It was during my year-end vacation that I received the news that an ex-colleague - let's call him A - had passed away on New Year's Eve.

It came as a complete shock - I had not been aware that he was sick. A family man in his early 50s, he was a graphic designer I worked with in my previous workplace.

I last met him during a work event in May, where we caught up briefly over a plate of kueh.

He was the same old amiable person I remembered, filling me in on the latest happenings (okay, gossip) in the office.

He never smoked or drank excessively, so who would have known that cancer - the cowardly, insidious scourge that it is - was already wreaking havoc on his lungs.

His struggle was a quick one and it was only four months between his diagnosis and departure.

We were not particularly close, but in the publishing industry, journalists and designers have a symbiotic relationship - we come up with the content, but designers bring them to life.

It was my first job, and A was the seasoned laojiao (Hokkien slang for old-timer), while I was the greenhorn.

Throughout the two years that we worked together, he showed me the ropes of publishing and was patient with my newbie mistakes.

He may look stern, but know A well enough and you will realise he had quite a sense of humour.

I was unable to attend the wake, but from what I heard, many colleagues - both past and present - turned up on the first day of the new year to pay their respects.

That was the effect A had on us all.

He leaves behind his wife and two young sons.

It was on this rather sombre note that I entered 2017.

As I was trying to plan for the year ahead, his passing weighed heavily on me.

We always say "begin with the end in mind", but I never thought of it quite so literally before.

Faced with the transience of life, I was at a loss on how to formulate career goals, much less life goals.

Was life about the hustle and going the extra mile at work?

Or should we prioritise getting the job done during work hours and spending time with loved ones?

I grew uncertain where the line was.

Michael Smith, managing director, Randstad Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, advised that there is no right or wrong approach between the two.

"This will vary greatly based on the organisation, culture and boss. For example, in a company with a boss and culture which values highly going above and beyond, it can be difficult to make a strong impression just by adhering to the fixed work hours."

But thankfully, he says, this mindset is changing as more employers understand the need for flexibility and work-life balance.

Grant Torrens, business director, Hays Singapore, stressed that career goals are decisions only you alone can make.

"What is more important is that your career goals are aligned to your personal circumstances which change over time … Is it (your objective) more disposable income, or a promotion? Perhaps it could be better work-life balance. Your career plan and your goals have to correlate to each other."

But regardless of whether you intend to charge forward or take a step back at work, he pointed out that employees should look to restructure their days more efficiently, such as sticking to a plan to ensure that tasks are completed in a timely fashion.

That, to me, was a reassuring message.

Instead of fretting about lofty goals or the next big career move, taking little positive steps along the way, such as maximising what time I have in the office, is a good start.

It reminded me again of my ex-colleague A.

I remember a conversation with him years ago, when he told me he was previously an art director in a creative agency.

He got tired of the politicking and high stress levels associated with agency work and decided to settle for a more family-friendly work environment.

The pay was probably less, and perhaps so were the prestige, the benefits and the career prospects, but A told me he was satisfied.

He worked hard, mind you, but not being at the mercy of clients and ridiculous deadlines meant that he got to see his family more compared to before.

He charted his own path and I don't think this was a decision he regretted.

It was later that I found out that he was the longest-serving employee of the company, where he served for more than 14 years.

If what I hear from SME owners is anything to go by, such staff are rare these days.

To me, he exemplified a quote that I read recently online that was so simple, yet true: "Don't strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt."

Ultimately, no one can tell you the "right" move to make.

We all have different motivations and go through different seasons - climbing the career ladder is a worthy decision, but so is scaling back to focus on family when the time calls for it.

But don't abandon your career plans just yet - they steer us in the right direction and provide structure for our year ahead.

We spend so much time at our workplace that it would be a shame to go through the grind mindlessly.

But whatever decisions we choose to make this year, big or small, perhaps let's remind ourselves of what we are working for in the end.

Employers tend to focus on the superstars who shine the brightest, but there's also immense value in those who burn the steadiest and longest.

If there's anything I have learnt from my late ex-colleague, it is this: The decision to be faithful in the little things at work can be just as powerful as the grandest ambitions.

So, A, rest easy now, for your labour behind the scenes is over.

Your chapter ends here, but you will always be remembered.