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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Reach Your Career Goals (and Enjoy Life, Too)

Over a cup of coffee in New York, a friend from Norway was seeking my advice about how to navigate the future. His dream is to become a judge in Norway, which requires years of study and work as a lawyer. Feeling the pressure of wanting a prestigious career, combined with still wanting the most out of life, he was unsure that he could pursue the judge track without sacrificing part of his youth, happiness, and ability to travel and make an impact in the world.

The concern about making the most of life while still moving forward in your career is one I hear a lot. Maybe it’s because we’ve learned about what we don’t want from our parents’ generation, or we’ve seen too many of our friends stuck in jobs they hate, but it’s a common theme: We want to succeed in our careers—but we don’t want that to mean our lives have to be boring and adventureless.

And while things are a little bit different in Norway (the reality is that most young Norwegians will find a job because of the strong economy or be supported by a strong government safety net), the sentiment—and my subsequent advice—is the same. Whether you are in Norway, the U.S., or somewhere else in the world, here are my tips for reaching your career goals while still enjoying life along the way.

The Journey Will Be Long, So Have Fun

In Norway, it takes more than 12 years to become a judge, and in the U.S., it can take decades. It’s pretty clear that reaching your goals won’t just happen overnight; you won’t be a company executive, doctor, or lawyer without putting in the hard work that comes along with those professions.

But, being on a long-term career track doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying life or even work all day, every day. You will change and evolve, and opportunities will come your way—opportunities that you shouldn’t turn down just because you’re working toward a career goal. When you approach them strategically, you can embrace experiences that actually help move you toward your overall goal, like travel, fellowships, and volunteering. On the law track, for example, working pro bono or conducting research abroad can help shape your specialization as a lawyer. Or, if you're in the medical field, researching public health issues or volunteering at a clinic can broaden your worldview and enhance your work in the long term.

Give yourself a foundation to work from by outlining your long- and short-term goals—but also keep in mind, it’s OK to do things that are different from that track.

Understand Your Deal Breakers

While we talked, my friend confided that, given the choice of going to a get together with friends or studying, he’d probably have to study. Would one party ruin his career? Certainly not—but he would have to eventually make up the work he missed.

This kind of give and take is necessary when working toward any kind of goal—the important thing is to be realistic, find balance, and before you get too far along, define your true deal breakers.

For example, if you love to travel or want a family, but your career is going to force you to give that up, are you really going to be happy? Or, if the career you’re working toward isn’t making the impact you thought it would, are you really committed to continue on that path for several more years?

They key here is to be both realistic about the sacrifices you will have to make to stay on track and honest about where you want to draw the line. Having these defined before you run into them will give you peace of mind. You’ll be able to enjoy the journey more when you know exactly what you’re willing to do to achieve your goal—as well as when you’ll stop if things aren’t going as planned. If you enjoy the path to your career and allow it to add richness to your life (instead of taking away from it), it will be a lot easier to reach your goal—and stay content with everything else in your life while you do it.

Embrace the Challenges

There are going to be times on your career track when you want to give up or hit a plateau. All of a sudden, the hard work won’t seem worth the pain, and all you’ll be able to think is, “Why bother?”

There will also be people who say you can’t both find success and do what you love and those who will be more than happy to point out that you might fail completely.

My advice? Let those criticisms only make you stronger and more determined.

Seek out a mentor or someone who’s experienced your struggles before, and find out what he or she did to cope. Or, take out your frustrations by doing something that blows off steam (like going on a long run or taking a kickboxing class), or provides a creative outlet (like a BYOB painting class or new recipe to try).

Often, of course, you’ll just need to plow through the challenge—but this will be the point that actually brings you the most satisfaction. Pushing through a challenge instead of being stunted by it will help you be a stronger advocate for yourself and recognize there is a way to handle problems with grace. And, each time you overcome a challenge, it becomes that much easier to do it again in the future.

Pay it Forward

One of the most fulfilling things you can do while striving toward a goal is finding ways to give back while you’re still on your journey. As you progress, there will be students or young professionals who approach you seeking mentorship, career advice, opportunities, or something else that requires your time and energy.

With your demanding schedule, you might not want to use your time to invest in others. But think back to the time that you were a young student or just starting your journey, trying to figure out what to do next. There was probably someone who took the time out to toss you an opportunity or give you an hour of his or her time for a talk—so pay it forward.

You’ll find that this actually helps you enjoy the process even more because you have a chance to reflect on your own knowledge and experience and recognize the powerful skills you have to offer. Plus, you’ll establish yourself as a mentor and expert in your field—which will only provide you with more opportunities as you move forward.

I remember what it’s like to wonder if you’re the right track; I think everyone feels that way at some point. So my advice to my friend—and anyone stressing about the road ahead—is that you can still take risks, embrace challenges, and enjoy life while reaching your goals. In fact, it just might give you more clarity.

For my friend, this simple advice worked. I recently received an email that read, “I think back to our conversation and try to recall all of the advice you gave me. On the subway after our meeting, I had the urge to get out into the world, to pick the path that was meant for me, and make an impact."

And that kind of positive outlook is exactly the right way to reach your goals.

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