Do you really need specific long term goals?

Last month our software development team did a goal setting exercise. It's almost 9 months since the local team was set up for my employer, and since the team was formed we haven't gotten around to figuring out what we wanted our team to look like. Now that the first major team project is ramping down, with a big boss coming for a visit, we took the time to write down what we'd like to see in the next 3, 6, 12, and 36 months.

As our ideas were threshed out and priorities reconsidered, one pattern emerged. The goals for the next 3 to 6 months were pretty concrete: "hire two new members", "start a new project", "begin participating in the software development community". However the goals for a year out to 3 years out become more vague: "improve the development experience", "be involved in more projects", "have a larger team".

This always reminds me of the time whenever someone asks me where I see myself in 5 to 10 years. I'd always say, "I'd probably have my own software development business". If they press for what specifically I wanted to do, I would answer "if I knew, I would be doing it now".

There are people who are better at this goals thing than I am -- there are people who have vivid visions of what they would achieve at various points in their lives. But for some reason I've never felt my inability to do just that is a bad thing. I look back and figure I didn't do bad after all -- I've been raising a family and providing well, I've been giving back to the community in my own way, I've won awards and met some really important figures in my profession. I haven't slacked off too much -- I'm still progressing.

In fact, there are people who believe you should stop setting goals altogether. They believe that goals are far too easy to be a result of outside influence, made up by the cultures we grew up in. The problem with goals that aren't your own is that they might end up not satisfying you, and you won't be happy. Instead, he proposes that you have habits that allow you to live the life that you want to live, and experience things that are of value:

"I no longer have goals. I no longer have dreams. I only have processes, activities and experiences: things I learn, things I make, and things I do. Any sort of achievement or shallow culturally-defined institutional box I can check? They will be side-effects of the life I want to live." - John Gorman

This is perhaps, another extreme. I think I still know what I want to achieve; learn a new skill, master a new craft, contribute to a new innovation in my company, form a new software community group, etc. But these are short term goals. I don't have very specific long term goals -- only short term ones that seem trivial. Now that I'm older, I recognize that over time these short term goals do lead to better places that I may not have understood when I was younger. That reminds me of yet another quote:

"It's like driving at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." - E.L. Doctorow

Maybe not having specific long term goals isn't too bad after all.

Photo taken by Toto Gamboa

Jon Limjap

Microsoft MVP for Visual Studio and Development Technologies |Technical Advisor at PageUp | Philippine .NET User Group Lead | Photographer | Scale Modeler

Manila, Philippines