7 Keys to Planning Your Career Path

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Most people who have successful careers are asked at some point, “How did you get here? What steps did you take to end up on top?”

People in some careers are able to answer definitively and recount a pre-determined path they took. But others will say something like, “There was no grand plan. I just took it one step at a time and tried to make good decisions.” There’s no prescribed path to success—there’s not even agreement on the definition of success. But I think most successful people “planned” their careers by nurturing a few specific traits in themselves along the way.

1. Know your overall vision and purpose.

Whether or not you set specific goals (“publish 5 novels” or “make the NYT Bestseller list”) it helps to identify why you’re on this path, and what you hope to accomplish. Maybe your purpose is to help or encourage people, or entertain with stories, or to eventually support yourself through writing. If you have a “big” vision and you know your purpose, you’ll recognize which opportunities are right for you, versus those that will lead you in the wrong direction. Be sure you have a personal definition of success, so that when you reach it, you’ll recognize it!

2. Always keep learning.

Successful people in every field are always growing. Most do this through reading, independent study, and attending seminars, workshops and conferences. This is true in business, medicine, law, finance, teaching… pretty much every field out there. As a writer building your career, you have numerous ways to keep learning and growing. Make sure you’re taking advantage of them!

3. Have an open mind to recognize unexpected opportunities.

Most successful people can identify various points along their path at which they were presented with the prospect of doing something they had never anticipated. Be focused on your path, but avoid developing tunnel vision. As a writer, don’t discount the many venues that are available to writers besides the one you happen to be involved in. And don’t shy away from new challenges or from going outside your comfort zone. Many people look at a new opportunity and if they don’t think they’re ready or meet all the qualifications, they turn it down. Being on a path to success means you sometimes take the leap and agree to do something you’re not sure you can actually do.

4. Be flexible and keep up with the changing world and marketplace.

Very few people actually like how fast things change in business, culture, and technology. Yet planning your career involves a commitment to rolling with the changes as best you can. Sometimes this involves #2 above, always keep growing. Often it involves #3, not being afraid of new challenges. Career building is only possible if you refuse to be thwarted by the changes going on around you.

5. Set incremental goals along the way.

Within the context of your overall vision, your short-term goals will help keep you on track. This is where some of the real “planning” comes in to play. Your incremental goals will help you build your career one step at at time. You may not be able to plot your career twenty steps ahead or twenty years into the future, but you can plan what your 2 or 3 most important next steps are.

6. Create strong, long-lasting relationships with people inside and outside your field.

Over time, you may find that the relationships you’ve built with others will help your career more than any other single element. Sure, writing good books helps. 🙂 But you’re not a lone wolf and you’ll find that other people can teach you, assist you, encourage you, or bring you the break you’ve been waiting for. You’ll also discover that the relationships you create along the way are a big part of what makes you want to get up every morning.

7. Make every decision in the context of your overall life and career.

Always be asking, “What is the next best step? Will this current choice set me up for future success as opposed to simply working for me right now?” This is one of the biggest challenges for authors, who are sometimes tempted towards short-cuts or quick money without assessing how it fits into their overall plan for success. While you’re focusing on #3 (being open to unexpected opportunities), also remember to make each decision based on whether it makes a good building block for future success.

How do you approach planning your writing career? Have any of these seven keys come into play for you? If you like, tell us your definition of success (#1).


19 Responses

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  1. CJ Myerly says:

    I think all these have come to play for me in one way or another. I’m fairly new to writing, but I’m taking classes (#2), blogging (#3), and I joined the ACFW (#6). I’m having a blast doing what I love.

    For me, my definition of success is reaching others through my writing. I’ve heard authors share about readers contacting them and feeling touched by the words shared through fiction–and I would love to be there someday.

  2. “Winning ugly is still winning.” – my motto.
    * Too ill to say more. Maybe can contrib something coherent on the morrow.

  3. Jason Sautel says:

    Success to me is blessing someone with what God has placed on my heart by doing my part to do what He has asked of me. The rest of these amazing points you have given are sound advice and I will take them to heart as I move down this amazing path I have been placed on!

  4. I used to plan and then ask God to bless my plan. Older and wiser, now I try to just let God make my plans. Saves a lot of back-tracking.
    * God knows the changing world and marketplace, and–wow!–he is the master of unexpected (to me) opportunities.

  5. #1 above is truly #1. If I do not know my “why,” nothing else really matters. I will be directionless – fact, any direction will be fine. Even not moving at all will be fine. There will be no milestones. One of my favorite quotes (still on my office wall) Chuck Coonradt – “In the absence of clearly defined goals, we are forced to concentrate on activity, and ultimately become enslaved by it.”
    Success to me is learning how not to fail at failure – to know what to do when I fail, to not come completely unglued, or to allow myself to be overwhelmed by failure. Failure is not fatal. What’s fatal is failing at failure. Once I come to understand that, I’m in the washtub of success.

