Best life/career planning tool ever?

Mark Bain

Once, decades ago, I was stalled at a crossroads. I faced an important career/life choice and was struggling to make a decision.

My two choices were quite different in nature. But both had attractive upsides and no serious downsides (which probably explains why I, a decisive person, was stymied – there was no clear winner and loser).

I turned to others for advice and, much to my delight, received one of the best decision-making tools I have ever come across. It’s way better than the Magic 8-Ball.

Seriously, this tool is powerful in its simplicity. It only requires a pencil, eraser, sheet of paper, some self-awareness and a few hours of quiet time.

Because this tool is so elemental, so starkly simple, I was tempted to dismiss it without even giving it a try. But following that first use, I have returned to it for several important decisions.

I have also shared the tool with dozens of people who were wrestling with big career decisions of their own. Almost have raved about it, and a few have said that it brought clarity after months of anguishing indecision.

So what is this miracle tool? I don’t have a name for it, but below is a fictional example.

Operating instructions are not required. Perhaps, however, these practical suggestions based on experience will help you get the most from the tool:

  • Start this when you have an hour or two alone, without interruptions. A long flight or rainy evening will do, and a glass of great wine might help to get your creative juices flowing.
  • Use pencil and paper, not a computer. You may prefer the latter, but most of us think more clearly when we have to write by hand.
  • Complete both the professional and personal columns. Look for potential links and, more important, conflicts between the two. Be honest about what you realistically can achieve.
  • Know that some priorities may (will) change over time as you grow and learn what really matters most to you. As you evolve, revise your list.
  • Don’t obsess over perfection – especially with the long-term goals. Write from your head and heart. There are no wrong answers. If your priorities change, you can change your list.
  • Bear in mind that it will be more difficult to achieve some of your 20-year goals if you miss some of your 5/10/15-year milestones. Align and build goals to succeed in the long-term.
  • Invite a few of your most trusted friends and family members to discuss your list with you. Ask a mentor for input. Keep an open mind and carefully consider their feedback.
  • Revisit your list from time to time. Celebrate goals accomplished. Laugh about the unexpected changes. Periodically reset your time horizons and add new, stretch goals.

This tool works for all ages and stages, including young professionals who are just starting to plot out their personal and work lives and older professionals who may be contemplating a change in career direction. It will even help college students choose a major that plays to their strengths and long-term aspirations.

Good luck – I hope you achieve all your goals and fulfill your true potential in life and work!



Personal goals

Professional goals

In 5 years No more roommates Start to manage people
  Pay off student loans Become a great presenter
  Run Chicago marathon Volunteer @ non-profit
  Fluent in Mandarin Make $70k/year or more
  In serious relationship!
In 10 years Visit China Sr. Manager or Director
  Get married International work experience
  Buy first place Chair non-profit committee
  First child? Two kids?? Make $120k/year or more
In 15 years Still madly in love VP and SVP
  Great parent Make $200k year or more
  Take mom/dad on trip On non-profit board(s)
  Go back to school?
In 20 years No debts Open own business?
  Kids’ college fully funded Teach part-time
  Chair non-profit board


Mark Bain is President of upper 90 consulting, a new firm that helps senior communications professionals become more effective managers and leaders. Previously, Mark headed global communications at Baker & McKenzie and Alticor, after starting his career with Burson-Marsteller.


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