Naming work goals will empower you

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

Last week I had the opportunity to interact with the listeners of a Minnesota daily radio program when I was a guest on “MPR News with Kerri Miller” (here’s the link if you’d like to listen:

Our topic for the hour was “My Job is a Tool for …” with the challenge to listeners to complete the sentence with the reasons why they work. The question itself is rooted in a principle I use as a bedrock for my career counseling practice, which is that jobs aren’t — or shouldn’t be — ends in themselves, but are tools that help us achieve goals we hold.

Over the years, I’ve learned that saying “My job is a tool” forces the question, “A tool for what?” This leads to, “What do I need my job to do for me?” As a career counselor, I’ve seen that when clients answer those questions, we are more likely to find solutions to their work issues that will fit their actual needs, both short- and long-term.

Asking this question also keeps the concept of “job” in its appropriate place in each person’s life. In my worldview, you don’t rearrange life goals to suit the job. Rather, you choose the job that fits your goals.

If this sounds pie-in-the-sky, or like something that’s only done by very privileged workers, think about how ordinary people do this all the time. For example, it’s common to choose a shorter commute over something with higher pay, or to transfer internally to work with a better boss, or to change shifts to accommodate a college schedule.

We routinely prioritize work and career decisions according to what’s important to us. By directly asking what you need your job to do for you, I’m just suggesting a proactive approach where you use your job to move toward goals intentionally, rather than a reactive mode where you make changes only to resolve problems.

If you want to try this yourself, think about your life and what you want or need, both short- and long-term. Next, rank your answers to determine the top two or three items: Which are the most important to you at this time? Finally, evaluate your current job or identify possibilities for new work, with this question in mind: How can I ensure that my work meets at least the top two or three priorities?

If that sounds simple, it is. But it gets tricky fast. First, your list needs to be specific. So if you wrote “Money” as one of your answers, you have more work to do. Money for what? If the real goal is to pay your bills and set aside savings each month, then tote up those numbers and put a specific amount on your list. But suppose you want the money to pay for travel. Then the goal isn’t money — it’s travel. And you still need to be specific: Travel where? How often?

This is the real work of goal setting, which is what sets the process apart from dreaming (or complaining, for that matter). If we are to achieve our goals, we need to name them and understand what it would take to reach them. And then we need to ask: Which tools in my life can be used to reach this goal?

This question leads to another level of problem-solving and introspection. Because as it turns out, sometimes the best tool for a problem might not be a job at all. It could be a business or a lifestyle change, for example. Another twist is that sometimes the best purpose of a job might not be to fulfill a certain need, but to stay out of the way. This is especially true for people with a larger project at hand, such as raising children, completing a degree, or pursuing artistic endeavors.

To make this concept more concrete, let’s take the example of someone who wants to travel frequently to another state or country to stay connected to family members. This person could be rich or poor, highly skilled or barely skilled. The question will remain: What’s the best tool to fill this need?

The answers will vary according to skill levels, resources, family obligations and other considerations, but might include: finding work that pays well and offers flexibility, or that requires travel to the desired location on a frequent basis; starting a business for the same purpose; volunteering with a group that needs their services in that location; or simply relocating.

Sound enticing? Jump into the process by naming your goals, then brainstorm with friends or a counselor to imagine solutions, work-based or not. You might be surprised at how empowering this will feel.