The Office Life: Setting Career Goals

This weekend, I sat down and wrote out a long list of things I want to do to improve and modify Capitol Hill Style.  One change is renaming “The Hill Life” feature, The Office Life.  We’ll still talk about Hill-specific topics from time-to-time, but I wanted the topics to apply more broadly to those readers who work in professional offices outside of Capitol Hill. 

In honor of the New Year, I wanted to use the first post to talk about setting goals, because too many women don’t have a clear picture of where they would like their educations or careers to take them.  

This pretty graphic was found at Hitha on The Go.Write It Down. Spending my formative teen years in beauty pageants, I was often asked to write down my goals and aspirations. (I was also asked what kind of candy bar I’d like to be and why, but that’s another post.)  

At the time, I didn’t realize how important the simple act of writing down your career goals could be.  But now, I understand that just making a list (and checking it twice), helped me focus my attention on how to achieve my aspirations.  Here is the real list from a pageant questionnaire that I filled out in 10th grade (!!!).

Career Goals: graduate from college with a degree in political science (done), intern for Montana’s congressman on Capitol Hill (done) and attend law school (pass).  After graduation move to Washington, D.C. and work as a policy analyst on Capitol Hill (I was 15, I didn’t know they were called Legislative Assistants–done), move back to Montana and teach political science at Carroll College (someday).

Aspirations: be a contestant on Jeopardy! (done), publish a book of short stories (in progress, become Miss Montana (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

Modify the List. When I was a teenager, it felt like all of these goals were set in stone.  But life doesn’t work that way.

I didn’t go to law school because the cost was prohibitive and would have gotten in the way of more important “grown up” goals like being financially stable and saving for a home/retirement.

I’ve also added goals to the list.  This blog certainly wasn’t something I thought about doing in 1997, but it’s become an important part of my life.  And now, I have a whole different set of blog-realted goals to add to the list.

Find a Mentor.  Once you identify what you want to do, find a mentor.  Usually, if you’re working in the industry you want to be in, you can find a mentor in your own office.  Just pick out the person who looks like she knows what she is talking about, and send her a polite email asking if you could grab coffee and discuss how she became so successful.  

If that isn’t an option for you, the Internet is a wonderful tool for finding people who have the career you want to have someday, and LinkedIn is a great place to start.  I have sent dozens of LinkedIn messages to people who I admire and aspire to be “when I grow up.”  Eight out of ten times, I don’t hear back, but when I do, it’s always a thrill.  

Even if all you do is exchange one or two emails, just making contact with a person and asking them “How did you get where you are?”, “What was your big break?”, and “What advice would you give someone looking to do what you do?” can provide a lot of valuable insight.

Timeline.  Once you find a mentor, they should be able to give you a realistic picture (or at least a ballpark estimate) of how long it will take you to achieve your goals.  This isn’t a firm number but it’s a good guide for keeping yourself on track.  But again, life happens and it’s perfectly okay if things take longer. 

Keep Yourself Accountable.  Look at your list every few months and have an honest conversation with yourself about what progress you’ve made (or haven’t made).  Determine where you could improve or what other avenues you could explore.  Find new mentors and continue growing your network so you don’t miss an opportunity.

In conclusion, your list should be thought of as a living, breathing creature.  It grows and changes as you grow and change.  Don’t be afraid to change and alter the list as you discover new opportunities, outgrow things you thought you wanted or simply decide that what you thought was for you, wasn’t.  But as long as you continue to be honest with yourself and set goals for the future, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

So, ladies, do you have a list of goals? Or any other advice for women looking for direction in their careers?



  1. JeanieMK says:

    You were on Jeopardy too! I always knew there was something I liked about you, Belle. Apart from a fantastic sense of style, devotion to bettering your world, and an undying work ethic, that is. My mom (another Jeopardy alum) thinks we need a club 🙂

    On a more topic-related note, I find list-making and life-planning to be the only way I can manage the day/week/month/year. Even having changed my entire plan midway through 2012, once I had a new goal, I immediately started planning various scenarios to get there. I firmly believe life is just a choose your own adventure, and I want to be prepared for each option 🙂

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. Kim says:

    I'm a list maker by nature. I don't just make goals at New Year's, which I think is partly why I've been successful at achieving them. I agree that you have to check back at your goals often to succeed at them.

    I made goals to really start hustling for myself and making myself into the expert in my field I know I can be, all while honing my craft and really expanding my knowledge into new realms that will contribute to my overall goal of becoming a freelance content creator.

