A career vision is a clear mental image of who you want to be and what you want to do in the future. “Your vision is a ‘picture’ of what you aspire to – and what inspires you – in your work life,” the University of Berkeley explains. Stemming from our fundamental values and interests, these long-term professional dreams “shape our actions” and “invest our work with meaning,” as one Vanderbilt study put it.
Career visions keep us engaged at work. One study found that women who persisted in STEM fields had “a personal vision that included their profession, and that this personal vision enabled them to overcome the bias, barriers and discrimination in the engineering workplace.” Women and many others who can articulate a vision are “more likely to be engaged in their work and committed to the profession.”
Career visions motivate us, serving as “catalyst to action.” Research shows that people perceive easy-to-visualize goals to be more attainable than more difficult-to-visualize goals, which in turn boosts effort and commitment. Without a defined vision, we still pursue various outcomes — but often unconsciously. Because we’re not explicitly aware of a goal, our actions may be ineffective or misdirected. In short, career visions make our goals conscious, coherent and enduring.
And, finally, they enhance our physical and psychological wellbeing. One well-cited study found that writing about your best possible future self was associated with a substantial increase in reported wellbeing. Five months later, simply completing this exercise was correlated with fewer instances of physical illness compared to controls.
1) A defined ideal self
My high school English teacher told me, “You’re a writer. Don’t forget it.” I’ve since ordered my life from this core sense of identity. Our ideal selves aren’t always so cut and dry, but the better we define ourselves professionally, the clearer our vision and our subsequent path become.
Who do you want to be? Answering this question doesn’t require naval gazing. In Batman Begins, Batman’s childhood friend tells him, “It’s not who you are underneath but what you do that defines you.” We can construct a successful vision by determining not who we are deep down but, rather, who we want to be and what we want to do.
In a series of studies that began following elementary school children 50 years ago and is still studying them, falling in love with a future image of oneself was a better predictor of creative achievement in adulthood than scholastic promise, educational achievements or past performance. Success has “an imagination component,” said University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.
2) A clear real self
But a successful career vision doesn’t mean daydreaming.
Some research suggests that fantasizing may sabotage long-term wellbeing and goal attainment. In an episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen explains that those with the strongest fantasies — finding true love, becoming famous, getting fit, etc. — tend to be the least likely to actually achieve their goals.
Why? Fantasizing convinces our brains that the ideal outcome has already happened, therefore demotivating us to actually accomplish our goals.
The way to craft a career vision without becoming complacent is to see the discrepancy between your real self and your ideal self. Oettingen calls a variation of this strategy “mental contrasting,” which means supplementing a vision with potential obstacles and the specific actions you’ll need to move forward for a more complete, realistic picture.
Research suggests that change happens when we recognize the gap between our real self and our ideal self. Thus a career vision requires not just a detailed picture of where we want to be but also a detailed picture of where we are. With a plan for how to diminish the difference, we can progress our professional dreams.
When Michael Phelps was eight years old, he wrote, “I would like to make the Olympics.” But his vision didn’t stop there. 23 Olympic medals later, Phelps visualizes the perfect race every night before he goes to sleep — including the tiny details like water dripping from his face — and wakes up to written-down ideal race times. In other words, Phelps doesn’t just have a vision for his ideal career. He has a vision for every aspect composing it: each race, each day.
Among athletes, regular visualization improves performance, motivation, coordination, concentration and relaxation. “Visualization helps the athlete just do it and do it with confidence, poise, and perfection,” said one researcher.
Consistent visualization keeps working professionals on track. “Constantly reinforcing the image of you in your career vision will help you both consciously and subconsciously develop goals and action steps that will lead you to success,” Berkeley explains.
Of course, like many things in life, visions sometimes change. One study emphasizes that visions “aren’t set in stone.” Part of practicing a vision is checking in on whether it needs modification or revisions.