Peechaya Burroughs for TIME
Career

This is the Secret to Success Most People Never Learn

Feb. 10, 2016

You may be chasing the wrong goals

Seventy percent of young adults feel they haven’t made as much progress in their careers as they would have hoped to, according to the 2015 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. And a 2012 version of the same poll found that 65% of respondents felt their lives were “full of uncertainty.”

To make things worse, they’re usually battered with the same old advice, including: “Follow your passion” and “knowledge is power.” But clichéd phrases like these don’t help—they hurt. In fact, they should be eliminated from any would-be high achiever’s lexicon. Why? Because they imply that lack of knowledge or passion is the problem. It’s not.

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Although these words make for great crutches, they perpetuate a far worse symptom: Confusion. That’s because they lack specificity. Successful people, who we’ll define as people who accomplish what they set out to do for themselves, speak with precision. Words like “success,” “passion” and “knowledge” are so overused that they have no real meaning. Attaching our goals to these words is the equivalent of letting our fate loose in the wind.

This is why everything from self-esteem to networking savvy takes a back seat to clarity of purpose. Think about it: If you’re confused, how can you know what to learn or why? Who to network with or seek out? How can you even believe in yourself if you don’t know who you are?

The solution is simple: Pick something, anything specific, and run with it. For example, let’s take a look at Faraz Zaidi, a millennial entrepreneur you’ve likely never heard of. He had a specific goal: Start his own fashion brand, and get onto the shelves of retailer Urban Outfitters. So in 2007, he began designing his own T-shirts. He partnered up with his two cousins, Nabil and Iram, and in 2008, they filed their LLC paperwork.

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The cousins learned that major retailers like Urban Outfitters like to see traction before investing in vendors. So from 2008 to 2010, they generated as much interest in their clothing brand as possible. They aligned themselves with artists who had influence over the Urban Outfitters demographic. They designed products that would complement other Urban Outfitters offerings. Then, in 2011, they attended a trade show that they knew a key Urban Outfitters buyer would be attending. Several months later, after many email exchanges with the buyer they’d met at the trade show, Faraz accomplished his goal. His clothing brand, Profound Aesthetic, is now sold in Urban Outfitters.

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Clarity of purpose stems from having clearly defined goals. Clearly defined goals are specific and measurable. By being specific, you’ll be able to identify the people involved, what exactly it is that you want to accomplish, the potential setbacks involved and—most importantly—what exactly is required to overcome them. If your goals aren’t measurable, you’ll never be able to gauge how close or far you are from attaining them. That’s why having concrete criteria for measuring progress, whether it’s inches on your waist or dollars in the bank, is essential.

Brian Roberts is a writer, entrepreneur and university guest lecturer from New Jersey.