How to Make Strategic Career Decisions, Even in a Crisis (Back to Work, Better)

It is easy to be focused on the immediate future when it comes to work. Next meeting, next project, promotion. Many of us fell further into a heads-down mode after the global pandemic. Dorie Clark, author The Long Game: How To Be a Long-Term Thinker In a Short-Term World, urges everyone to take a step back and to think longer term about the things you want and how to get there. She gives tips on how to avoid social media distractions, prioritize priorities, cultivate patience and make strategic decisions. Clark also wrote the HBR article Feeling Stuck/Stymied
ALISON BEARD: The HBR IdeaCast is a Harvard Business Review publication. Im Alison Beard.

It is easy to be focused on the immediate, next project, promotion when it comes to your career. We had to think about the long-term when we faced the global pandemic. Many of us were constantly trying to balance work and personal life in order to survive, which caused us to burnout. Many people quit their jobs. Today's guest wants everyone to take a deep breath and step back. She believes it is a good idea to reflect on long-term career goals and what you want to do.

It is especially valuable as we begin to define the new normal. Perhaps you have realized that you don't like what you do. Perhaps you think youre on a good path but don't feel like you are moving fast enough towards your goals. This episode is for everyone who feels confused about their goals and how they can get there.

Dorie Clark, a consultant, teaches executive education courses at Duke University's Columbia Business School. She is the author of The Long Game: How To Be a Long-Term Thinker In a Short-Term World. Also, the HBR article Feeling Stuck Or Stymied. Strategic patience is key to building your career. Dorie, I am so happy to have a chat with you today.

DORIE CLARK: What's the deal? It's wonderful to be here.

ALISON BEARD - First, I need to ask you a question about thinking long-term. Do you find it difficult to balance urgent tasks and your larger career goals with short-term ones, particularly right now?

DORIE CLARK: I will tell you that I am not good at thinking in the medium-term. This is always the hard part. For long-term thinking, however, I find it incredibly liberating. I don't need to know how you are going to get there.

People get scared when they say "Oh, but I can't think that long-term." I wouldn't know where to begin. You don't. You can make a goal and have lots of time to reach it. I'm fine with the 10- and 20-year goals. Let's go for it.

ALISON BEARD - It seems like there is a lot of impatience at the moment. Either they want to leave their job immediately or they want to return to normal and continue on the upward career path. What advice do you have for people today?

DORIE CLARK : You are absolutely right. COVID has kept everyone trapped and stymied for 18 months. It has been a longer than normal period where we have been forced to react. It can feel demoralizing after a while because our agency is restricted in such situations. We have to do what is necessary.

It is only natural that people want to regain control of the reins. That seems right. Reclaiming our autonomy is important for our psychological well-being. Also, because you can only react so long. It is important to set positive intentions for yourself. This is the one-year, five-year, and 10-year plans.

While we may be agile, we also have the ability to set a vision. It is possible to regain some control if we work towards it.


DORIE CLARK (Yes). There is no magic to these numbers. We can either give or take in any direction. It all comes down to where you want your life to take you. Who are you looking to become? How can you achieve that? It is easy to get into a heads down mode and focus only on the task at hand. While there are times in our lives when we have to do this, it is not the only way we should operate. It is important to set those goals and intentions for yourself.

It allows us to change direction in small, almost imperceptible ways. However, they are ways that can be repeated over time and bring us closer to the direction we desire.

ALISON BEARD - We've heard many stories about the great resignation. Many people think, Yes, I want that long-term planning. I must quit my job. I need some time to reset. Is this the right thing?

DORIE CLARK These things are something I recommend a bit of caution. Reinventing you was my first book. One of the fundamental principles of reinvention and what I believe holds many people back is their assumption that it must be all or nothing. All the metaphors are necessary, right? I must jump from the cliff. I must take the leap.

These are frightening and dangerous metaphors. That is something I would not do. Who would want to jump off a cliff. There are many middle paths we can follow so you don't have to be either in the corner or jumping blindly. This is why I believe a lot of it applies to the COVID and post-COVID periods. It means that you have options to test your hypotheses strategically so you can make moves.

Applying the 20 percent time principle to your own life is one of the principles I advocate. This is something you might have heard of from Google. They encourage employees to dedicate 20% of their time for speculative projects, which are not part of their job description. This is how Google News was born. This was how Google Mail was created. It could be one of those moonshot bets that turns into something truly amazing.

This is something I believe we should all do for our careers. It is not something anyone will tell you. This is your time. If you really take the time to do this and guard it, you will be able to use 20% of your time to study, improve your skills, and go out to network. These are all things that will prepare you for the future.

ALISON BEARD - Google workers get to do this during the hours they are paid by Google. How can we get that 20% back from work for people who have kids or other commitments, but still want to exercise, do chores, and do housework?

DORIE CLARK (Yes). Alison, that caveat is great. To complicate things even further, Google and 20% time are actually subject to a study that found that only 10% of Googlers actually use it. This is despite the fact that Google advocates this for employees. Only 10% of those who are eligible for 20% time actually use it.

