Are you opportunistic or strategic?

What would you do if you got laid off tomorrow?

What would you do if your company offered you a promotion tomorrow?

If a friend recommended you for a job in another company? If a former colleague asked to be your partner in a startup? If you were offered a consulting gig somewhere that you could do at the same time as your regular job?

These are not idle questions. These moments are how people’s careers advance. If you aren’t thinking about them now, you won’t be ready when they happen. Opportunity actually knocks lots of times, but you won’t hear it if you’re just bopping along to the music in your headphones.

Ask yourself three questions

You need a framework and a mindset to make decisions like this. To do so, ask three questions:

  1. What do I want to do next? You might want to learn to code, write a strategy brief, give a speech, become a supervisor, or get a raise. But you should always have a short list (two to four items) of accomplishments or skills you’d like to add to get ahead. Unless you know what you’d like to add next, you might miss it when it comes along.
  2. What is important to me? Define your priorities. They might be things like “Get recognized as excellent by my peers,” “Make $250,000 in a single year,” “Learn to be a leader,” or “Spend as much time as possible solving problems.” Unless you know what makes you happy and fulfilled, you’ll end up chasing someone else’s idea of what’s important to you.
  3. What’s my long-term goal? If you look ahead a decade and you’ve succeeded, what are you doing? Running a department? Being a startup CEO? Being an author? Coding great products? Working to the betterment of society? Unless you know the destination, you’ll never get there.

I also recommend rethinking these questions at least twice a year. Things will change in your life, and you need to be able to adjust your goals. For example, I thought I wanted to be a manager, but that didn’t suit me well and eventually I gave up on it. But I always wanted to write a book, and that goal remained constant.

Be opportunistic and strategic

Your career moves forward at key moments — and you need to be ready.

That means being opportunistic. When the opportunity arises to take a training class, try a different kind of assignment, change jobs, get promoted, or spend a year overseas, you need to know if it’s worth taking. To decide, think about whether it matches what you hope to do next, rewards what is important to you, and helps you make progress toward your long-term goal. If you’ve been thinking about those things all along, you’ll make a better decision.

It also means being strategic. Attaining your long-term goal takes steady work. You’ll need to constantly search for ways to gain the skills and experiences to position yourself more and more closely to the what you’re striving for.

These two attitudes — opportunistic and strategic — should coexist in your mind as you make your decision. Sometimes you’ll have to make a choice. But that choice will be smarter if you’ve got the answers to those three questions clear in your mind.

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