of some quick wins you’d like to have in place over the next 3-4 weeks.

Step 8: Decide what you will say no to. Make a list of the “good” things that will keep you from achieving your one “great” career objective. Think about how to delete, defer or delegate these other tasks. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The crime which bankrupts men and nations is that of turning aside from one’s main purpose to serve a job here and there.”

Many years ago I followed this process and, without exaggeration, it changed the course of my life. The insight I gained led me to quit law school, leave England and move to America and start down the path as a teacher and author. You’re reading this because of that choice. It remains the single most important career decision of my life.

Two hours spent wisely over the next couple of weeks could easily improve the quality of your life over the 8760 hours of the next year–and perhaps far beyond. After all, if we don’t design our careers, someone else will.

30 thoughts on “If You Don’t Design Your Career, Someone Else Will

  1. Leeana Allen says:


    Dear Greg,

    I came upon your blog via a LinkedIn article I was reading. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to publish your insightful article.
    I have engaged in heartfelt careers pre 2000 to 2005, or what I refer to as analog society. I was outdated by technology with each choice I made. While I agree with the inspirational approach you have suggested, I feel I am experiencing the reverse. I loved architecture. It did not want to be a CAD plotter so I returned to school and focused on graphic design, typesetting, and photography, all passions of mine. I loved my design studio and work. I was successful especially with promotional print work. But again, I had to change course as my specialties were dying. I moved from creative services to retail. Again, i was successful with my store, however EBay was a difficult competitor.
    My point is, I have pursued my career with vigor but have not outrun technology. I am displaced in our society yet again, and searching for where my possibilities exist. Technology has become a hinderance not only to productive people but also to those who must leave behind their journeyman skills developed in an analog world. At 60 years old I don’t wish to retire and if perhaps this sounds like complaining, it isn’t.
    I wrote this comment for two reasons. One, no one had posted a comment and I wanted to let you know I read your blog. The second reason is,
    I wanted to.


    • Matt Sadinsky says:

      As challenged as you have been moving from creative to retail, 60 is the new 40 and there are likely 3-5 senior centers near you where many may not know how to facetime their grandkids, receive a picture by email, or download a song or follow a discussion thread. I am not sure if there is career extension or voluntarism in this for you, but it may be worth exploring. Seems to me we are always hating the upgrade – yet my 82 year old Dad is tackling Windows 8 before me… and my 13 year old hates i07…

    • Kami says:

      Did you get a response? I’m very interested in this topic of technology advancement outpacing humans. I feel the same way, like I need to be enrolled in training of some sort every year just to be relevant to today’s job market. – Kami

    • Nita says:

      Hi Leeana,

      It sounds like you have a wealth of experience in doing things you are passionate about. Do you think you would “jump on the bandwagon” with the new technologies that are out? Possibly you can use your resources to web design or graphic design on the computer?

      Good luck!!

    • Paramjit Singh Sahai says:


      Change is inevitable. Change management is imperative. Every cell in our body and mind changes, every second. Our thoughts evolve every second. The collective effort of all 7 billion people around us is primarily to improve our lot by serving each other with products or services which we enjoy doing.

      It serves us best to impact more and more people around us. This is possible by leveraging technology. It will give greater happiness.

      Learn, or find a partner to help in leveraging technology. List your services for the world to enjoy what makes you happy.

    • David W says:

      Hi Leeana, I’m writing from the north of England, and was interested by your comments.
      I really like the way you have reflected on your experience of changing technology leading you to feel displaced by its constant change. I’d like to offer some thoughts that might help re-frame what you’re experiencing:
      I think you sound like a resourceful person and this is just a new chapter in your life of discovery.

      I understand you love architecture and photography, and creative stuff.
      If you can use the tools, and the people networks, at your disposal, then perhaps what you now have to offer is your story and experience of feeling DISPLACED, and how you might navigate your way in this world in spite of your changing environment.
      Although it’s a competitive world and things move fast, what DOESN’T is the core essence of human experience.
      You could give other people hope by helping them identify and understand their own experience of displacement.
      Lots of us prefer stability, but it seems fleeting. Lots of people experience displacement in various ways because of changes such as political, economic, demograhic. You seem to have experienced being dispaced by technological change, and methods of business practice.
      Just as an example, Coal Miners felt displaced because their industry changed, became economically unpopular, and much of their landscape has changed giving way to shopping malls and leisure areas. Furthermore their communities were torn apart by tensions arising from the dichotomy they faced; there are still deep tensions even now 30-40 years later.

      On the technology front, look how many people will struggle with simple things like accessing services or choosing cheaper services because so much choice is available only to those who can navigate the internet – and those who struggle with the computer age find that the ‘shop-front’ services they prefer are becoming obsolete.

      The point is that what you could do is share your reflections of human displacement through blogging, photography, newspaper / magazine articles, exhibits in galleries, talks to conference groups or other social gatherings.

