Switching Scales: Think Small to Achieve Big Career Results

There’s a popular phrase that gets bandied about occasionally when the topic of goals arises, “Boiling the Ocean.” It’s a funny phrase, and if you have an active imagination, elicits some giggles, or simultaneously makes you sad depending.  It’s one of the phrases in the corporate world used with a bit too much frequency, yet it has validity.

In this case, I’m throwing this phrase out because I believe it has relevancy to career growth. Especially relevant if you’re not as far along as you want to be, or perhaps you’re changing careers later in life, either way, you’re feeling like you’re behind. Our brains like to tell us to hurry when we feel behind, to race ahead so that we can catch up. But what are trying to catch up to exactly? To someone else? To what we see as success?

According to Investopedia

Boiling the ocean is to undertake an impossible task or project or to make a task or project unnecessarily difficult.

This is where our human brains can trick us into doing silly things that could potentially get us in trouble. We attempt to tackle impossible goals, and often times we end up quitting or not finishing because of it. This often results in the feeling of failure and like we aren’t doing what we should be. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me, because this is how I felt every time I attempted to finish college. Life kept getting in the way, and at that point in my life finishing college was akin to boiling the ocean.

This is where instead of thinking of what the end looks like, start thinking about the individual bodies of water making up the ocean.

Mild sidetrack: First, boiling the ocean is a slightly ridiculous phrase because we have many oceans (5 to be exact), though I feel like the phrase assumes the whole of the oceans rather than the oceans individually. Back to the topic…

Essentially boiling the ocean is thinking on a far grander scale than is necessary. It’s also detrimental to setting realistic goals. To accomplish larger goals, start setting small-scale goals instead. This requires thinking on a smaller scale, boiling a cup of tea rather than the ocean.

What does this look like? 

  1. Think of time in smaller increments, not years. Consider a college degree, it can take years to accomplish. Yet, what about the months, quarters, semesters that lead up to those years? Those are smaller amounts of time where you can learn a specific skill that can help you along the way, rather than having to wait for that extended period of time. What about a continuing education course, or taking a class online instead?
  2. Do your research. What are some of the skills that are trending in the job market today? Computer and data skills are in demand in every industry, yet many of those skills don’t map directly to a degree. This gives you a targeted skill you can focus your time and attention to.
  3. Ask for advice. Friends and family are great about keeping it real. Ask them if you’re being to lofty in your ambitions, they’ll tend to be honest with you. If they aren’t find someone who will. Asking for advice has the additional benefit of creating benefactors in your success, people who are invested in you’re doing well. This helps during moments where you may not feel as motivated.
  4. Make a plan. I will accomplish x this year, or x this quarter. This is how I approach my year, rather than laying out a 5 year plan (which is another post). I know what skills I have now, what is a complimentary skill that will keep me growing and expanding my knowledge, but also what interests me? Don’t overlook areas that are of interest of you and dismiss them. Being passionate about a topic carries over into skill building and others will notice your passion.
  5. Be realistic. This is the hardest step, especially if you are like me. I love setting lofty goals and can get caught up in the romance of an idea. I discard many goals because they aren’t right, and they don’t help me in the long-term. Asking yourself if this is truly what you should be doing, if this is the right area and right choice for now, is valid. This is why the other steps are so important, it helps to keep you in check and to create a balance. If the answer is yes, this is the right time. Then GO, don’t let anything else stop you.

Honestly the hardest part is deciding to start. Though if you’re like me, once you decide there’s not much that will stop you. Consider that this will take time, and it may take years, but creating smaller scale goals will achieve results in the short-term while working toward your 5 year goal. An example would be if you set a goal of taking one certificate course a year, at the end of 5 years you will have built a far more powerful toolbox and a robust resume than waiting on one single large-scale goal.

What’s stopping you? What cup of tea are you going to boil?

I’d love to hear from you!


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