Working backward to get sh*t done

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Achieving Goals

Remember when you were 5 years old?

Grown-ups used to ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You may have told them that one day you will become an astronaut, doctor, dancer or firefighter.

And they would laugh at your cute response and reaffirm that you can become anything you want.

However, the vast majority of us do not achieve our 5-year-old selves’ career goals. But how could anyone expect us to?

We didn’t take any serious action towards these goals.

Then again, at the age of 5, we probably aren’t taking action towards anything except trying to find candy for the next sugar rush. Childhood isn’t quite the right phase of our lives to push our careers…

But in college, we have so many opportunities to explore different career interests with minimal friction. It’s possible to take classes or find internships in marketing, data science, and material science within the same semester.

Even post-graduation you still have lots of flexibility in shaping your career. You can take on extra projects at work, invest in side hustles in the evenings, and coffee chat with professionals across industries.

This is an amazing time to take action towards your professional goals, which pays dividends later in life.

Yet students often set ambitious goals without taking concrete action to achieve them.

For example, I’ve met students in the business community at UC Berkeley who wanted to work for a top consulting firm after graduating. But they didn’t take action to achieve this goal and slowly convinced themselves that they weren’t good enough to land one of these offers.

It’s disappointing to see this unfold -- there are so many high-potential students selling themselves short.

They have the right idea by setting a concrete goal. Goals are necessary for making progress in your career, and I’ve written a lot about forming career hypotheses and setting long term goals (not plans).

But without action, a student’s career goals are just as empty as the cute 5-year-old telling grown-ups they want to become a firefighter.

Furthermore, it doesn't matter how ambitious and difficult your goals may be. You can drastically improve your odds by complementing goal-setting with concrete action.

Working backward

Working backward is a form of structured thinking that empowers you to achieve incredibly ambitious and complicated goals.

Working backward is a 3-step process:

  1. Set a specific, realistic (but ambitious), and time-bound goal
  2. Divide this big, hairy goal into more manageable sub-goals
  3. Set deadlines to achieve these sub-goals and sequence them in a logical manner

After completing these steps and setting up your plan of action, you intensely focus on the first sub-goal and execute.

While this may sound obvious, most people don’t think or take action this way. But then again, most people don’t actually achieve their ambitious goals.

So why does this process work?

First, it forces you to understand and break down vague long-term goals into actionable steps. If you don’t know how to achieve your goal, step 1 is to figure it out.

Second, it serves as an early warning signal if you are at risk of missing your overall goal. If you slip on your first sub-goal deadline, you need to course correct before it’s too late. As you approach the deadline for your long-term goal, it should be obvious if you stand a chance of achieving it or not.

Third, you will build momentum as you accomplish sub-goals. We are humans, not machines. We need a sense of progress to feel inspired to keep pushing. Long-term goals feel daunting unless you break them up into small wins.

Let’s apply this process assuming I’m a Sophomore with aspirations of working for a top consulting firm.

Step 1: Set a specific, realistic (but ambitious), and time-bound goal

As a Sophomore, I have ~2 years before full-time recruiting starts. Therefore, my long-term goal is to land an offer with a top management consulting firm before November of my Senior year.

Step 2: Divide this big, hairy goal into more manageable sub-goals

Landing an offer at a top consulting firm is notoriously difficult, especially since I attend a non-target school.

Before dividing this big goal into sub-goals, I need to thoroughly understand what it takes to break into these firms.

Step 2.1: Figure out what it takes to get an offer at a top consulting firm

The objective of sub-goal 1 is to understand the lay of the land. This will also inform the other sub-goals needed to achieve my long-term goal.

I find it helpful to start by spending a few hours researching the ins and outs of management consulting online. For most professions, there are dedicated forums or subreddits that could have quality information.

After understanding the basics, I like to get higher quality and personalized advice through networking.  

I will set the following sub-goal: talk to 3+ management consultants to quickly learn the lay of the land.

There are so many ways to get in touch with these professionals. Two tactics that work well are to ask for introductions to consulting professionals via mutual connections, or cold emailing by guessing their email address.

A few helpful starter questions to guide the conversation:

  • Who are people with similar backgrounds (major, university, geography, etc.) who worked at these firms?
  • How did they get there?
  • How does recruiting work for these companies?
  • What do they look for in a top-notch candidate?
  • What should you be aware of today to improve your odds of landing an offer in a couple years?

