Performance targets are built into an annual review that tells you how well you are achieving at work. Salary is another way of keeping score. But some experts believe in order to find real career fulfillment, you need to look beyond short- and medium-term goals.
At INSEAD, an elite business school in France, ethics professor and decision scientist Marc Le Menestrel conducts four-hour "Dreaming and Visioning" sessions with senior executives, as part of a four-week program intended to hone decision-making.
A rock climber, Le Menestrel draws on techniques from sports psychology and meditation to lead participants in conversations and guided visualizations that ultimately get to the core of the executive's vocation.
"I focus on identity," Le Menestrel explains. "Who are you? What is your work? Who is with you? What do you want to accomplish? Is the dream for your work really yours -- maybe it's your father's or society's?"
Next, Le Menestrel leads a discussion aimed at identifying decisions participants can take from their beliefs about how best to conduct their lives.
This seemingly simple exercise has far-reaching benefits for participants, according to Le Menestrel, who believes these benefits flow back to organizations, too.
Having a solid sense of identity and vocation helps leaders be more adaptive to change, more creative, and more trustworthy, Le Menestrel argues. In our rapidly changing business environment, rulebooks swiftly become redundant, and businesses must rely on their senior executives to be confident in their decisions.
Le Menestrel believes the more self-aware and empowered a leader is, the better equipped they are to match the complexity of the environment in which they operate.
"When the complexity of a situation is so great that compliance is not enough, the person, as an identity, as an individual, as a source of power and leadership, is really key," Le Menestrel says.
"If I have a leader who knows who he is, who knows what he wants, and where is the frontier between his private and professional life, I have some sort of anchor."
A sense of purpose also helps in adverse conditions, Le Menestrel says. "You have more distance, you have the big picture, and that helps you to relativize things, to realize what is important."
Corinne Mills, a career coach at Personal Career Management agrees that it's important to avoid getting too absorbed by your next project or promotion.
"People get overinvested in their job, and not their career," she says. "People tend to be very conscious about doing a good job where they are now and don't put their head up and think 'where do I want this to lead to?' You absolutely need to be thinking 'what's life after this job?'
"It might be that you refocus the job you're currently doing, get work experience elsewhere, do an evening course, or start networking and see what else is out there."
Rather than waiting for a "tipping point" such as redundancy, a horrible boss or a health problem to force your hand, Mills suggests addressing some of Le Menestrel's questions by making an "I want" list.
"For some people, it might be that they want to be chief executive, or partner in a firm or be a professional earning a certain salary. For other people, it will be to make a difference in the world, or make society better in some way."
Secondly, Mills advises clients not to be shy about staking out their dreams during annual performance reviews. "That's your time to say "this is where I see my future heading."
But you also need to be stoic about the outcome. "You might ask for a promotion and your manager says it's never going to happen," Mills warns. "If you really want that, you're going to have to leave the organization and that can be a really helpful conversation."
Tim Rayner, a philosopher at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, in Australia, and author of "Life Changing," agrees that we spend much of our lives consumed with short and medium-term goals that might not even bring us real fulfillment.
We can be thoroughly engaged in paying off a mortgage or gaining a promotion, Rayner says, but "achieving these goals doesn't require us to reflect much on our deep values and desires, or the sense of personal possibility that we develop in the course of engaging with challenges and exploring our own capacities."
"Quite simply, we can tackle most goals without bringing ourselves into the picture in any deep sense."
Rayner warns this might even be true of seeking out your life's purpose, if we treat that like another meaningless task.
"If we approach the visioning task in the same pragmatic frame of mind that we apply to everyday tasks, we can dream a life goal that doesn't do justice to our deep values and desires," he warns.
To get into a frame of mind where we can discover our vocational selves, Rayner says we must arrive at an "existential ground zero", where our current routines and contexts are obliterated -- rather than imagining yourself in 5 or 15 years' time, imagine yourself on your death bed, for example.
"If we don't break out of our comfort zones before imagining our destiny, we're always in danger of selling ourselves short, dreaming up something bland and banal that fails to kindle our passions," Rayner says.