How do you know if you had a good year at work?

mm Russ Finkelstein

“When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.”—Frank Sinatra

Many of us do not think of our working years in the same way that Rat Pack singers, sports stars, or celebrities do. That is to say, we don’t tend to measure our performance in quite such obvious or clear terms.

Frank Sinatra enjoyed his 17th year, his 21st year, and his 35th year, primarily because, according to his song about aging, “A Very Good Year”, he appears to have indulged in romantic liaisons with a variety of different kinds of women at each of those milestones. He also liked getting older, if you believe the lyrics (I don’t), and seemingly having far fewer such liaisons as he aged, because getting on was like being the “vintage wine” in “fine old kegs”.

I guess I’ll just leave that lyric to hang there, and switch to basketball.

Steph Curry, who plays that particular game, had a reasonably good 2015/2016 season. That is to say, he had the best statistical performance of any player in the history of the National Basketball Association. He sank more than 50 percent of all his shots from the field and more than 400 three-pointers. That’s a good year. However, does a year statistically superior to the last year matter if his team fails to win the NBA championship? Is that now the only barometer for success? Perhaps the next measure for poor old Steph is about how much money he rakes in? Or perhaps it’s about his ability to impact social change?

Likewise, the actor Johnny Depp had a very good run of years, until 2011, as an actor who was adept at playing a variety of roles, and who was able to bring in significant money at the box office. However, for the last four or five years, the chatter has been that he can no longer guarantee such success. Putting his unsettling personal problems aside, his marker for success was box office returns, positive reviews, and professional awards. For the last few years there is a very public discussion about the possibility that the best years may have passed.

It’s easier for us to judge the years of celebrities, because their lives are all too often discussed as commodities. That commodification means that we publicly assess how they are doing, and make judgments about them. In your own life, though, how do you measure whether you have had a good year at work?

If you run your own business, it may be in terms of revenue or sales. Many of us have an annual review and feel that this, alongside the salary impact, determine whether the year was good. Still, apart from when we’re sitting down to write our new year’s resolutions or prepare for our annual review, we don’t tend to focus too hard on where we’ve been, or where we’re going, over a period of 12 months, professionally.

How has your year at work been? Won any Oscars or any NBA championships? Are you being paid to endorse a product? Please don’t tell me you’ve been measuring your professional success in terms of the number of your romantic liaisons. But: have you been? (Note to self: Maybe I should write a piece about this).

It is harder for us mere mortals to tell if we are doing well. But it’s still a very good idea to set some annual goals for yourself, a year ahead, to see how you do against them. The time period is just long enough that you can see the impact of your effort over a sustained horizon, and judge a little more objectively what you might need to change to get to where you want to be going, over the medium to very long term.

Your yearly goals cannot just be about money. There was a book I devoured a few years ago about “the number” that stockbrokers needed to make before they would retire.  The problem was, the number tended to just lead to an even bigger number because people would just aspire to ever more stuff. Your success ideally needs to be based on multiple factors, un-American as that may sound!

I encourage people to think about their career navigation in terms of a Venn diagram, drawing the confluence of their skills, their passion, and the jobs or opportunities available in the market. What are the aspirations you think you have at the moment? Given that, what do you need to do to get there? This can be about learning new skills, scaling up the case for your strengths, or improving your brand. The point is to make an informed choice about what you plan to prioritize over the coming 12 months, and be as clear as possible about why.

It’s very important to take time to reflect on your career before you draw up your goals. It’s also very important to talk about your goals with someone you trust, because that’s a good way of testing yourself for what I technically refer to as “bullshit.”  

It’s important to draw a distinction between the goals you work on with your employer, which might be as straightforward as doing the things that are required to stay employed (i.e. show up, hopefully on time, and answer the phone, and so on), and the goals you set for yourself. If there is a great deal of professional dissonance, this job may not be right for you, and one of your goals may be to dig deeper into why. Goals you set for yourself are your own, and nobody is pushing you to reach for them, so you may well also need an accountability partner.

You can usually tell that a personal goal is worth pursuing because it makes you flinch, a little, from the potential effort. Recently, for example, I set the goal of writing regularly, which made me flinch a lot. For next year, I have set myself the goal of becoming a better public speaker. It makes me a little nervous, it feels like it’s going to be a stretch for me, but I can see the reward, potentially, if I felt more comfortable doing it. Still, no one is pushing me to do it. And I know it is something I’ve been avoiding doing.

Why Does “Having a Good Year” Matter?

  • For many of us it is an issue of tracking our progress. How do we determine whether we are improving? How do we feel confident that we are not stagnating?
  • We can sometimes grasp our standing compared to others, although we need to be careful about whom we are comparing ourselves to and whether we should indeed derive too much professional confidence from this kind of comparison. It’s all very well being able to deliver a fine rendition of “Someone Like You”, but it’s not going to be particularly helpful if you’re a tax attorney. Unless of course you’re preparing for a particularly unusual day in court.
  • It might help others better understand us relative to our professional competition, which is important in salary negotiations.
  • It allows us to see that we have the power to determine what we want to do, and to see that we have the ability to achieve it.

What Can You Do?

  • Set some measurable goals!
  • This year, for me, I had the goals of (1) launching a ClearlyNext beta and attracting 500 experts and 1000 beta users, (2) writing a new piece weekly and looking to place one every third week on LinkedIn, and (3) reflecting intentionally on my career every month.
  • Depending on the nature of your manager, mentor(s) or trusted friends, you might want to set them with them.
  • If you find setting goals difficult, I sometimes suggest that people look at their accomplishments over the last couple of years and use those as the basis for crafting new goals. If you’re unhappy, though, with what you’ve achieved in the past, then that, too, can be a basis for crafting different kinds of goals in the future.
  • Spend time realizing your goals, and check in with others at regular intervals to tell them how it is going.

If this feels like it isn’t successful, get in touch with your feelings and allow time for reflection, and try to work on the barriers. Were the goals off, for some reason? Are you filled with self-doubt? You shouldn’t work through this on your own.

When my mind wanders off to the idea that celebrities are fortunate to have the data to determine whether or not they have had a good job year, it helps me to focus on the perils of being commodified and discussed in the public space. In other words, neither you, nor I, are likely to be the subject of a radio call-in from “Larry in Omaha” about why our professional contract is a joke and why we should be traded. But that’s a good thing, that you’re not famous! Because you don’t have an army of publicists, you have more control over your narrative. You’re actually free to create your own story.

Remember, there are a lot of ways to judge your success this year, and set goals to move towards. You might want to be able to do your work more efficiently so that you’re not bringing it home with you. You might want to have a five-hour working week, or retire by the time you’re 40. The main thing to do here is to reflect on why things matter to you. Then position yourself to make it happen.

Who knows? Maybe Steph Curry and Johnny Depp really do have nothing on you. And hey, remember it isn’t always about achieving those goals. Rather, it is about understanding that we all have ways that we want to change our lives and we have the power and ability to do so. I can tell you that it isn’t always easy or successful, but I love knowing that I have the option.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >