One of the most challenging aspects of being a massage therapist is the tendency to define who you are by what you do. Sometimes this is consciously done, but more often than not, it's subtle and below most people's radar. This makes the idea of setting career goals crucial as well as problematic.
Unlike some other professions, massage therapy lends itself to multiple, highly individualized opportunities of how practitioners choose to express their style. Do you want to work in a spa, out of your home or in a medical setting? With children? With music? With candles? With a business partner? In a school? And the list goes on.
In some cases, where and how you work may be a matter of necessity, but eventually you will be able to create a practice that reflects who you are. I strongly encourage you to consciously allow who you are to inform and direct the evolution of your practice as opposed to allowing your practice to unconsciously define you.
The first step in this particular journey of self-discovery is clarifying your value system. Without clearly knowing what you value, most of your goals will be hollow, meaningless wastes of time. One suggested exercise is to have you identify peak emotional experiences (enjoyable and painful) in your personal history. Then, write out the stories of each of those experiences in detail to capture as much of the emotional charge behind it. Lastly, analyze the story for clues as to what values were being honored in that experience and, equally important, what values were being transgressed. This is by no means an easy assignment, but it can be helpful in getting the goal-setting compass to point you in the right direction. The intention of this exercise is not to dredge up personal traumas that require professional help, so if you're not ready to look under certain stones in your past, don't turn them over.
Now that you have your values, start to brainstorm some goals that might not only fit but also honor your value system. For example, two of my values are helping people and freedom. I define "helping people" to mean empowering them to never need me. Most of the time, this is done through education about how the body works and what does and does not contribute to well-being. How my "helping people" value shows up can vary greatly from client to client and even session to session, and depends largely on my understanding of their situation. I define "freedom" as being unfettered in my choice of appropriate responses to a given situation.
So how did I honor both values in determining one of my long-term career goals? A few years ago, I was working with a client and realized one of the things this person needed was craniosacral therapy. I wanted to help this person and I did not like the fact that since I wasn't certified in craniosacral therapy, I couldn't legally or ethically provide any such treatment. My professional freedom was restricted due to my ignorance. Realizing my quandary, I decided I needed to become certified in craniosacral therapy in addition to my other modalities, so I could help clients like this.
The point is I set certain career goals based on a clear understanding of what my personal values were at that time (they can and do change over time, so it's a good idea to revisit your values from time to time). Step two is making the goal as concrete as possible, both in time and definition. "I will work a lot" is not a goal, as it lacks both specificity and a time boundary. Working a lot may be rooted in a laudable value (for example, "helping people") but is nonetheless only a nice sentiment and nothing more. However, "I will be working with 12 sports-injury clients per week by January 2011" is both specific and timely, and perhaps includes some other values as well. One phrase is a wish; the other is a goal.
Step three includes creating an action plan to achieve your goal within the required time frame. The action plan is a list of specific actions you are going to take to make your goal a reality. Nothing on this list should require something outside of your control to happen (for example, "win the lottery"). If it's going to take some time to go through your action steps, make sure you allow for that when you set the timeline for achieving your goal.
Step four involves remembering to occasionally check your heading, including revisiting your value system. Fresh out of massage school, you may decide you want to work with sports rehab clients in a physical therapist's office, which is a great goal and hopefully based on clear values. You determine the action plan is going to take two years to unfold and you're committed to making it happen. Along the way, however, you experience something that alters your values or, more likely, uncovers deeper values. It's OK to shift course if you find something that holds more meaning for you like working in a hospice setting with end-stage cancer patients.
The bottom line is, what you do should be a statement of who you are and not the other way around. And the more you know who you are, the more vibrant and joyful the expression of that statement will be.