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Who Controls Your Destiny?

I got a call from a young friend the other day. He indicated he’d finished his education, been certified as a CPA and had worked in public accounting for 2 – 3 years. He felt like he was ready to start his own business. Did I have any advice for him? I indicated I’d be happy to help, and he began to ask questions.

Should I buy a business or start a new one? What industry is going to be best in the long term? Should I go it alone or have partners? Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of?

I smiled as I listened. In the zeal of youth and his excitement to take the next steps, he was missing a key piece of understanding: your career doesn’t drive you, you drive it. You don’t go about these things willy-nilly. I think it’s a classic mistake (young and old alike.) We’re young. We go out and get a job. We get a promotion. We change to a new job. We get a promotion. At the end of 20 – 30 years, we have a career. We never directed our lives at all. We took what came and we lived with it. I’m amazed at how many people look back and wonder how things ended up the way they did.

Your career is part of your life — a very big part of your life. The truth is, you will spend more time at work than you do with your wife and children. You will spend more time working than you do recreating, or serving others, or anything else. You will spend more time working than you will sleeping. In short, there’s nothing you will do in your life that you will do more than working.

Shouldn’t you invest whatever energy is necessary to ensure your career goes where you want it to go, instead of just letting the winds of change blow you where they will? The old saying about being self-directed is, “If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, any port will do.” That sounds to me like the way many people handle their careers.

I asked my young friend to back up and start at the beginning. “What is it you want out of life?” I asked. “What are your long term financial goals? Are you looking to be a billionaire, a millionaire, or just financially comfortable? If you’re looking to be wealthy at the end of it all, what are you willing to sacrifice to get there? Those things don’t come without significant sacrifice. Where are you willing to live? You don’t become a billionaire living and running a business in Idaho. You have to be willing to go where the money is.

Second, what are your goals for your business? Are you looking for a business you can grow and sell in a few years and start again, or are you looking for something you’re going to keep building until you die? Are you wanting to create an empire, or is buying a local hardware store where you will always have a job more your style? Are you looking for a career for just you, or are you wanting a place where your family can work at your side?

Finally, (and probably first and foremost) what are your goals for your family? What sacrifice are they willing to make to see your dreams come true? Now that you’re married, this isn’t just about you anymore. You may want to be a billionaire and be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve that. Your spouse, on the other hand, may not. Is your plan for the future your plan individually, or your plan together? If you haven’t included your spouse in your plan, it’s almost certain to cause conflict in the marriage, and almost certain to fail.

Next, what is the plan? You need to start with a bold statement: “I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.” Then you work backward from there to see what you have to do year over year to reach that goal. At the end of the day, you need to have a plan and you need to work the plan, and you need to focus tightly enough on the plan that you don’t allow all of the distractions of life to shift you out of the path to reaching your goals.

I think so many times we have a job offer arise and we look at the merits of the offer on things that are not core goals. For example, we say, “This one pays more,” or, “this one offers more free time,” or, “this one is closer to mom and dad,” or whatever. Instead of scrutinizing the opportunity through the lens of our life plan, we look at it according to our comfort (more money makes us comfortable, more free time makes us comfortable, living closer to family makes us more comfortable.) Instead we should be asking if this takes us closer to the ultimate goal.

But that said, we don’t always have to be moving forward. Sometimes even a move backward is a good move. It’s possible that you say, “You know, I’m short a couple of skills I need to be able to do what I want to do in my life. I’m going to go to work for minimum wage (or a wage less than you’re worth) to learn the skills I need to move forward.” That’s a great plan — as long as it has a beginning and an end. For example: you say, I need two skills to be ready to pursue my long-term goals. I can get them by working for company “A” and company “B”. I think it will take me about 18 months at each company to learn what I need to learn to move on. That’s okay. It’s part of the plan. You can take a step backward for 2 – 3 years if it ultimately helps you to take a giant leap forward.

In short, this is about taking control of your life. And since your job is the biggest part of your life, that’s where you start taking control first. You can have whatever you want in life. Or, more accurately, you can have whatever you’re willing to have — whatever you’re willing to pay the price to have. Or, I suppose you can be happy with whatever life gives you. Either you take control of your life, or someone or something else does. Those are the only two choices.

What are your dreams? Are you closer to reaching them today than you were last month? Last year? Five years ago? Are you on track? Steve Jobs said, “I ask myself several times a day if the things I’m pursuing at that moment are drawing me closer to my dreams. If not, I make an adjustment.” Is what you’re doing right this minute (and every minute of every day) drawing you closer to the goals you’ve set for yourself and your family and your business? If not, it’s time to make an adjustment.

When you ask yourself the question, “Who’s controlling my destiny?” I hope you like the answer.

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