Career Goals That Actually Work

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So if most lawyers set questionable career goals—ones that are extrinsic, and won’t actually bring them happiness and fulfillment—what then? How do you set goals that are truly helpful, rather than an office version of ‘roid rage if you don’t meet them?

To-do List: Win!
Im thinking this might be an extrinsic goal, Charlie Sheen.

The logical answer, of course, is to set intrinsic goals. Yet what is simple and logical is often fiendishly difficult.

Goals From the Inside Out

Part of the problem is that our culture is product-obsessed. Products are end results, and we expect them to be some version of perfect, even it’s a $5 semi-designer t-shirt from Target. Unlike a product we buy, though, once we select a goal that’s a mistake, we can’t simply return it and continue as if the transaction never occurred. If we set a chosen goal aside, most of the time we feel we have failed in some way. Persistent feelings of failure lead to decreased motivation—and so our goal-setting often derails us.

An intrinsic goal supports a deeply held value. If we don’t reach an intrinsic goal, we often don’t feel like a failure, because we’ve done some important work around something we cherish. It may not be everything we hoped for, but at least it got us moving in a good direction. If you show up and do the work that’s truly important to you, the end result can become an almost inconsequential detail.

One way to discern whether a goal results from intrinsic motivation is to ask yourself: Does this goal promote success in an area I value deeply, or is it simply a way to avoid failure and therefore discomfort? In other words, if you don’t achieve the goal, how will you feel? “Like a loser,” “crushed,” and “an utter failure,” might be signs that your goal is, um, a tad extrinsic. “Disappointed but OK,” or “I will learn a lot no matter what” are signs of an intrinsically motivated goal.

Do Deeply Held Values Drive Your Goal?

Motivations in selecting goals matter. Let’s take something really small: turning off lights in my house. If I tell myself that I need to turn off the lights more often and consistently because it will save money, I promise you my behavior won’t change much. Money isn’t a deeply held value for me. (Actually, money isn’t truly a value for most of humanity—see below.)

Yet if I think about the extra amount of pollution from coal-fired generators, and its impact on my son and the health of our community—you better believe I turn off that light switch every time I leave the room for more than a couple minutes. That’s because I care deeply about the health of my son and my community and the environment.

What are deeply held values? They are things like:

  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Bravery
  • Fairness
  • Wisdom
  • Spirituality
  • Zest
  • Honesty
  • Perseverance
  • Loyalty

In fact, there’s been research on the concept of the universality of values across cultures, and they are surprisingly consistent, from Botswana to Belgium. There are 24 values that we humans collectively think are important, regardless of where we grew up, how much money we have, and our ethnic identities.

I’ve listed 10 of those values above; for the entire list of 24, click here. You can find out which of those values are most important to you by taking the VIA Test of Character Strengths online, free, at the Authentic Happiness website. I want to caution some of you, though, that the results may not be spot-on if your self-perception is skewed due to depression and similar issues. The values that show up in the top half, you can probably count on as important to you, but the top 5 values may not accurately reflect your true, non-depressed priorities. You might ask a friend to help you with the questions that ask a version of “people say that I’m _____.”

[FYI, because this is Dr. Martin Seligman and U. Penn’s site, they use the data collected for research, and so they ask for some anonymized personal information like vocation, age, etc. On the cool side, you can take lots of academically rigorous, evaluative tests there and save your results for later access.]

Well-chosen goals align with a deeply held value. They propel you toward success in that area. So before you go all goal-setting crazy, figure out what you truly value. Try doing some work around that value. If you still aren’t moving toward a life that beckons you, then it might be the time to set a goal.

Start with a goal just beyond your best attempt at it thus far. Law tears you down enough as it is, why add to that by aiming for world-record running time when all you need is a bunny hop right now? You can always set a more ambitious goal later.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering perfectionist who coaches unhappy attorneys on setting goals that will get them to a happy career and life. If you need help with setting intrinsic goals, try a discounted sample session with Jennifer. Schedule yours by emailing today.


  1. Here’s part of a recent article from Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D. (Dr. Rob) (Constitutional Daily is BL1Y’s recent creation):

    “Hanging out with BL1Y and Philalawyer has taught me a few things about lawyers. Far too many are already in the legal mentality well before they know anything about it. No real research is done. Before the LSAT is even taken so many have fallen prey to the bullshit concepts of money, power or even justice. We hear that a law degree opens up so many doors that it may be considered foolish not to pursue it.

    I could have completely [******] up my life had I gone to medical school, had I attempted to cash in on that identity. The most likely scenario is that I would have failed out, which is clearly not the best bullet point on a resume or C.V. Alternatively, I would have survived and completed a residency in Psychiatry.* But then I would have been a glorified drug dealer, seeing dozens of patients per week, with a prescription pad as my main therapeutic tool. Very few, if any, psychiatrists do actual psychotherapy (my true love) and it’s unlikely I would have ever discovered it. I was very, very fortunate to learn what I was actually getting into before the shit hit the fan.

    The pearl of wisdom here: resist the temptation for a vocational identity until you truly get what that identity means. You don’t need to be the upstart, the hotshot wunderkind who really knows his life course before college is even done. You get a small number of mulligans in life. Use your time in school (and possibly beyond) to cash those in, to make mistakes, to see where you fit. Otherwise, be well-prepared to be as inherently miserable as most of the writers on this site. Which means, of course, that I’ll likely be seeing you in my office in a few years…

    * Interestingly, many psychiatrists I know have told me that they went into that particular field of medicine because they completed medical school only to learn that they didn’t really want to be doctors. Psychiatry kept them away from medicine in many ways: regular hours, no blood, no surgery and medical emergencies only on very rare occasions.”

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