If someone was about to get on a bus to go to the grocery store, how would you summarize their goal?
You could say that their goal is to get to the grocery store, but that’s not right. That’s just a means to an end. The end goal is “satisfy my hunger, need for sustenance, and desire to eat something presumably tasty without sacrificing too many resources like time and money to do so.”
Their goal certainly isn’t “Get on a bus.” But more on that in a minute.
You aren’t really at the “core goal” behind an action until you reach something you can’t substitute. The person has to eat, so ultimately food at the right intersection of quality and cost is the goal. Literally everything else is a method, a tool, a path – one of several. The person in question presumably thinks it’s the correct path, but you’ll never know if you don’t see them as options, leading to a true goal, rather than as goals themselves.
It’s possible that a bus trip to the grocery store isn’t the best way for this person to get the food they want at the best value cost for them. Maybe ordering grocery delivery would be better – maybe the increased cost of delivery would counteract the time cost of the trip as well as the travel costs. Maybe not! But the point is that it’s worth looking at through the lens of knowing what you actually care about.
In general, people aren’t great at this. But they’re awful at it when it comes to their careers.
When you ask people what their career goals are, they mostly answer the equivalent of “my goal is to get on a bus.”
Let me show you the layers between true goals and what most people say & focus on. My true goal is to live a life that inspires my children to want to do awesome things with their own lives, while simultaneously creating the launchpad that allows them to do so (meaning valuable lessons, good social skills, health, and a good starting point for financial security) and letting me spend ample time just enjoying being with them as they grow up. My principles dictate the cost limits on this: even if it would improve the outcome of that goal, I won’t rob a bank, hurt anyone, etc. And you’ll notice that my goal isn’t stated in terms of a moment in time, but rather in terms of a pattern for my whole life. No single moment is a true goal.
Simply stated that way, you can see that there may be many, many ways to accomplish that goal! But there are some foundational things I’ll need to have. Obviously my own health needs to be good in order to give a good example to my kids, as well as to live long enough to see the full arc of their lives into adulthood (and to keep up with them!). I’ll need to have enough financial health to, again, be a good example – but also to save for them, provide opportunities for growth and education for them – but not sacrifice so much in terms of time and responsibility that I become detached from their lives. I also have to care about my own development in those areas, in order to learn with and guide my children. But those, while good things to do, aren’t true goals. I don’t have the true goal of financial health for myself – it simply strikes me as the most obvious way to provide financial health for my children.
Here’s a silly hypothetical counter-example: Let’s say an eccentric billionaire offers me a deal: as long as I never make more than $20k per year for the rest of my life and have a zero-dollar savings account balance every year, then this billionaire will provide each of my children $10 million upon their 18th birthday. I would take that deal in a heartbeat, because it gets me to my true goal.
Having identified my true goal and what strike me as the most efficient paths to it, I now start looking at options to execute on those paths. That means deciding between home gym equipment, a gym membership, or a personal trainer. It means deciding on savings vehicles for the kids. It means finding a job that has a good mix of schedule flexibility, opportunities for personal growth, and income. But none of those were goals. I didn’t have a goal of buying my own set of free-weights, starting a Roth IRA, or finding a specific job as an executive coach. Those were just tools to help me travel the path to my true goal.
Whew! Okay, now go back and ask someone else what their career goals are, and they’ll say “Work at Facebook.”
That is not even close to a goal. That is the equivalent of saying your goal is to get on a bus, when what you really really want is to satisfy a core need. But if you never realize that, you miss so many opportunities. If you’re so laser-focused on the bus, you might turn down a pop-up street market that is right across from the bus station and has better prices, quality and selection than the grocery store. It would have been better, but you weren’t even thinking about the true goal, just the silly tool that’s only one tiny piece.