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Career Tips

Take steps toward your dreams

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
January 2, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 1


An illustration of a scientist climbing stairs with a to-do list on the wall.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
The first step can be the hardest.

Have you ever had a big dream? One that was so big, in fact, that you didn’t know where to start? Maybe it’s a new career path, or a side hustle, or even a retirement plan. You may dream about it but never seem to take any action or get any closer to making it a reality. Maybe you’re worried that if you try and don’t succeed, you won’t have even the dream anymore. But the only way to find out if you’ll succeed is to take steps toward making your dreams come true.

Determine your first step. Maybe your idea is so overwhelming that you don’t know where to start. So make figuring out where to start your first step. Can you break your goals into phases? What has to happen before something else? Often, when starting something in a new area, you don’t know what you don’t know. Conducting background research, online or by talking to other people, can help you clarify the unknowns. Once you know what you don’t know, you can set up strategies to learn about the things you need to accomplish.

Break things up. The longest journey starts with a single step. Do something, anything, to turn your dream into reality. Maybe it’s setting up a folder on your computer, setting up a physical file folder, or requesting a few books from the library. Once you have taken that first step, the next step will be more manageable. Take one step, determine what the next step is, then repeat.

Keep a journal. Especially for a big project that is going to take many weeks or months or even years, keep a record of your progress. Whether physical or electronic, track what you did and when you did it. Forcing yourself to write things down will make them clearer in your mind and will also give you a sense of accomplishment. This will in turn motivate you to move on to the next step, creating a positive feedback loop.

Find a buddy. Just telling another person you are going to do something makes you more likely to do it. It’s even more effective if you set up regular check-ins with the other person to create some self-imposed deadlines. See if you can find a project buddy—someone who can serve as an accountability partner for you on your project—and maybe you can be the same for that person.

Adjust expectations. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s to not take things for granted. Everything can change almost overnight, and you have to be flexible enough to adjust to the new circumstances. As you work toward making your dream a reality, you may have to adjust your expectations or even your goals. If you change your aspirations because of something you learned, that’s a good thing.

Making a little bit of progress every day will add up over time. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back on how far you’ve come.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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