    I've broken down this big goal into smaller steps, even daily lists of activities I should do each and every day to make progress. So far, it's working! I have an informal meeting with a local online content/SEO company this afternoon to talk about opportunities! (Cross your fingers!)

    January 2, 2013/Reply
  3. Mel says:

    How appropriate! I just sat down to start my career goals list for 2013.

    January 2, 2013/Reply
  4. L says:

    “I didn't go to law school because the cost was prohibitive and would have gotten in the way of more important “grown up” goals like being financially stable and saving for a home/retirement.”

    Truth. Too late for some of us…

    January 2, 2013/Reply
  5. Belle says:

    L: If I had gone to law school straight out of college, or after a year, instead of going to grad school, the financial aspect would not have been much different from where I am at now. But at 29, going back to spend 35k per year on school didn't make much sense from a cost benefit stand point. Some of these law schools are just too good at selling a dream that doesn't materialize but for a few.

    January 2, 2013/Reply
  6. Moosita says:

    In addition to yearly and long-term goals I think it is key to also set short-term goals, to break your elephant-sized goals into bite-sized pieces. What works for me is monthly “intentions” that contribute to my yearly goals. No harsh standards or metrics or judgment… just facing true north and telling myself “Try.”

    In chasing our dreams and goals, we all experience the inevitable moments where we fall off the wagon and get temporarily distracted from the big picture. Simple, doable short-term goals help me not to get discouraged when that happens.

    January 2, 2013/Reply
  7. L says:

    I agree, Belle! These days, and even a few years ago in a public service sector, it's not that great. I tell people not to go unless they really, really, really want to be a lawyer (I did, but sometimes even then I question my choice and my law school debt was half some of my friends'). This is clearly a sidetrack from the point of your post, which I think is great. Those words definitely just stuck with me. I wish law schools were a bit more honest about this…especially now.

    January 3, 2013/Reply
  8. CBK says:

    I think it's important, especially for young, professional women to acknowledge when a large goal is finally achieved. Last fall I met my largest professional goal to date and my instinct was to keep pushing, keep working. What I realized by doing this was in not celebrating my accomplishment I became rudderless and felt less pride in my accomplishment.

    Additionally, once you accomplish a goal it is important to take real time to consider how that win impacts every other goal, because whether you expect it to or not, it does.

    January 3, 2013/Reply
  9. EBT says:

    My family sits down together at the end of each year to discuss our greatest successes from that year and our goals for the coming year. We try to set measurable goals in different categories (family, career, health, relationships, creative, spiritual, etc) and then we try to figure out ways we can help each other achieve those goals. I've found that it's so helpful to commit to our goals together because then we have an whole (huge) group of people rooting for us.

    January 3, 2013/Reply
  10. Laura says:

    What absolutely fantastic advice, and something which I have sat down today to complete. It really does focus the mind and get one in the right frame of mind to tackle and embrace the opportunities that a new year brings.

    As somebody who hopes to make big changes this year, this career goals list and reflection is certainly helping. Thanks Belle!

    January 3, 2013/Reply
  11. Kimberly says:

    I feel I need to comment on the “Find A Mentor” advice. It is absolutely crucial, and even when you've reached a point where you're serving as a mentor yourself (as I am, since I'm an old fart), you still need mentors of your own. There's always someone older and wiser.

    However, I've also found that in fields that value experience and expertise, the older and wiser someone is, the busier they are, and the less time and desire they have to take on a mentee. So it's not enough to just contact a potential mentor if you want a relationship with them. You also need to present yourself, right off the bat, as a mentee worth taking on. Don't just go to them with questions. Go to them with your ideas, potential projects, contacts, and so on. You may seem as valuable to them as they seem to you if you represent youth, energy, and new ideas. Figure out a way that you can help them, and they'll be much more likely to help you.

    January 3, 2013/Reply
  12. Hitha | Hitha On The Go says:

    Hi Belle,

    Thanks for featuring my graphic (it was the New Years card we sent out). I just stumbled upon your blog and am hooked – it's rare to find a well-written, amusing, helpful blog such as yours.

    I'm big on writing down goals and fully endorse the tips you outlined, especially keeping yourself accountable. I find that allotting metrics for my new goals allows me to track progress and keep myself accountable better. It's also important to revisit and revise goals regularly – life changes, and so do goals.

    January 4, 2013/Reply
  13. HH says:

    Thanks, Belle. I needed this right now.

    January 7, 2013/Reply