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We can attain almost anything we want in our careers argues executive coach Dorie Clark. But not instantly. We need to be methodical and persistent, taking small, deliberate steps toward our goals. Initially, it will be slow going. But as with compounding interest, eventually it will build up steam and lead to stunning results.

“Playing the long game – eschewing short-term gratification in order to work toward an uncertain but worthy future goal – isn’t easy. But it’s the surest path to meaningful and lasting success in a world that often prioritizes what’s easy, quick, and ultimately shallow,” she writes in The Long Game.

It starts by giving yourself a chance to step away from the frenzy and the unconscious delights we feel dealing with the familiar, short-term challenges facing us. She noticed herself falling into this psychic trap one year when she was rushing around the country to give talks. She would focus on which airport, terminal and gate next. “There’s great existential comfort in feeling that you know what to do,” she says.

But she wasn’t all that effective at a broader career level. And there was no space to conjure up and grapple with better ideas about her career. Productivity guru David Allen told her: “It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision, but if you don’t have psychic space, those things are not necessarily impossible, but they’re suboptimal.”

To find that space, you need to say “no” far more frequently– even to good things, weighing them against what it might mean for career advancement. That becomes even more important as you progress in your career; early on, people aren’t lined up seeking your talents but over time they will and you need to ration your time wisely.

She shares a tip from music entrepreneur Derick Sivers: If your reaction to an offer is anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing!” say no. Be leery of middling opportunities. In that vein, decide what you will be bad at – things you won’t excel at -- and leave them be.

Instead, focus on your goals. The default goal in Western culture, of course, is optimizing for money. Also popular these days is seeking meaning and purpose. She suggests instead seeking what’s interesting, since the curiosity that ignites will spur you toward mastery.

Of course, with your head perpetually down to get all your work completed and fulfill the needs of others, you may have lost any sense of what’s interesting to you. A good way to figure it out is to notice how you already spend your time or how you might reconnect with what motivated you in the past. She shares the story of Sarah Feingold, unhappy in her law firm, who loved making jewellery and selling it on Etsy. When she learned the fledgling online craft platform lacked an in-house counsel, she talked herself into a job.

Get outside your comfort zone. Stop playing it safe, protecting yourself from disappointment. Go to extremes. “When we force ourselves to take our goals to extremes – What would ultimate success look like? – we can create an honest road map for ourselves. It might take five years, or 10, or 20. But the time will pass anyway,” she writes.

Borrow from Google and carve out time to explore the new paths you want to take. Google is known for letting staff devote 20 per cent of their time to follow their own passions. Many Googlers don’t and Marissa Meyer, who spent years with the company, noted “the dirty little secret of Google’s 20 per cent time [is that] it’s really 120 per cent time.” The special projects are carried out in periods people find beyond their already busy jobs. But this is your career, so you can cheerfully do that. Even if you have no idea what your ultimate goal is, Ms. Clark says it’s worth carving out 20 per cent time for exploration. Experiment with no consequences, simply learning.

Then build the next stage of your career, leveraging your relationships and abilities, in the long game that leads to success.

Quick hits

  • Put a “big rock” – an appointment for tackling an important task – in your calendar today, advises executive coach Dan Rockwell. Think of something you have been meaning to do and schedule it. The longer you wait to schedule the big rocks, the smaller life will be.
  • Forty-two per cent of employees report feeling jealous of their co-workers at least once a week, according to a survey by the Skynova online platform. Most common causes of envy are salary (31 per cent of respondents), promotions (29 per cent), and career achievements (24 per cent). Nearly one in four admit being jealous of the attention a co-worker receives from their boss.
  • The Goldilocks fallacy, says entrepreneur Seth Godin, is that you should aim for the middle in tastes, so you can appeal to everyone. That may just create apathy. And there may not be many of the middle-of-the-road consumers to attract; indeed for many products and services, the middle is hollowed out. You’re left with most people wanting a lot more or a lot less of what you are offering.
  • The world rewards you for value provided, not time spent, notes Atomic Habits author James Clear.
  • When sales trainer Nick Miller’s favourite barber was away, he asked for a “light trim” and watched far too much hair sheared off and after shave he detested smeared on the back of his neck. He asks salespeople: “How many times do we, as sellers, repeat or confirm the words our buyers say – ‘Light trim,’ for example – and then respond with our standard response or our own interpretation because… that’s the way we do it?”

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