      Your passion for architecture might be a way to challenge the problems of displacement, (and work collaboratively with someone who is ok with modern technology.) Perhaps your reflections shared in photography might be a way to help tell that story of displacement.
      Do you have a faith or particular cultural background? – If so, stories from sources such as the Bible or other sacred texts, and cultural narratives of your ancestry offer a rich resource to aid reflection on the human experience of displacement. In the Christian tradition, we hold fast to the sense that although things in life change, God’s love does not change, He is eternal, and will always provide for the needs of His people, even though they may have experienced displacment. (God provided food and water in the desert for the Israelite people in the Exodus story after escaping slavery in Egypt).
      You might not agree with that, but at the heart of it is finding HOPE amidst uncertainty.
      kindest regards to you. I hope this helps.

  2. piyathilaka says:

    Your article is very important to design future career.Proper planning would change the life of a person or a society.
    Thanks and write more,

  3. Eric Rose says:

    Great stuff. I still struggle with putting the principle into practice but it’s great to hear someone encouraging me to stay the course. I’m reminded of Jesus who said the wide way leads to death & the narrow way leads to life. While your point may be more temporal & practical in nature, it still strikes the same fundamental chord: disciplined focus yields a superior life, as compared to all-to-common diffusive distractions. This is a completely counter-cultural message but a much-needed one.

    Thanks for being willing to challenge the norm with the exceptional.

    thanks & best regards,
    eric rose

  4. Duncan Steele says:

    I know that I am a capable person and that I have achieved a great deal in my careers – first as an academic and then in global public health. Yet, the title of your article rung a loud bell (as opposed to a chord) for where I feel myself to be, and the increasingly distracted and disjointed journey that I am on currently. Major aspects that struck home include – distracted by the daily intrusive busy things and little focused effort on the vital things; and no time to think or strategize or innovate.
    I am going on holiday with my family in 2 weeks and am going to take that time to reflect and determine my path forwrads as you suggest. Thank you

  5. Matt Sadinsky says:

    Amen – thank you. What of coaching high schoolers, college & university bound around careers? I think three of the best ideas I have heard is to encourage them to be curious, seek a mentor and try several things. Developing the understanding that learning from failures makes us resilient is wisdom and takes time. While I coach adults towards success in their careers every day – I am often challenged most by my teenagers and their friends … building careers and building organizations that foster career growth is rich stuff that our schools are not well aligned to… and some leaders do it much better than others…

  6. Nathan Hughes says:

    Thanks for breaking it down. Crossing off the bottom five objectives for the next 12 months. Brilliant!

  7. Qazi says:

    Wow, one great article. Thanks greg for sharing this, although it seems easy but it aint at least in the start.
    I am 24 and just completed 2 years of employment and still I miss my graduation days where no one used to boss me, although I am happy here but there is nothing like University Life.

  8. Nita says:


    Thanks for your insight! I am going to apply these challenges in my own life (I say challenges because I move so fast, often I don’t sit down long enough to reflect or write down anything if it doesn’t have anything to do with school). I am looking forward to making small changes to incur the big changes that I know are coming.


    Thank you

  9. Jonathan Cover says:

    I think the ability to step out of our lives and gain a long term perspective is something incredibly valuable. However, apart from the chanting of “follow your heart” and similar sentiments (which by the way, I don’t believe was the thrust of your article) there is the idea that you can guide your passions with skills and proficiencies. To put it bluntly, if you’re good at something, there’s a good chance you’ll like doing it and an even better chance you’ll like the rewards and recognition that come from being great in a given field.
    If this is true, my advice would be find a field that has a future, become the best in that field and see if you don’t like it. The great thing is that if you don’t you’ll then have the money to pursue the things you do like even if they aren’t financially profitable. Of course there’s judgement and balance in all of these decisions but it does provide hope to someone who for example is young wants to get into theater or writing and can’t see how to do it financially. Pick a different career, devote yourself to it, become the best and you’ll have something to tell others about.

  10. Bill says:

    Great article Greg – a concise but powerful message.

    I’m currently at law school in London and start training at a firm in August. I constantly feel a need to do more, to be as busy as others, and I’ve already found it’s easily to lose sight of what really matters. I’m unsure of what my future career holds but I have a feeling these steps will prove an important tool.

    Keep writing


  11. Kerri O'Donnell says:

    Thanks, Greg.

    I will do this for my career. And I will do it again for my life in general.

    I think sometimes the two conflict, especially if there is family to consider. But instead of conflicts being allowed to write off dreams, maybe co-planning can simply influence the timing or order of steps toward the bigger goals.

    So perhaps it’s a good idea to do them separately up to step 4, and then alongside each other from step 5 onwards.

    Worth a try, eh?

  12. Rocio Smid says:

    thank you, perfectly timed message for me! I do not believed in coincidences!



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  15. Bruce Wangsanutr says:

    Thanks for this. It was very insightful and inspirational. I’ve been stepping back from the things that I’m passionate about for work sake, and it’s a great reminder for me to stay on point focusing on the things I’m passionate about and make time for them. Very appreciative of the boost!

  16. Chris B. says:

    Good thoughts. I once heard someone say, “The only reason we are where we are today is because that’s where we were yesterday.”

    It wasn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson but it could have been. I like the quote about turning aside from one’s main purpose to serve a job here and there.

    Good blog!

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  19. azarnovski.com says:

    Surprise, surprise happy people live their lives differently. They don t have different lives. They just do a better job at living them than those who are unhappy.