There’s no question that skills, talents, and experiences are critically important to productivity and success. It’s equally true that resilience and determination are key ingredients separating top performers from the crowd.
But there’s another part to the story: None of this matters very much if you lack personal, professional, and career direction.
Simply put, direction is the innate recognition, understanding, or knowledge of which problems and opportunities you should attack first. We all face many of these choices, every day, of what to work on next – what I like to call your “Basic Choice.” But sometimes we don’t make these Basic Choices wisely.
The wisdom of which problem or which opportunity you should prioritize comes primarily from developing and paying attention to a strong sense of direction. Let’s never forget what Yogi Berra once said on this point: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
Here are some suggestions on how to beef up your sense of direction:
Study the Landscape
Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, whatever career path you’re pursuing, it exists in an environment that includes people, institutions, hierarchies, rules, conventions, and guidelines. You can think of all this as a kind of “landscape” in which you’re operating.
To strengthen your sense of direction, study this landscape enough to recognize its landmarks, obstacles, and pitfalls, its well-trodden pathways, and its uphill and downhill slopes. As you navigate this landscape, day by day, an accurate knowledge of these features will help you make better choices about which direction to take your next step.
Map Out a Route
Knowing both the landscape and your goal provides you with enough information to begin mapping out the best route from wherever you are to wherever you want to be. You can plan this route to avoid the obvious obstacles, take advantage of previously prepared pathways, and benefit from downhill rather than uphill terrain.
Because this landscape is often shifting, and because you’re steadily growing and re-thinking your goals, you may need to revise your route from time to time. However, that’s not a problem. What is a problem is trying to choose your direction without having mapped out the best available route, the one most likely to facilitate your progress toward your goal.
Calculate Time and Distance
A big part of successfully navigating through the landscape of your work and your life is knowing how much farther you plan to travel, and how much time this journey is likely to take you. The time and distance remaining between you and your goal are big factors in making many of your choices, such as whether you’re immediately going to push on until you reach your goal, or pause long enough to get some rest and sustenance.
The time and distance remaining will also help you determine whether you have the right resources to reach your objective. If not, you may find it fruitful to divert from your current route in order to obtain such things as better tools, helpful knowledge, additional allies, and possibly appropriate credentials – whatever will make the rest of your journey easier.
Rely on a Compass
Few of these metaphorical landscapes we’re visualizing are flat and even. Most contain features that will temporarily block your direct line of sight to your goal. When this happens, it’s easy to drift off course or follow a pathway that seems promising but will ultimately bring you to a cliff or a dead-end.
That’s why it’s important to cultivate and take advantage of your internal compass – instincts, intuition, subconscious awareness of clues, and other subtle perceptions – that will help guide you when more obvious, more external route markers are in short supply.
A strong sense of direction helps productive, successful people focus their time and attention on solving the bottleneck problems and capitalizing on the high-payoff opportunities that advance them to the front of the pack. Knowing where to go when others don’t is an often-overlooked element in what makes for an enviable, enjoyable journey through your work and your life.
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