When asked, “what are your career goals?”, I always feel a bit ashamed that I don’t really have any. I suppose that’s because I feel like I should have them because we live in a culture that’s obsessed with working. I’ve accepted that I am out of that norm. Even in college do I remember not really caring intensely about my career path. I just wanted to do good work on projects I liked. It was that simple. Naive perhaps, but that kernel has stuck with me today. The clamor of the career-climbing ladder is simply unappealing. To me it seems that much of the modern career culture emulates car leasing. You simply get a new model every few years so that you can project a bloated image of yourself, but you really own nothing at all. Owning my time and what I spend it on is much more important to me than what's on my resumé.
I don’t think I really have career goals because I don’t see my career as inextricable from my life. My life is simply an amalgamation of my thoughts and experiences. It is not divided into verticals of career, relationship, friends, etc. It’s one cake and you can’t take the eggs out once it’s been baked. With the modern convention of retirement, many people see a career as necessary to get them to some arbitrary point in life where they can stop their career and finally spend their time as desired. I want to spend my time as desired while working. I enjoy work, but I’m not doing it so that I don’t have to one day.
Of course, there are things while doing the career side of my life that I would prefer to do. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve wanted to work on exciting projects with inspiring, fun people since I was in college learning design. That hasn’t changed. If anything, i’ve grown more resolute in achieving that goal (which actually might be a career goal–funny). When I think further about what I want to do, I see that those things are actually further from the norm. I don’t want to rise the ranks of my company to lord over lower level employees. Nor do I see anyone in my organization that I want to model my trajectory after. I don't look down on them, but most of their life paths are ones I have actively sought not to model. In fact, the people I want to model after aren’t anywhere near the field of design. They are people who rejected the norm of day jobs and career paths and sought their own journeys. That I can respect much more than steadily climbing the ranks to be VP of X at Y company after 30 years.
When I reduce the simplest criteria for how I want to spend my working time (which I think is a better term than “career goals”), I imagine:
I work on shit I want to work on
I want to work on projects that I get excited about and will offer heavy value on. I don’t want to format some slide deck because I was volun-told to do so. I don't want to build sterile applications. I want to work in a variety of mediums so that I am constantly challenged and engaged and never near the edge of burnout because I am stimulated by a fun, new problem. I want to use design to bring beauty into the world.
I work with people I want to work with
This is the hardest thing to achieve when working at a company. I’m surrounded by people I wouldn't normally elect to be on a daily basis. That shouldn’t sound snooty or rude, that’s simply truth. Yes, I elected to work at X company which inherently has Y people in it. Perhaps that’s fine for a while, but change is a promise and people come and go. In life, we have to deal with people we do not choose to. I understand that. However, if I could wave my magic wand over my working time, it would grant me the ability to work with people who are exciting, creative, and feel more like friends than co-workers or clients.
I don’t want to work that much
Surprise! I don’t want to put in 40 hours per week when I only need to work 10-20 to get my tasks done. If I offer 40 hours of value in less time, then what’s the problem? The eight hour work day is a fossil that is cemented in the monolith of American working culture. I want to break up my day as I like. Wake up at 8:30. Go on a run. Make coffee. Check a couple things at 10 and be heads down for a couple hours. Lift. Make lunch. Go out to the Greenbelt for a swim. Come back around 4 and wrap up some last tasks. Have the rest of the evening to do as I please. And so on.
As idyllic as the above may sound, those things coalesce as a North Star. And why would that North Star be any less sensible or realistic than striving to be Chief Design Officer at Facebook? It all comes down to mental modeling. My mental model is of life and not a single facet of it. Everything that happens during my life can be reduced down to being experience. Whatever label one wants to throw on top of that will never change the truth that career goals are just modern dogma. Since I began working professionally, I've been steadily navigating to the relationship with work I desire. Hopefully with a few more maneuvers, I'll be in the blue waters I imagined as a youthful design student who just wanted to do great work while leading the life I want to live.