This shows me two important things. No matter what the situation, it is not easy for people to resist the urge to do their jobs. There are pressures. Everyone has responsibilities and commitments. I need to get back with people.

This is something that takes a lot of discipline and willpower. We also need to realize that 20 percent may actually be 120%. These may include weekends and nights, as well as obligations that people have. There are also waves in our lives, and there are responsibilities. Sometimes, things just are not possible. It may be impossible to care for someone you love or homeschool your children.

Once that moment has passed, however, it is crucial that we recalibrate. When thinking about career waves, it is important to acknowledge that we may have been over-indexing family time and other obligations. It is time to write the balance.

ALISON BEARD (Yes) When my children go to college, I'm going to start writing my novel.


ALISON BEARD - How much control do workers have over all this? Are they able to create their own jobs and find new career paths or work within existing organizations? Are you concerned that employers have lost their power due to the rise of the gig economy, for instance?

DORIE CLARK. Workers have a lot power right now. I'm not sure how much longer this will last but it is a very special moment. Research has shown that between 25 and 50% of employees in the post-COVID (or late COVID) moment, are seriously considering quitting their job. Employers, beware! This is going to destroy your talent pool. This is something you can't afford.

Therefore, if an employee comes to see you, they probably have more cards than you did before. If an employee tells you that they like working for your company but that they need a raise, or that it isn't feasible for them to return to work full-time, then you will be more open to what they have to say.

It's a unique moment where you can ask for what you want and map it out. If your request is reasonable and plausible, chances are that your company will not lose you. They will also be more likely to accommodate your request for professional development or opportunities to help you develop skills.

ALISON BEARD: If you don't want to work a side gig that will ultimately launch you into a completely different career and allow you to leave the company,

DORIE CLARK : They don't like it. However, that is one thing I like to promote. We can all think of a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram can be described as two circles that overlap. There is a magic area between the circles.

When we consider one circle as your company, what's in your company's best interests, and one as you, what's in your best interests, there is a very clear connection between them. They give up on their own needs and forget to develop skills, abilities, or networks beyond what they currently do.

This is great until it's not. If you are laid off, or things change at your company, or there is a reshuffle or some other such thing, then you have put all your eggs into one basket and it doesn't make sense anymore. If you are taking 20% of your time and applying it to something that is both beneficial to your company right now and future directions that may be open to you, that's a win-win situation for everyone. This is not at all unethical.

ALISON BEARD - But what if you work for an accounting firm but your side hustle is baking?

DORIE CLARK (Yes). There are side jobs that some people have that are totally different from their day job. The good news is that your accounting firm won't be concerned that you are taking their intellectual properties, or that you might steal their clients. They'll be like, Okay. Godspeed with the baking.

Even in this situation, you can still learn skills that will help you in both situations.

If you're starting a side hustle, let's say baking, then the baking part isn't going to be relevant to your day job. But building relationships and connections is what will matter and how to do that better.

Even though the audience may be different, the skills of how to make connections is a transferable skill. You will need to be more knowledgeable about social media and marketing. These are important aspects that will help you understand the company's activities. There is often a lot of overlap.

ALISON BEARD - You keep referring to weekends and nights for all this long-term planning. Are you really that healthy?

DORIE CLARK: I believe for many things it is a question about the balance and how can we toggle back and forth. In The Long Game, I discuss the concept of being in heads up mode and heads down mode. Jared Kleinert, my friend, first introduced me to this concept. The idea was very appealing to me because it addresses a problem that many people have. I do all the things and nothing is sticking.

It takes a while to get into the details. You realize that they are doing their job. They are not wasting their time on cat videos. The problem is that we can't do everything if we want to succeed professionally. Many people get so comfortable with one thing that they don't realize they need to change.

Jared's formula is what I love. It states that when we are in head-up mode, it is when we need to be more expansive. It is important to meet people, talk with others, look for ideas, and see what's out there. What's the next big product idea? What's the next big thing that I want to get into? That's fantastic. It's so exciting. This is called extrovert mode. At some point, we need to switch to heads-down mode. This is about execution. If you keep going in heads-down mode youre likely to continue to pursue a strategy that may not be effective at some point.

If you only think in heads-up mode, you won't get anything done. This kind of irresponsible dreamer is you.

ALISON BEARD - What about people who are so focused on their long-term goals and have a plan? Are they frustrated when they don't make progress in the near term? Your article was about strategic patience. It was a pleasure working with you. Tell us more about how that is done.

DORIE CLARK (Yes) It's very common.

I believe that our problem is that we focus too much on the end goal and aren't satisfied with it. Sometimes we don't even see progress towards achieving the goal. It could take years to achieve the goal because it is so large. It may take many years to achieve this goal.

We are going to be frustrated for a long time. That's what causes many people to give up. One strategy I use is to look for raindrops. This is what I mean. I've seen it time and again with my executive coaching clients as well as the people I work alongside in my expert online community of 600+ people. I know that when there is progress, we need to be able to look for those signs. It's almost inconspicuous at first.

It's like a rainstorm that starts where you thought it would stop. It's like a rainstorm starting where you were initially like, "Is that a raindrop?"

