We all have goals and aspirations — and I think that's the only way for structured growth — but achieving these aims will often result in a false dawn.
TL;DR: The goals you set yourself, when achieved, will more often than not improve your career. However, they will almost never revolutionize it in the way you think they will.
When I started taking my photography seriously, I set myself goals. I had a mixture from short-term and realistic to stretch goals that the odds were firmly against me achieving. To this day, I find it satisfying to work towards targets, but most of all, working out how one could get there. I say "one" rather than "I" because it's best figured out from an objective point of view. For example, if you wanted a Vogue cover, it's worth working out how any photographer could get that gig. You will need to develop a strong fashion and portrait portfolio, with magazine standard post-processing, for starters. Then you will need to find less famous magazines to publish your work. Finally, you will have to network and try to find an entry point to the circles in which Vogue editors move within. This isn't a prescription for a coveted cover, but rather a rough outline of what the trajectory to that goal might look like.
Smaller goals are less vague and more simple to map out a route to. In my early days, I was focused on getting my first paid client within a niche. I was absolutely convinced that once I attained one paid client, I would be able to use that to secure more brands willing to part with their cash for my imagery. I was right, but not to the degree I had expected; I had to put in more or less the same amount of effort, but I did have a higher success rate. In a similar vein, when I started my Instagram account all those years back (before Facebook and consulted algorithms made it about as fun to use as rusty metal toothbrush) I was under the apprehension that if I were to have 1,000 followers, my life would be improved somehow. I got there; it wasn't.
What I soon realized is that the many, many goals I were setting were having a positive impact upon achievement, but they weren't making all the difference. I expected them to have a profound rerouting of my current path on to a shinier, more glamorous path, but it was seldom the case. Or rather, it was never the case. That's not to say that these goals, both small and a big, didn't have a positive impact because they did. Everything I crossed off my list of goals moved me closer towards those distant and ambitious aspirations, but there was never going to be this moment of technological singularity, where I switched like binary from 0 to 1, and success rained down upon me in droves. There isn't — or it's unfathomably rare if there is — one moment that will propel you to where you want to be, and that thing you're trying to get that will fix everything, really won't.
There are times when approaching goals as if they'll set you up for life is useful. That is, your dedication to achieving that goal you've set will aid you in getting there quicker and more effectively, and it will improve your career. However, too often, we overvalue the impact of those things we want, to our detriment. My perfect example was Instagram followers. I was obsessed with just the number of people following me, with no care for interaction rates, whether they were the sort of follower I wanted, or if any work might have come from it. In my weak defense, influencers were just coming to the forefront on the platform, and the agencies and brands I worked with cared very much about how many followers you had. Regardless, I dedicated an inordinate amount of time to the platform, which yielded little in return.
This mentality is of the same breed as G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), where you incorrectly believe that the next piece of gear will take your work to the next level. There are cases in which it will improve your work, perhaps that's even more common than it having no impact at all, but it won't be a transformative effect. So, aim high and work hard and methodically on achieving those goals of yours, but don't be disheartened when each step doesn't quite have the impact you'd expected. It will still being moving your boat forward, it just won't leap you to the destination.
I think in my case it came from early assumptions over successful people's route to the "top." A story often told about Picasso in a Parisian café is relevant here, whether the story is true or not. The tale goes that Picasso was sitting in a café and sketching on a napkin. When a lady sitting nearby asked if she could have it, he quoted her an exorbitant price. Outraged, she asked how it could be worth so much if it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso replies, "it didn't take me 5 minutes, it took me 40 years." Whether this happened or not — and sadly, I doubt it did — the sentiment is valuable. Many times, we'll look at those more successful than ourselves and misattribute their accomplishments to simpler and quicker actions than are really the case. This is then mirrored when we achieve our own goals, only for the world to move almost imperceptibly differently, as opposed to the wholesale changes we expected.
What goals of yours — upon completion — just didn't have the impact you'd expected they would? Conversely, did any transform your career completely and fly boldly in the face of the premise of this article? Share them in the comments below.