Regardless of the information I search for in this sub-goal, I should end with a crystal-clear understanding of what it takes to achieve my long-term goal.

Step 2.2: Identify the gaps between my current competency levels and what it takes to land these offers

After talking to insiders at top consulting firms, I know that consulting firms look for highly-analytical students with big name internships and leadership experience.

I also know that because thousands of students are applying for these positions, I need to have a top-notch resume, cover letter, and built-out network to help push my application internally.

Finally, through my online research and chats, I figured out that consulting firms place a huge emphasis on case interviews and behavioral questions during the interview process.

Therefore I need to develop my competency and experience with the following sub-goals:

  • 1-2 analytical internships (okay if not a big brand yet)
  • 1 big brand internship to build credibility
  • Well-written and polished resume
  • Captivating cover letter
  • Strong relationships with a professional at each consulting firm
  • Adequate case interview preparation (I heard it takes at least 1 month of serious commitment)
  • Adequate behavioral interview preparation

Those are the sub-goals to landing a top consulting offer. Most students with the goal of landing these offers don’t actually understand what it entails.

This step is all about identifying the gaps.

Step 3: Sequence sub-goals to help you reach your broader goal on time

There are two aspects to sequencing sub-goals:

  1. Figuring out the order of the goals
  2. Aligning them such that you will achieve your long-term goal on time

In this example, I’m a Sophomore with 2 full years before I want to have a top consulting offer in-hand. Therefore I could sequence these sub-goals with the following deadlines:

By end of Sophomore Summer

  • Complete 1-2 analytical internships (okay if not a big brand yet)
  • Start structuring and building a decent resume
  • Start networking with professionals at consulting firms

By end of Junior Fall

  • Have a well-written and polished resume
  • Heavy networking with professionals at consulting firms and backup companies
  • 30 days of light case preparation (will also help with Junior year recruiting)

By end of Junior Summer

  • 1 big brand internship to build credibility (ideally with one of my target consulting firms)

By August of Senior Year

  • 30 days of daily case prep
  • 20 hours of behavioral interview preparation
  • Finalized resume
  • Finalized cover letter
  • Contacts invested in my future at each consulting firm

Now I have a thorough understanding of what I need to do to land a top consulting offer and a solid plan to get there in 2 years.

It’s time to execute.

First on my list is to find an analytical internship for the spring semester. Even with this sub-goal, I can apply the working backward process and identify even smaller goals.

Since I want to find an analytical internship in the spring, I need to start networking and sending out cold emails in the fall. If I don’t do that, it’s very unlikely I will stumble upon a great internship in the spring.

I know I’m on track if I end Sophomore summer with an analytical internship, decent resume, and a small but flourishing network with consulting firms. This momentum will keep me going to achieve my next set of goals for Junior year.

If I end Sophomore summer without 1 analytical internship, I know I’m behind my plan and need to catch up.

And that’s the beauty of working backward. You are empowered and in control of your future.

Two final caveats

Risk # 1: Getting married to your plan

Remember that any long-term goal is just a career hypothesis. As your progress through your sub-goals, you should be learning more about whether that long-term goal is actually the right fit for you.

A clear example of this is investment banking. Generally, to land a top full-time investment banking offer you need to have prior finance experience.

Many students will intern at smaller firms to get early exposure to financial modeling and company valuations. However, through this experience students sometimes realize that they hate financial modeling.

Rather than plowing through your plan, it’s much healthier to reassess whether investment banking is the right long-term goal for you.

Risk # 2: Thinking you have complete control over the outcome

The second risk of working backward is that it can trick you into thinking you have full control over the recruiting process.

Working backward enables you to have full control over the inputs needed to achieve your goals. However, there is always a black box between inputs (your actions) and outcomes (your goal). Something happens in this black box that you can’t control.

The right inputs for the dream outcome

There are many instances where you may do all the right things but still not get the desired outcome. This leads to failure and is part of life.

In my experience with recruiting and mentoring others, the right inputs almost always lead to a strong outcome. However, a strong outcome isn’t always the same as the outcome you were expecting.  

In my earlier example, this may mean that you don’t get a consulting offer with McKinsey, Bain, or BCG, but instead land a solid consulting offer with another firm. Regardless, this is still a huge feat and considerable success.

When life doesn’t go your way, ask yourself if you gave it your all and had the right inputs. If you did, zoom out and acknowledge the uncontrollable black box.  

And if you didn’t give it your all and have the right inputs, try working backward with your next big goal. 

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