  6. My definition of success is trusting God and finding contentment where you are. I think of when I adopted my girls … I wanted a family with all my heart, so I made myself available to God, educated myself, and took a step out in faith, trusting Him to open and close doors for me.

  7. It’s another Doors morning, “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain”, and true success would lie in a couple of morphine syrettes. One for pain, two for eternity.
    * None, however, are available, so success must take on a different definition for now, and it has to have its own process.
    1 – Vision changes with perspective and fog and night and day. Right now my vision is to witness that even through appalling pain, the terrors that hit at 0300, and despair that takes on a physical dimension, life is still worth living. But the NYT bestseller list would be nice, too.
    2 – Some dead Greek dude said that the unexamined life is not worth living, so it’s imperative to learn from oneself. Face the dark places in your own soul without flinching, and you’ll grow compassion for those who would make your life a trial.
    3 – There’s an opportunity held in the hands of each minute God gives you. Don’t focus on the future, or live in an opium-pipe past. Be fully here, fully in the now, and you’ll see what lies open to you.
    4 – Embrace the new, but never for its own sake. There’s a Kikuyu saying that a man should never abandon his values unless he has something of value with which to replace them, and it’s true here. Make sure that the technology or process to which you adapt will add value to your life.
    5 – For me, now, incremental goals are things like sitting up, getting to my feet, and forcing myself to eat. They are modest,but I’ve learned that they are valuable; don’t bemoan what you can no longer do, and be grateful for what’s still open. Getting back here this morning was an incremental goal, too, and this comment is being written piecemeal, as I am physically able. Oh, you could tell? 🙂
    6 – Let people help you. Give them the chance to be a channel of God’s grace.
    7 – Do what’s right, and tell the people that you love that you love them with all your heart, because that love will be your only legacy, and it’s the only thing that you can take from this world.
    8 – Never forget the Five Food Groups – beer, pizza, Rip-It, pizza, and beer.
    * My ship has sailed, and while I try to convince the Captain to ring dead slow on the telegraph, I’ll keep my eyes on you, this community, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Dreams fade, hope slips away un-noticed, but love endures, and brings sharp clarity to the meaning of life.
    * I love you all.

  8. I recently took the advice of a young writer and tried some flash fiction just to stretch myself and learn something new.

    I sold both pieces and discovered that I love the form. It was nice to find I’m not as stuck in my rut as I thought.

    • Oh, yes! I tried flash fiction after hearing an editor talk about it at our local conference. Sold two pieces and have loved working on different short stories. I found that it is a great way to teach fiction to young writers. Everything is so compressed and the Jr. High students I’ve been meeting with love the form.

  9. Carol Ashby says:

    This is an excellent list that applies to any career. I especially agree with #6. Even better than the help you get is the opportunity to reach down/back and lend a hand to someone else. Nothing is more satisfying that seeing someone succeed big-time after you helped them along the way.
    *Success? For me, the pinnacle will be getting an email from someone who started reading one of my novels because they’d heard it was a great read, watched a character decide to follow Jesus, considered why they made that choice, and chose to follow Him, too.

  10. David Todd says:

    In my engineering career, I rose in the ranks by 1) demonstrating competence and 2) taking risks. The main risks I took were: accepting assignments in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, along with accepting all the difficult assignments through the years that others were unwilling to attempt.
    In terms of writing/publishing, risks are harder to define. I suppose it was a risk to publish my poetry book, since poetry seems much harder to do well than prose. That exposed me to a new type of criticism. Planning my writing is a matter of taking time on a regular basis, approximately monthly, to list what I’m working on, what I want to work on, what new ideas have come to mind, realize I can’t accomplish even 1/3 of what I’d like to, and try to prioritize that list to what I can actually do within my planning horizon.
    As to defining success in my writing career, I’m only 16 years into it. I need some more time to figure out what that definition is.

  11. Excellent advice and well timed. Thank you, Rachelle!

  12. Thanks, Rachelle. As a writer, I often find myself focused solely on the book I’m attempting to create. Tunnel vision can block out all of these other factors.

  13. This is a copy and paste post for me! You bring up so many key things to consider on this journey! Your steps for success make so much sense.
    *I am fortunate to have a couple of writing mentors who have helped me in many ways. From helping me grow in the craft, to making wise decisions to set up the foundation for a solid platform, to just listening when I’m at that edge of “the cliff”. They have been a huge encouragement to me, and my voice of reason when needed.
    *I think #6 has been huge for me as far as planning my writing career. Between mentors, My Book Therapy, other writers, and especially the community here, relationships have been crucial for me on this journey.