Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Who Do You Want to Be? A New Way to Think About Professional Development

When you think about tips for succeeding in your career, you probably think of setting goals, coming up with a plan to reach them, and all the while working on your weaknesses and growing new skills. All very actionable, forward-thinking advice.

But Emily Bennington, career coach, speaker, and author of Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination, advocates a different approach to career advancement. For Bennington, it’s all about figuring out who you are right now and making decisions in the moment, rather than plotting out your future.

Intrigued, I sat down with Bennington to learn more about her philosophy and the experiences behind her surprising wisdom for getting ahead.

Figure Out Who You Want to Be

The foundation of Bennington’s advice is self-awareness, and she really challenges her clients and readers to think about who they want to be as people, rather than what they need to do to get ahead in their careers.

This is different from the goal-setting approach that most of us are taught. We’re told, if we just hit this quota or gain this skill, we'll move forward in our careers. Bennington, however, describes herself as having a love-hate relationship with goals—while they’re important, she says, they can also have the negative effect of keeping you perpetually living in the future. It’s a problem she calls goal-tripping: “With goals, you feel like your life doesn’t start until you check a certain box. You don’t feel validated until X happens to you, and that’s a very negative place to be.”

Bennington, who says she was in that place “for more than a decade,” advocates what she sees as a healthier approach to career growth—one that involves deciding the professional and personal virtues you want to stand on and then making sure that every action or decision, big or small, is based upon them. Bennington’s virtues include positivity, patience, discipline, and—one of her biggest challenges—cleanliness of her workspace, purse, and car. “What you’ll find is that, if you keep the focus on doing ‘little right things’ each day, you look back over time and realize you have made significant progress,” she explains. Plus, “you have the added benefit of actually enjoying the journey instead of wasting time trying to ‘find your path.’ You’re already on your path. I wish someone would have told me that sooner.”

Put the Work in to Define Your Values

Of course, the hard part is figuring out what, exactly, those values are. Bennington’s book is filled with activities and worksheets to help you hone in on who you want to be and what you stand for, but it’s ultimately not something that she (or anyone else, for that matter) can do for you. “It was a journey trying to figure out what mattered most to me,” she explains. “It’s definitely something that has an element of a trial and error, and it probably took me six or seven months to fully define what I considered to be the virtues that I wanted to stand on in my life."

Even once you’ve figured out what those values are, living them out on a day-to-day basis is an ongoing process. “It’s not an overnight thing, at all,” Bennington notes. “I’m still working on it, to be honest with you. There are times I still react in ways that, when I look back, I think I could have handled things better. The hardest part of this process in the beginning is actually remembering to do it in the moment and not after you’ve said something you regret. But it gets easier over time and eventually you will start to catch yourself earlier. And when that happens, you’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I’m reacting this way but I don’t want to.’ Once you’re aware enough to realize that, it just snowballs from there.”

For Bennington, this pause between stimulus and response is critical. “When I’m frustrated these days, rather than just reacting emotionally to it, I say, ‘Okay, how is it I want to respond in this situation?’ If I didn’t have that defined for myself, then I would just go flying into the emotion. Pausing enables me to be more thoughtfully presenct in the way that I work, which is key to the executive and leadership presence that allows you to advance in your career.”

Do it for Yourself

One of the most important pieces of advice Bennington has about career advancement is that nobody is going to show up and do the work for you. “I think a lot of times where we go wrong professionally is that we expect our boss to come hold our hand and tell us what we need to work on,” she says. “Before I was a speaker, I knew that I wasn’t the best at giving presentations—so I joined Toastmasters and went through that program and honed this skill. No one came to me and said, ‘Emily, I think you need to join Toastmasters.’ I just recognized my own development gap and decided to address it.”

Not only do you have to be the driving motivation behind your professional development, you have to make the time for it, too. “Whenever I get asked how to make time for professional development, it reminds me of a quote about meditation: ‘You should meditate for five minutes a day, and if you don’t have five minutes, you should meditate for two hours,’” she explains. “The time will never come to you, it just won’t. There are always ways that we can fill our time, and yet we still always manage to find time for the things that are most important to us. You have to make the time for your own development. If you want to get really serious, you have to calendar block it.”

The good news? Bennington is convinced that, once you give it a try, you won’t want to stop. “Once you start, you sort of get addicted to the progress that you’re making. And when that happens, I promise you’ll want to make the time.”