Why the Most Meaningful Milestones Often Are Unexpected

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In life and work, we prepare and strive for clearly defined goals: getting our driver’s license, our first job, our first promotion. But sometimes the most meaningful markers in life are the milestones we achieve without planning, and often unwittingly.

Planned goals and unexpected milestones

From the time I was a child, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to share meaningful stories and make a difference in the world. An important goal for a journalist is getting their first byline, which I achieved in the 1990s. It was exciting, but also expected.

Over time, my career trajectory shifted from traditional news reporting to content marketing and digital storytelling. This role often has the same vibe as the newsroom, but with different audiences, channels and measurements. As my role changed, my career goals also shifted – and along with them, a set of invisible milestones written in my future.

I knew what my business goals should be:

  • Partner with a solid organization that values my work and recommendations.
  • Create relevant, authentic content their audiences want and need; measure performance and improve strategies.
  • Wash, rinse, repeat.

This is a pretty straightforward set of goals. But what I didn’t know back then was that key milestones naturally surface over time – and the importance of achieving them isn’t always realized right away.

Many of the best milestones are achieved as a team

A prime example is team leadership. Sure, receiving a leadership title can be a milestone in and of itself. However, learning how to effectively lead people is far more important than achieving a title. And only when your team is put to the test will it become apparent that the milestone has both surfaced and been met.

For me, that moment was the first time I confidently handed off an important client to one of my team members. I knew this colleague had the skill and insights to take the client to the next level because I had empowered them to make decisions on the fly and get things done. That employee’s passion for the work gave me a sense of accomplishment in knowing I had successfully led the team in the right direction.

The beauty of career milestones is that accomplishments seldom can be claimed by just one individual. Growing in your career often means helping others grow in theirs. As a leader, you might be responsible for ensuring people on your team are in the right role for their skills, are assigned the work they enjoy and can perform efficiently. Of course, you can also be an effective leader in a support role or as a lateral colleague by helping the members of a team achieve their milestones together.

Future goals and milestones

When I consider my goals for the future, tangible achievements are easy to list and work toward: grow my team, earn new business, and sell X percent more workshops, to name a few. Once I achieve a goal, I celebrate – then I set another.

Milestones, however, are a little different. Though certain milestones can be achieved through independent, strategic moves and hard work, many are achieved through experiences. For example, an excellent milestone is honing your skills to the point that you become a subject matter expert in a topic about which you are passionate. Earning that level of recognition requires positive sentiment from others with whom you’ve engaged. When it comes to career milestones, success is not solely about whether you see yourself as an expert, but also how others perceive you.

For that reason, I don’t look too far into the future when it comes to milestones. I prefer to focus on the present — nurturing relationships that provide collaborative experiences, which  can lead to opportunities I might not have considered if I focused on following a perfectly crafted path to success.

The opportunity to achieve goals and milestones is a rolling process that can continue forever if you continue to engage with others in a positive, relevant way. Every new encounter and experience presents another chance to grow, learn and change together.

This post was created in collaboration with National Car Rental, which provides a premium, expedited car rental experience to road warriors around the world. All opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of National Car Rental.