Planning for your dream job doesn't actually work, says millionaire bestselling author: You need a 'compass,' not a 'map'

Author Seth Godin speaks on stage during Watermark Conference For Women 2020 at San Jose Convention Center on February 12, 2020 in San Jose, California.
Marla Aufmuth | Getty Images

Conventional wisdom says that to be successful, you should build a career plan: Map out where you are now, where you want to be and the steps you'll need to take to get there.

Seth Godin disagrees with that conventional wisdom.

Godin, a bestselling author and millionaire entrepreneur often dubbed a "marketing guru," says his accomplishments feel fulfilling specifically because he's never followed a predetermined path. His advice: Use "a compass and not a map," he recently told LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky's "The Path" newsletter.

Your compass is your personal vision — who you aspire to be outside of a job title. Following it means pursuing decisions that make you happier and more content in the short-term, rather than following a pre-planned set of steps that may or may not eventually lead to your "dream job."

Those decisions may not always pan out, but you'll learn enough from each failure to eventually succeed, Godin said.

In Godin's case, whenever he felt like he wasn't learning anything new, he took that as a sign to look around and gauge other opportunities, he said. He went from a brand manager job at a software startup in the '80s into entrepreneurship, reportedly investing thousands of dollars from his own savings before one of his startups — a marketing company called Yoyodyne — sold to Yahoo in 1998 for $29.65 million.

He spent a year as a vice president at Yahoo while trying to build on the success of his first authored book, "Business Rules of Thumb," published a year before the acquisition. "I got 800, 900 rejection letters in a row, and it was more than a year before anyone wanted to publish my next book," Godin said.

Those failures helped him hone his book pitches, making him a sharper writer, he added — helping him eventually become the author of a popular blog and 20 bestselling books, many of which focus on marketing and leadership.

With a career map, Godin might have pursued entrepreneurship more single-handedly, never authoring that first book on the side and discovering a passion for writing. The compass method was "more fun, and you learn more," he said.

Godin's advice only feels counterintuitive because most people's definitions of success and happiness wrongly center around money and influence, he added.

"Here we are in Silicon Valley, where compasses are completely distorted because there's a magnetic north in the wrong direction," Godin said. "And that is the compass of venture funding: How many fancy Teslas do you have, how much money do you have in the bank and how many people are following you on Twitter? None of which are correlated in any way with life satisfaction, impact or generosity."

Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken similarly on the topic. As part of his MBA curriculum at Duke University, Cook had to write a 25-year plan, he told students and alumni at his class reunion in 2013. Years later, he found that plan tucked away in a box.

"I would say it was reasonably accurate for all of 18 to 24 months after it was written," Cook said. "There was nothing, a single thing on it, that was accurate post that. Not a single thing."

The lesson there, he said: "The journey was not predictable at all." 

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