Several years out of college, my peers at a management consulting firm began applying for business school at top MBA programs around the world. My life was taking a different path (a path that led me to my current job, which I love), but I nonetheless attended every b-school application workshop I could. I’m not sure why I did, but let’s chalk it up to a gut feeling that it might be useful someday. Much to my suprise, that “someday” became “everyday” for me.
A phrase the business school application advisors frequently quipped was “What’s your story?” They were using it in a very literal term, guiding hopeful MBA candidates to craft their application essays into narratives differentiated from the thousands that admissions officers would receive. That simple question sparked a season of self-reflection and future goal-setting for each of my friends, and I quickly recognized the value of building one’s narrative stretches far beyond a graduate school application.
As young businesspeople, we are bombarded with shiny opportunities, both professionally and personally. Frequently these opportunities are good opportunities--serving on the boards of non-profits, leading a green initiative in the workplace, coaching a children’s sports team, accepting an exciting promotion. How are we supposed to value one opportunity over another? I realized it all boils down to the simple question “What is my story?”
Since that realization I have attempted to simplify my life, and in turn live much more fully, by treating each decision as a chapter of my story. A good story--not some romantic summer flick, but a Tale of Two Cities or Gone with the Wind classic--has a simple, consistent theme with well-developed characters and a unique plot line. Every chapter fits snuggly in its spot, each one complimenting the next, to build to the final page. I’ll share the basic framework I use to build my story, and I hope that it helps you do the same.
Where am I going?
Why am I going there?
How am I going to get there?
Where am I going?
Let’s face it--at 25 years old, you probably do not realistically know exactly where you want to be in 20 years; however, you likely have a general idea. Is your dream to eventually attain a C-suite executive position? Is it to be a successful stay-at-home mom with a side hustle? Do you dream of starting a non-profit? It is important to understand your end objective, however general it may be.
Remain realistic and know what you actually want. One of my business mentors, a very successful investor known worldwide, once told me that there are 5 “Fs” you can prioritize in your life. You cannot do them all well, so you better know in what order you rank them. They are, in no particular order:
Figure out your ranking of your 5 Fs and stick to it.
You want to wake up everyday knowing where you are going that day (we will get to goal-setting later), but don’t forget to ask why… which brings me to the second part of my framework.
Why am I going there?
Setting long term goals sounds easy enough. Nonetheless, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve gotten off track more than once. Remember all those shiny opportunities I’ve mentioned? Yep, I’ve been the one that’s chased after a great opportunity or two that has nothing to do with my goals. There have also been periods in my life when I’ve had the opposite problem; paralyzed by fear of overcommitting, I don’t commit to anything. I wake up 6 months later with zero professional or personal growth. The problem is that during these times, I have neglected to pay attention to my passions, and in turn, the theme of my life.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of defining the consistent theme you hope your life takes. A book that dryly recounts stories isn’t nearly as gripping as a well-woven tale that is entirely tied to one theme. A Tale of Two Cities pivots around unrequited love and transformation. Gone with the Wind is a story of perseverance. Thus, while it is important to understand your realistic goals for your life, I assert that it is equally important to know why they are your goals. Your “why” is the theme for the story of your life, tying all of those little accomplishments together.
If someone looked at your resume, including your activities outside of work, would they be able to pinpoint your passions? Could they tell who you are, or just what you have done?
Now you may (understandably) ask, “So what? Why do I need a theme? If my milestones are pushing me to my end goal, who cares if someone can or can’t read between the lines and discern my passions?” What a great question. The benefit is truly to yourself.
Without a good understanding of the one or two themes that are driving you to your end goals, deciding what opportunities to pursue and when to pursue them will become infinitely more difficult. Remember that random episode in the second season of Stranger Things when Eleven lives with the criminals in Chicago? Did we get to see consistent milestones like Eleven using her powers and learning more about herself? Yes. Did it contribute at all to the overall storyline? No. Minimize those episodes in your life.
How do I get there?
Ok, you’ve set your long term goal, and you’ve identified the common theme that will help you discern between opportunities that present themselves along the way. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, though. You must be saying to yourself, “This all sounds grand, but how do I actually execute it?”
Once you have set your priorities and determined the direction you wish to take your life, research individuals who have already achieved those goals. Become experts of their lives. Know their career paths and how they structure their work days. Know how they spend their free time, or if they even have free time. Know what books they read, movies they watch, and routines they set.
After you’ve studied your predecessors’ lives, determine what those steps could look like for you. What type of company should you work for? What type of skills do you need to develop? What type of mentors do you need, and who should you mentor?
From that point, set milestones for yourself. The nearest ones should be detailed and frequent, and you should leave the later ones broader and flexible. Perhaps you set monthly goals for yourself for the next 12 months--podcasts to listen to, trainings to attend, charity work to perform, networking connections to make, etc. Your milestones two years out might be set quarterly--a certain skill you want to master in Q1, a promotion you want to achieve by Q2, etc. Five years out, you may have a general goal of working for a certain type of company or serving on a certain type of board. The important thing is that your milestones build on one another to get you to that end goal, and they make one congruent story united by your passion or theme.
To get started, what do you need to do tomorrow to take the first step? Whether it’s setting up a networking lunch or arranging to volunteer for a worthwhile cause, make sure it’s a building block to your end goal and it fits your theme.
Let’s tie it all together
I guarantee that during your career you will face innumerable opportunities, many of which will appear “good” and all of which will demand your time. Every time you face an opportunity, you not only should ask yourself if it gets you closer to your end goals, but also if it fits with the theme you wish to build with your life.
There is a reason top business schools place such a high premium on an applicant’s story. Not only does it help them understand the individual, but it also show them the applicant lives intentionally. When every accomplishment of the applicant fits a narrative, the business school trusts that the applicant has specifically sought out that program for a reason, and likely will be an outstanding representation of its brand.
Of course, you first need to define both your end goals and your theme. Be honest with yourself about your passions and priorities. Take time to frequently reflect, and course-correct if necessary. You inevitability will hit roadblocks along the way, and your goals may even change; but, if you understand your goals and themes clearly, you’ll quickly realign your path.
So friends, pick up your proverbial pencil and start writing your story.