Careers advice: Building your mindset for a new challenge
03 October 2022

What can you do to get into the right mindset as you approach a new challenge this autumn? Global Alumni Careers Manager, Caroline Egan, has some advice to help you.

Look forward

When you get back to work after holidays, it's normal to look back at the past year. While you’re likely to be proud of some things you accomplished, you may also be thinking about things which didn’t go so well. Thinking about past failures can be very disheartening, and you can easily end up in a cycle of thoughts about what you could have done differently. This kind of rumination can actually heighten feelings of depression and anxiety, which can reduce your motivation to change things.

When you get back to work, it’s important to start looking forward to the year ahead rather than back at the past one. Treat the goals you want to accomplish as new challenges and a source of energy, not a punishment for things you didn’t get done last year. Focusing on the future - and seeking new opportunities to succeed - can help you to generate the energy to get started.

Set specific goals

Many of you will have heard of SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-framed) for a reason: because abstract goals can be paralysing. They’re simply too big to make meaningful progress. Instead, turn your goal into specific actions which lead to the goal you want to achieve. This kind of specific plan is called an ‘implementation intention’. It requires that you break the general goal down into smaller tasks that can be put into your diary.

This has two benefits:

  • First, it requires you to think through what actually has to be done to achieve the goal. You may discover that you don’t know all the steps or that some of the steps are ones that involve skills you need to learn. In that case, you might want to find a mentor or coach who can help you
  • Second, being specific forces you to grapple with your packed diary. One reason why people often fail to achieve important goals is that they can’t find the time to perform the tasks that would lead to success. When you try to add new actions to your agenda, you’re forced to work out what can be moved, delayed, or delegated in order to put you on the road to following through on your commitment.

Avoid unhelpful social comparison

Humans don’t evaluate things on an absolute scale. Instead, we assess our success relative to an external standard. Often, we do that through the process of social comparison, in which we compare ourselves to someone else (from ‘social comparison theory’ developed by the psychologist, Leon Festinger in the 50s).

There are two kinds of social comparison. ‘Upward’ social comparisons involve comparing yourself to someone better off than you are along a particular dimension, and ‘downward’ social comparisons are comparisons to someone you think of as worse off than you.

Unfortunately, neither kind of comparison is helpful for your motivation in the long-term. Upward social comparisons can frustrate you, leading to you becoming even more demotivated, and downward social comparisons may briefly make you feel better about what you have and what you have accomplished, but can demotivate you from continuing to push forward.

The energy you need to motivate yourself comes from being dissatisfied with something about the present, along with developing a plan to get what you want. We can’t stop ourselves from making social comparisons, but we can remind ourselves how unhelpful it is to do it, for both our careers and our wellbeing. As former US President Theodore Roosevelt sagely remarked: ‘comparison is the thief of joy’.

Instead:

  • Only use upward social comparison for inspiration to help you decide what you want to change
  • Work on knowing your strengths – think about your strengths (and ask others for feedback too). Try to notice when you’re in a state of flow: those times when you’re totally focused, immersed and energised by the task in hand. These will bolster your confidence and motivation to make changes
  • Make social comparisons only with your past self - reflect on your achievements periodically, say every three months or so. Reflect on how far you have come already, and only then on where you want to go next.

The key message is to look forward, not back, and to start taking some small steps towards what you want to achieve. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’.

What ‘single step’ could you take this autumn?