Really! It's amazing.

For whatever reason, the last few months have been filled with milestones in both my personal and professional life. I finished a degree and got a new job. My wife just finished her last big exam for her medical residency training. My daughter, now a wise and worldly 19-month old, will be starting daycare this month (Where has the time gone!?). There has been plenty to celebrate this month.

With all these big events in life, I’ve been thinking a lot about milestones in general: why they’re so important and how to get the most out of them. The more I think on it, the more I’ve come to believe that milestones aren’t just cause for celebration. When treated properly, they can be a very important tool for growth, establishing lessons learned, and planning for the future. The trouble is that most of us don’t examine milestones for the opportunity they really are.

The power of milestones

I think the true power of milestones is that they present an opportunity to look at their past, present, and future, all at once. They’re a trigger. It’s a chance for people to celebrate what they’ve accomplished, to take note of the path they took to get there and look forward to the future, all at the same time. I think it’s rare that people take the time to consider the where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going at the same time. More often than not, people tend to be focused on only one of the three; either you tend to look back, look forward, or stay in the now. This means that people often miss a huge opportunity to better themselves.

Back to the future

Most of us tend to spend our time in one of two modes – backward looking or forward looking. We’re either wrapped up mentally in what has already happened or worried about what our future looks like. Personally, I tend to fall in the latter category. I am constantly planning, thinking, imagining, and fretting about the months and years to come. What will my next job be? How will I set up life so that I can be a good dad/ husband/ homeowner/ engineer? What big projects will I tackle in the next five years? And so on… The hamster wheel in my head has one setting: forward. I didn’t last more than three days after my MBA graduation until I was looking up new degrees and training I could take so that I could set myself up for future success. (This, after I made my wife promise on several occasions to never let me take a degree while working full-time again. So much for that!). Many people are just like me. The planners, obsessive to-do list makers, and Gantt chart builders reading this know exactly who I’m talking about.

The trouble with this is that if you don’t ever look back to see where you’ve been, it can be hard to evaluate whether you’re still headed in the right direction. You also pass up opportunities to take a better path to what it is you’re after.

Back in my day…

Other people tend to spend their time looking backward. They think about what has already happened, for better or worse. They revel in the memories of past successes or perseverate on mistakes made. There is definitely value in being able to look back at what’s gone on in your life or work. Otherwise, how could you ever learn from your experience and actually benefit from it? Looking back is an incredible tool for helping you to look forward. Unfortunately, most people who dwell in the past allow the life they’ve already lived to become the life they’re living. They look back without ever using the insight they gain to benefit themselves in the future. It’s a bit like studying a map but then never taking the trip.

The here and now

Living in the “present” is something of a hot topic in the western world and is the subject of many a self-help book. I think there’s good reason for that. Engineers and other desk jockeys live in an age of distraction. With emails, calls, texts, tweets, competing deadlines, multiple bosses, double-booked meetings and so forth, it’s all but impossible to be focused on the task at hand (even now, I just caught myself stopping mid-sentence to answer a text… whoops). Proponents of focusing on the now argue you’ll be calmer, healthier, happier, and more productive if you can let go of your past and future and just be in the moment. It’s wonderful in theory, but takes years to master in practice. Beyond that, you do actually need to take time to plan for your future and reflect on your past. Being present indefinitely is no better than either of the alternatives we’ve already discussed.

How milestones bring it all together

When realizing a milestone in a project, in life, or in any other context, you have a golden opportunity to bring together these three seemingly mutually exclusive frames of mind. You can bring past, present and future together. The trick is to be intentional about taking advantage of the opportunity.

It’s both easy and tempting to see a milestone as an opportunity to celebrate, and nothing more. Many people will reach a goal and say “Yay we did it!“. That’s fine and good, but I think you can get a lot more out of it if you supplement “Yay we did it!” with “So, what exactly did we do?” and “What’s next?“. If you can train yourself to conjure up all three reactions in response to a milestone, you’ll get a lot more out of your life’s big moments.

Moving forward

So what are you supposed to do with this? Well, as an engineer, there’s a 100% chance that your work will be either a) broken up into formal milestones by a project manager, or b)  be naturally punctuated by little (or big) accomplishments. My challenge to you is to recognize those moments and pause. Take a moment to celebrate what you’ve accomplished, then look back at what it took to get there, and ahead to how you’re going to tackle the next goal with the lessons learned from the past in mind. For bonus points, write it all down and keep it on file to look at as part of your next milestone.

Tell me about it

Have you hit a milestone recently? Tell us about it in the comments section below. What was the milestone? What did you learn? How will you use your experience to better yourself when working toward your next milestone?


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