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

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