I did something for the first time this year that you may want to consider doing yourself: a career reviewing and planning session. For myself.

It was a bit like an annual job review. Only that it was conducted by me. And free of bureaucratic rigmarole. 

Started. Completed. Useful.

Why I did it

While most of us have something of a formal assessment for our individual job performance—an exercise which may or may not include the opportunity to discuss where we’re taking our careers—annual reviews from bosses are something of a low-value exercise.

“Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning,” write Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in an all-around excellent Harvard Business Review article detailing (with research) why feedback rarely works as well as we’d think it would. 

You should read why for yourself. My summary amounts to this: no matter how hard we try, our feedback to another person is always shadowed by our own biases, beliefs, desires, experiences, and other judgement-clouding realities. 

That’s not so good. And that argument doesn’t even include the fact that these conversations are guided by the organization’s goals—often not aligned with our own—nor the idea that when compensation is connected to assessment, as it too often is, impartial judgement is next to impossible.

Add it all together and it leaves one person truly capable of assessing our performance: us. 

Which is good. Because it’s also us who can best recognize the career path we’re on. 

This year, rather than achievements or pursuits, my path centered on two questions: 1) Why is work (in healthcare specifically) the way work is? and 2) What can we do about it?

Through the Work emerged as an effort to collect and share the answers. And there’s one lesson—perhaps the most important one—worth highlighting here and now and it’s this: learning is central to performing the day-to-day responsibilities of any job. 

If you want to get better at your job or prepare yourself for the next one or just figure out how to be more successful: it’s learning you’re after. So am I. And in this context, doing career reviewing and planning was a natural outcome of that (very important) lesson.

In the end, it was a useful experience I anticipate will be made even more so as the year unfolds. And of course as next year approaches.

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How I did it

I once worked for a boss who told me I didn’t know how to set goals. “How can I measure your performance if you don’t know how to set goals?,” they asked.

They, of course, were talking about SMART goals, a framework we’re all assuredly aware of. 

And frankly, I wish I would have answered their question with one of my own: “How will you judge my job performance against goals sure to become irrelevant to the work I’m doing?”

In my experience, SMART goals can actually be quite dumb in a dynamic environment when what is important now may not be in a year. Twelve months is a long time. A lot can be learned. A lot can change.

So while SMART goals have their place, I knew my reviewing and planning required more of an organic approach. Something more in line with Jason Fried’s philosophy and summarized best by this Jim Coudal quote:

The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them. 

Yes, that. 

So I started with a blank sheet of paper and spent nearly two hours thinking about last year and this year, the path I’m on, and how I want to steer it.

Here’s the framework I used:

  • Review; which amounted to asking “What happened last year?” in a few different ways
  • To; thoughts on where I’m going
  • From; connected to the above, and an assessment of where I am
  • How; the ideas for how I can move between the two (From to the To)
  • What Now; intentions for the next 30, 90, and 365 days to make things happen

It worked quite well. Though I’m certain I’ll adjust how I do this in the future because that’s what learning does: helps us find better ways to do things as a result of doing them. 

Although the framework is presented linearly, I didn’t hold myself to working through it in a formal step-by-step manner. That’s just not how the thoughts came to me. 

Instead, I used six sheets of paper (one for each of the above and the sixth for the general/random/parking lot thoughts that came as I went…) and jotted notes in the sections where I thought they belonged.

Here’s how I guided my thinking.

Review

I spent the most time here and asked variations on the question: What happened last year?

I started by thinking about bullet point projects. Those accomplishments I added to my resume in 2019. That led to a number of additional thoughts including:

  • Lessons learned relating to the work I’m doing: what didn’t work, ideas for what could work, themes running through the projects I worked on
  • Highlights from the year and accomplishments, those accomplishments that didn’t result in a resume bullet point but were important nonetheless
  • Lowlights from the year (because those happen, too) and learning opportunities, as they seemed to be related
  • General year-end thoughts and conclusions

Then I used questions to get my thinking moving in different directions and for recalling memories. If I had direct answers to a question, I wrote those down, otherwise they were just for rumination. I suspect the list of these questions will grow over time.

  • What did I learn about myself? What surprised me?
  • What made me happy? What excited me? 
  • What am I proud of since the last review?
  • What were the most important events since the last review?

To

This was a low-pressure question and I intended for the answers to come easily. Over time I’ve found the “Where am I going?” question can be filled with anxiety, and when it is again, I expect it to be useful to explore that. But I also wanted a question that could just as easily be answered “figuring it out as I’m going.”

Before I began reviewing and planning, I knew there were things I wanted to do and wrote those down right away. I’m also in a place professionally where the immediate next step feels known and evident which means To Dos to arrived without much effort.

Even with knowing my direction in the short-term, it was helpful to gather additional thoughts as I made my way through the Review of last year. It became evident that some themes from last year will continue into this year. It’s impossible to keep intentions and goals, as loosely as that can be defined, contained to a calendar year—so why force that?