Perhaps it's that you receive a nice note of appreciation from a client. Perhaps your boss receives a compliment from someone and they tell you. These are the little signs.

ALISON BEARD : In this digital age, it can be frustrating to see your peers and contemporaries displaying their rainstorms or large scores. How can you handle that social comparison?

DORIE CLARK : It's so frustrating. This is why I believe strategic patience is so crucial for us right now. Of course, I'm referring to human beings who were sometimes impatient. This is a part of our DNA. However, social media and Instagram have only accelerated the feelings we've always felt.

It's easy to wonder why you aren't getting it. It's working for them, but not for me. I have three suggestions for you Alison. As we discussed, one is to look for the raindrops and see tiny signs of progress. Another thing is to have a good idea of the scope of your mission before you start your quest.

In his 2018 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos shared a great story about a friend who had hired a coach for handstands. She wanted to learn how to do a yoga handstand. According to the handstand coach, an average person can do a handstand in two weeks. If they are asked to guesstimate, they'll say that it takes six months to master it.

ALISON BEARD : This is not surprising to me. It takes a lot of core strength.

DORIE CLARK: It's insane. It is impossible. I have tried it. It is a huge commitment. However, if we take that metaphorically and apply it to the rest of our lives, think about what you envision. Everybody knows that Right. Right. It takes time to achieve success. They say it is not overnight but they think two weeks and six months. This is a factor 12. It's a difference of 12X.

It is important to have a clear understanding of the scope and timing. Finally, let me just say that it is really important to build a strong network. Not only are you going to have friends who believe in you, which is great, but people who are experts in your industry and will be there to support you. It is much easier to answer the question "Is this path not working?" or "Is it not working at all?"

ALISON BEARD - Long-term career planning can be difficult because you can't set goals. I want to become a director. I want to be a CEO. However, you don't have complete control. These decisions are up to someone else. How can you help people to see the agency they have?

DORIE CLARK: Gatekeepers can be very frustrating. You are absolutely right. There are many careers, professions, milestones we want to reach that are only in the hands certain people. They also have certain tastes. They may like you or not, and they may like or dislike your style or what it represents. It doesn't matter if you're objectively great.

Recognize that there are many paths to success. We can't just say "I will get a job at Apple." This is the only thing that will make my happy. It is a way to give a lot of power to one company and one person. If it doesn't work out, it can be an easy path to failure.

Instead, I believe we should be more directionally accurate in this. If we are willing to expand our view, there are many ways to make things work. You might not find the right path or it might be impossible to accomplish what you desire. There is always a way out. You might not get the job at Apple. Okay. Okay. Are you happy to work at Google? Would you feel happy working for a design company that collaborates with Apple? Perhaps you would be content working in academia, or as a journalist for a tech magazine that covers Apple. There are many options.

ALISON BEARD - What advice would you offer to people who are stuck in a dysfunctional cycle of thinking about the future and keeping their heads down? How can you help them get out of this trap and find the right balance?

DORIE CLARK (Yes). Do you see the fundamental principle of change management? Number one is that people must be motivated to make changes. Is the problem so severe that they are willing to take action? Are they aware of the options available to them? Number three: Are they prepared to sacrifice the benefits they get from these behaviors, and some sort of cost benefit analysis?

This is a common problem among highly successful professionals. I believe it is because they are addicted to head-down. However, there are some interesting things going on. A few years back, I came across this study. It was huge. The Management Research Group conducted the study, which involved 10,000 people. The study found that 97% of senior executives believed that strategic thinking was essential for their organizations' future. However, a separate survey was conducted and nearly 96% of those surveyed said they didn't have the time to think strategically.

When it comes to not being able to make more time or to think strategically, there are two things that are crucial. The first is the fact that being busy can be a sign of high social status. Silvia Bellezza, from Columbia Business School, has researched that this is true in America as well as other Western cultures. Being regarded as being crazy busy signifies that you're highly sought after and in high demand.

It is a way to signal to others, and maybe more importantly to ourselves, that we are valued and needed. It can be difficult to let go of that belief. Second, oftentimes, we don't know the answers in our professional lives or in our personal lives. We don't know how to increase sales by 30%. We don't know whether I should quit my job or stay at my job. Or if I should start a new initiative. We don't know the answers to all of these strategic questions.

Instead of facing them and dealing with the uncertainty, it is often easier to keep doing what we are doing and pretend that there's no time to think strategically. If we are going to be able to overcome these things and create the white space we desire, we must face them head-on.

ALISON BEARD (Yes) You have given us such great advice. We are now testing hypotheses, thinking in waves and looking for raindrops. It's something I will definitely use and I hope it inspires others. Dorie, thank you so much for being here.

DORIE CLARK, Alison, I am so grateful. It's great to be here.

ALISON BEARD : That's Dorie Clark. She is the author of The Long Game: How To Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term Environment. Her article "Feeling Stuck or Stymied" can be found in the September, Oct magazine or on

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Mary Dooe produced this episode. Rob Eckhardt provides technical support. Adam Buchholz manages our audio product. Thank you for listening to HBR IdeaCast im Alison Beard.