How to Advance Your Career With One Valuable Letter

At the beginning of each fiscal year, I ask my team to write letters to themselves. The letter, which includes their accomplishments and personal goals, is just for them; they don’t have to share it with anyone else at any point. They seal the letters in envelopes and then I hold them in a locked cabinet until the end of the year when we open them together.

Writing the letter is an opportunity to pause and reflect: to celebrate progress, to recognize your strengths, to commit to what you can do to improve, and to stay focused on where you are going and who you want to become.

At first glance, some people may find this approach to be a bit idealistic. The fact is: When we want to achieve something at work, we write it down. Whether it’s a SWOT analysis, a formal action plan, or even a memo (or email) outlining goals—we’ve seen the power of listing out our intentions.

So, why not apply this thinking to something as important as our own career development?

Six years ago, I said I wanted to be Associate Vice President at a top institution leading a large team committed to being the best versions of themselves. Of course, it’s not like after I wrote it down, I waved my magic wand and it happened. I still had to do the work—but I had a clear goal that guided my efforts, and I am certain that contributed to my success.

I encourage you to set aside 15 minutes this week to give this exercise a try.

Here are five prompts to get you started:

  1. What Are You Proudest of This Year?

    In order to figure out where you want to go, first you have to acknowledge where you have been. Whether it was closing the 7-figure gift, getting a promotion, starting a new initiative, collaborating on a project – or all of the above – celebrate your accomplishments!

     

  2. What Do You Want to Accomplish Next Year?

    It’s always a good idea to set your intentions for the year. Writing them down makes them real. You should map out what you want to achieve and even when you are not actively thinking about these goals, your subconscious will be working on them. Think about what you hope to write in next year’s letter as your greatest successes and then go make them happen.

     

  3. What Are Your Superpowers?

    You have unique strengths that make you who you are. Think about the compliment you frequently receive, the skill that you use without thinking much about it, the tasks that give you the greatest energy – these are your superpowers. By acknowledging your greatest strengths, you can find opportunities to leverage them at work and in life.

     

  4. What Can You Improve to Be the Best Version of Yourself?

    Just as we have strengths, we also have things we can work on. I am a big believer in identifying ways to be the best version of myself. This means reflecting on what is holding you back and asking others for feedback on what you can improve; then meaningfully developing those areas. I enjoy looking back over my letter at the end of the year and seeing how I have progressed.

     

  5. Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

    This is an important one. When I first started in my career, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Then things got a little less clear for me about what was next. I think at one point I was even afraid to say to myself what I hoped to achieve in five years. Where you see yourself doesn’t have to be a job title or specific organization, this is your chance to say who you hope to become. Dream big for yourself, even when – and especially when – it’s a little scary. I’ll be cheering you on!

In 12 months, revisit what you wrote. What surprises you? What heartens (or challenges, or motivates) you?

The purpose of the letter is to celebrate where you came from and remain true to your future aspirations. After all, if you don’t know where you are going, it can be hard to get there. By documenting what is most important to you and using it to guide you, you set yourself up to advance your career and achieve your goals.