In this section I collected a list of process goals and intentions, ranging from the general to the specific. I also summarized my direction with a Moving Toward framework of fast, medium, and slow: categories of speed denoting the intensity with which I’m intending to make the outcome occur. Each category had a single outcome as a means of providing focus, though I don’t see any reason not to put more than one if it feels right. 

From

This step was about identifying starting points by asking “Where am I?” 

It was an honest assessment of where I am as compared to where I’m going (the To section above). 

There were a few readily available thoughts I placed under a header of “Obvious.” Some thoughts are just that. 

It was also useful to ask: What do I like about where I am? And: What do I like about what I’m doing? The opposite of these questions also were useful. I suspect the answers will help express personal values when I’m making important decisions in the coming year.

Yet the best question I’ve discovered, in terms of identifying present state, comes from Aaron Dignan: “What’s stopping me from doing my best work?” 

Is it my organization? My job specifically? My boss? Me? It was important for me to think deeply about the answers and identify barriers in an effort to navigate them.

How

To close the gap between To and From, I spent time reflecting on the question “How can I help myself get there?” It was brainstorming in a way; although at least for this reviewing and planning session, my target was the practical and pragmatic. 

My professional goals are concrete at the moment. That made it easier to identify next steps. I don’t suspect that to always be the case. More time in this section is likely required when the professional future is foggier. 

The ideas that were expressed in this section—for the most part—had been rattling around in my head for the past month or so, though concentration on the question did provide additional opportunities not yet considered. It was helpful to put them to paper, especially in consideration of the final step of this process.

What Now

Finally: the actions to make it happen. 

I started by just writing intentions. Most of them are process goals (and those that are outcome goals are within my power to make happen).

Then I used a categorization method of 30/90/365 days for actions to take and projects to deliver in the next month, quarter, and for the year. 

This process gave me the opportunity to make decisions about various possibilities I’d been considering. Projects and ideas always hold the potential to move in different directions and, at times, those options have prevented me from moving in any direction. This exercise naturally forced priority clarification. 

Particularly important to me was identifying professional skills I wanted to improve because of my recent interest in skill development through practice at work. It was easy to identify three.

Everything I had come up with was naturally summarized in five intentions for the year, none of them SMART goals, for which I’ll be able to measure my progress for the year. 

I also wrote a one-sentence theme for the year. That, too, came naturally and was almost the final addition to this section. It was something I built into rather than cascaded down from. 

Finally, finally: Although I didn’t do this, I believe a Stop/Start/Continue exercise could be useful in the future. What are task/behaviors/actions you want to Stop, Start, and Continue?

What comes next

Revisiting the What Now section is important in making this exercise action-oriented as opposed to a useful but ultimately useless exercise.

I created an Evernote note with the information from the What Now section as to make it easy to review. I plan to do that in my weekly reviews (20 minutes every Friday), which I’ve been doing for the last three months, and includes more than just reviewing my thoughts from this exercise. 

As a result of completing this (Personal) Career Reviewing and Planning, I will start monthly and quarterly reviews to revisit my progress toward the intentions and adjust them against my worked experience. Adjustments are inevitable. 

I’m interested in including other people connected to my professional future in this process. I’ll see how that develops. There’s a lot to think about before approaching someone (boss, mentor, confidant, friend, etc.) with an ask related to this process. Too hot to handle this time around.

I anticipate this exercise to get easier and better with additional iterations. Just the act of weekly and quarterly reviews will provide more information for which to review a previous period of time. 

Ultimately, I found the exercise to be helpful and valuable. And its utility will increase with additional reviewing and planning.

Concluding thoughts

I find it unwise to put our career development in the hands of anyone other than ourselves, even those who are obvious supporters. No one has as much interest in our careers than us.

Others can only assist. Our careers are us things. Only we know where we’re going. Or want to go. Or have the ability to figure it out. 

If career development is important to you, then take stock of your situation from time to time and adjust accordingly. 

For most of us most of the time: there’s no greater opportunity to steer your career in your preferred direction than with the responsibilities of the job you’re doing now.

And beginning with a career reviewing and planning session is as good of a start as any.

Do you believe your intelligence, personality, and skills are capabilities destined from the moment you arrive in this world or are they developed over time?

A surprising number of us, and perhaps not all that knowingly, operate on the premise that how smart we are, who we are, and the things we’re able to do are things we must live up to rather than things we can develop with intention.

The issue, of course, is that if we believe that about ourselves we must believe it about other people, as well. That belief creates a cascade of consequences for how we operate at work.

Yet none of us can be blamed for this belief because it’s a learned behavior. It’s something, if you have it, you learned at home, at school, and at work. It’s something even great parents, great teachers, and great bosses have helped to spread unknowingly.

The belief is what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset and she wrote what amounts to a several-hundred page perspective-changing book on the subject. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck introduces the other side of the coin: the growth mindset and describes its benefits by illustrating the differences between the two.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple and the book is most helpful in assisting to recognize those situations where you tend to operate with a fixed mindset and those you approach with more of a growth orientation.

