Defining Your Life’s Goal

Posted by Bob Corlett on December 12, 2012

“You have 15 seconds to answer this question: Looking back on your career 20, 30 years from now, what do you want to say you’ve accomplished? Go.”

Jeff Weiner, chief executive of LinkedIn, was interviewed recently by Adam Bryant for The New York Times, and he was asked what career advice he gives to recent graduates.

He starts with that 15-second question, adding, “If you can’t answer it in 15 seconds, it probably means you haven’t thought about the answer before that moment, or you don’t have a definitive answer. That’s fine, because for some people it’s a lifelong journey. But many people don’t have the answer to the question. They either never asked themselves that or they got swept up in a stream of opportunity that led from one thing to another — more titles, more money — and they didn’t stop to ask themselves that simple question.

You can’t realize your goal if it’s not defined. So the most important piece of advice I can give folks who are coming out of school, even people who’ve already begun their careers, is to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish. Once you know it, the moment you know it, you begin manifesting it. You manifest it in explicit ways by virtue of knowing and then pursuing it, and you manifest it in implicit ways — just in the way you talk, in the way you think and the things that you say to others and the people you attract to yourself.

And if you don’t know the answer to the broader question, my advice is to optimize for two things: passion and skill, not one at the exclusion of the other. You have to optimize for both. So that’s the first piece of advice.

The second piece of advice is to surround yourself with amazing people, only the best. In this day and age, in this more global society, in this more networked, interconnected world, it’s all about the people you work with. I used to think it was all about the person you worked for, having the right mentor, the right leader, someone who believed in you, someone who would allow you to make mistakes and take risks and teach you and coach you. It’s not just about the person you report to, though. It’s about the people you work with and the people who report to you. It’s about everyone you’re associated with, day in and day out. Surround yourself with only the best you can find.

And the third piece of advice is to always be learning. Joi Ito, the head of the M.I.T. Media Lab, loves to refer to the word “neoteny.” It means a delayed state of adolescence. With animals, it’s not a good thing because the animal has not fully matured. But with regard to people, it can be an incredibly positive thing. Joi likes to talk about maintaining a childlike sense of wonder throughout one’s entire life.

Weiner ends the interview with a powerful quote from Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” He goes on: I like to lean toward the latter, and I’m definitely drawn to other people who do the same.

Topics: Career Advice