What if You’re Unsure of Your Goals?

March 1, 2013

Recently I gave a faculty development talk at the University of Pittsburgh. I explained how, building on passages in The Wise Advisor by Jeswald Salacuse, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, it’s the responsibility of the advice seeker to prepare for an advisory meeting by answering these questions:

  1. Where am I now?
  2. How did I get here?
  3. Where do I want to go?
  4. How can you (the advisor) help?

Salacuse explains that these are the key items that a wise advisor should extract. However, as advice seekers, we realize that not every knowledgeable and experienced person is an expert advisor in Salacuse’s sense. Advising is a collaborative process, so we should make it easy for the advisor by clearly laying out those items, even if not asked.

A questioner in my audience asked: “What happens if I don’t know my goals? How do I then make use of your book’s methods?”

My answer was that only a slight adjustment is needed. In that case, your problem is that you’re unsure what your goals should be and you need advice in how to formulate them. It’s not an uncommon situation. The adjusted items then become:

  1. Where am I now?  (I’m not sure what my goals should be.)
  2. How did I get here?
  3. Where do I want to go?  (I want to formulate goals that are consistent with my values, circumstances, and constraints.)
  4. How can you (the advisor) help?  (Help me figure out what my goals should be.)

The old saying “If you don’t know your destination, any path will get you there.” is misleading, since we all have starting points, constraints, and values, so not every path will do.