The irony in all of it, and this makes the book even more worth your while, is that once we recognize that a growth mindset is a thing, we understand that it is the only mindset there is. Dweck’s research supports the notion, Ericsson’s too, and a host of other psychology research has shown again and again that we’re able to develop our skills, improve our intelligence, and learn anything we want if we’re willing to apply ourselves to a learning process.

A fixed mindset is based on the belief that who you are—your personality, your abilities, your intelligence—cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Your traits are fixed and it’s those traits that are responsible for your success.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over,” Dweck writes, “If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

That’s because every situation becomes an opportunity to prove your worth, whether at work, in school, or at home. Success is proof that you are smart and talented and valued.

Failure, of course, is evidence to the contrary. That you’re not good enough. That a situation or assignment is too challenging for you. That if you fail, it’s because you were never going to be successful to begin with. Every situation is a binary opportunity to prove you’re good enough or that you’re not.

People with a fixed mindset often avoid challenge for this very reason, they hunger for approval, they ignore critique, and perhaps most damaging, they view effort in a negative light. Effort is bad, writes Dweck, “It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”

The growth mindset, on the other hand, “is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts,” she continues, “Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

With the growth mindset, your personality, abilities, and intelligence—as they currently exist—are the starting point for further development. Viewing the world this way gives you the ability to interpret failure and challenge for what they are: learning opportunities.

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Dweck gets to the core of the issue, as it relates to what we’re after at Through the Work, and it’s this: “Studies by Peter Heslin, Don VandeWalle, and Gary Latham (one, two) show that many managers do not believe in personal change.”

What a horrendous and wrong limiting belief! Can you imagine?

(Do you have it?)

She writes: “These fixed-mindset managers simply look for existing talent—they judge employees as competent or incompetent at the start and that’s that.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking for existing talent. Seeking candidates with the talent to match the position’s needs is a good idea.

But what these managers miss in their fixed-mindset that’s-that assessment of talent is what an abundance of social science research has revealed: We all have the capacity for development and growth. For anything and everything.

“A growth mindset is about believing people can develop their abilities, quips Dweck, “It’s that simple.”

It’s how Serena became Serena. It’s how Mozart developed into the prodigy he was. It’s how the Quarrymen became Johnny and the Moondogs and then arrived in New York as the Beatles.

And it’s how any of us get good at anything.

Talent is the visible outcome of hard work. Often: lots and lots of hard work.

Are our abilities influenced by our physical characteristics or our timing or our environment or our existing knowledge or our life experiences? Yes, of course! Learning conditions are critical to development.

But absent effort, what we think of as talent wouldn’t be very talented at all.

“Managers with a growth mindset think it’s nice to have talent, but that’s just the starting point,” Dweck continues. “These managers are more committed to their employees’ development, and to their own. They give a great deal more developmental coaching, they notice improvement in employees’ performance, and they welcome critiques from their employees. Most exciting, the growth mindset can be taught to managers.”

“I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong,” writes Benjamin Barber, “I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”

I like that idea. There’s truth in it. But it’s wrong.

Nonlearners don’t exist. Not real. You and nobody else can be a nonlearner. It’s not a thing.

The question isn’t ever are you a learner or not. It’s always: How much did you learn? As mentioned in the introduction and worth highlighting again: Once we’ve learned the growth mindset exists, the fixed mindset ceases to exist. Kaput.

“People are all born with a love of learning,” writes Dweck, “but the fixed mindset can undo it.”

If we have a fixed mindset—toward anything at work, at home, or in the world—it’s because we’ve learned it! And if we’ve learned to have a fixed mindset, we most assuredly can learn to have a growth mindset, too.

That’s important because learning the growth mindset is central to your ongoing success at work.

Here’s why: As a result of an industry in transition, we’re taking on more projects and more responsibilities without much prior experience in the subject matter. That’s normal in complex environments. Instead, we have to become experts as we do the work. And we’re expecting others to do the same.

Harold Jarche—whom I quote in just about everything I write these days—says, “Work is learning and learning is the work.” Work and learning are the same thing.

It’s actually impossible to know everything we need to know to solve a complex problem in advance of working to solve the problem. We will learn more as we solve it.

So for me, the most compelling representation of the growth mindset—the only mindset—is this idea of learning as we go and fulfilling our innate potential through the “power of yet.”

Dweck, a frequent speaker you can find all around YouTube, often shares the story of a Chicago high school where failing grades don’t exist. Instead, when a student hasn’t fulfilled the requirements to pass a course, they receive a grade of Not Yet.

It’s a not-so-subtle message of keep going, a useful approach to our own development (and problem solving, for that matter) and in our management interactions with others. “Keep going” is another way to say “keep learning.”

“As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets,” Dweck concludes, “you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”

It’s the road of growth and development and it’s open to all of us.