Republished from Try Reason!
Look around you. Identify the most successful people you know. Now, ask them if they have a long-term plan or goal for themselves, for their career, or for their business. I did this a number of years ago and found that each and every successful person I talked to could identify, usually quite explicitly, where they wanted to be in 5 years.
The relationship between having and pursing long-term goals and success in a career, in a business, or in life is not accidental. It stems from the intimate relationship between purpose and productivity. No one has better articulated that relationship than Ayn Rand. In “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, she states:
“The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. “
She goes on to say:
“‘Productive work’ does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.”
The great inventor, Thomas Edison, also identified this relationship between success, productivity, and thought.
“The first requisite for success is to develop the ability to focus and apply your mental and physical energies to the problem at hand – without growing weary. Because such thinking is often difficult, there seems to be no limit to which some people will go to avoid the effort and labor that is associated with it….”
To be successful, one must achieve high levels of productivity. To be productive, one must think continuously and to their fullest ability.
So what does all of this mean in terms of writing 5 year goals? It begins by the identification of one’s central purpose in life.
“Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work—pride is the result.” – Ayn Rand
This identification does not necessitate many months of thinking. It does, however, require applying your full capacity to think. Approached correctly, it can be accomplished in as little as an hour, as I have explained and accomplished before. With a clear purpose, one can start to identify gaps between where we are now and where we want to be. These gaps mark the outline to one’s 5 year goals. Author Burgess Laughlin analyzes the nature of a central purpose in life and criteria for writing a successful central purpose for your life.
As a personal example, I was unsatisfied with my career five years ago as a web developer. It would have done me little good 5 years ago to say, “Well I’m hear right now, now what?” There were literally an infinite number of ways I could have proceeded. I could have continued as a web developer. I could have focused on database administration. I could have specialized in project management. I could have pursued my MBA. I could have… well, I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the point. In fact, I had been contemplating all of those various career choices I listed above. The sad thing is, I probably would have been dissatisfied with the results in any of those choices because I hadn’t identified my central purpose.
I realized that these various professions did not address my passions. I loved teaching, loved technology, loved business, and loved researching and learning new things. Above all, my passion was with helping individuals make the best decisions possible, either through use of information technology or through education of proper thinking skills. The only career path that allowed me to combine all of my passions was a professor of information systems. I could teach thinking skills to students, teach proper development of information technologies to facilitate successful business operations, and research how people make the decisions they do and see how technology can supplement an individual’s decision-making process.
After identifying a central purpose in life, the next step is a fact-finding mission to discover all of the potential means of achieving that end. When I first decided to pursue a career as a professor, I had to go research more about teaching at the university level. Although I originally thought that the only way to get into academia was with a PhD, I learned that individuals can teach at the university level with just a master’s degree. But, in order to teach students in a master’s or PhD program, I would need to have a PhD. Because I wanted that additional potential interaction with master’s and PhD students, my original notion of obtaining a PhD was warranted. I also had to research various university requirements for admission and potential programs of study that best fit my needs and background.
The fact-finding mission should reveal various paths to the end that you want. Anyone of these paths will get you where you want to be. The path that best aligns with your values, your personality, and your lifestyle should become your 5-year goal. This process often takes a great deal of introspection and integration of all the details, before a goal emerges that sings to your passions.
On a more practical note, 5 year goals should be written such that they are a stretch, but doable. Consider everything that can be accomplished in 1 year if you apply all your effort. If you can imagine completing your 5 year goal in 1 year, the 5 year goal is not big enough. We often underestimate what we can do if we apply a continuous effort and fully apply our mental capacities. By considering what can be done if we “stretch”, we begin to feel an urgency to act that we may not if there is no urgency. That urgency to act is exactly what is needed.
What is the most important part of 5-year goals? ACTION! It is action, driven by rational thought, leading to productive work in one’s central purpose, that leads to success. Writing solid 5 year goals sets the ground work – engaging in sustained and continuous effort turns the goals into success. To turn 5-year goals into such sustained effort requires identification of shorter-range goals and plans of action (on the scale of 1 year, 1 month, and 1 week respectively). How to achieve this, however is a topic beyond the scope of this post.