I Wouldn’t Plan On It

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Do you have a five-year plan? Have you mapped out where you want your career to be in five years?    Do you know what position you’re gunning for, in which organization, at what pay level?

I don’t.

I don’t believe in five-year career plans.

This may surprise you, since I am a career coach and executive coach.  Don’t I hound all of my clients to plan their future and develop SMART goals?

Sure, I help people get clear on their core values, their strengths, and the “must-have” characteristics of a jobBut I don’t think it’s necessary to have a five-year plan.

Don’t get me wrong, if you already have a five-year plan, more power to you. Or if you are genuinely interested in developing one, I am thrilled to help you in the process (one of my core values is planning, after all).

For many people, though (myself included) the mere thought of developing a five-year plan is overwhelming and intimidating.  We are freaked out by the question, “Where do you want to be in five years?” so we just don’t answer it. In fact, this question can stop us from doing any planning at all – five year or otherwise.  It’s simply more comfortable to keep on doing what we’re doing.  In these cases, the planning exercise can backfire.

The other problem with long-term career plans, such as five-year (or even ten-year!) plans, is that they are often too specific. Stating today what specific position or job level I want to be in, five years from today, seems too narrow a focus.

First of all, research has shown that people who characterize themselves as “unlucky” tend to focus rigidly on a specific outcome, and therefore do not recognize opportunities that come their way. In contrast, those who seem “lucky” have a vision for what they want, but aren’t fixated on the details of exactly what it must look like.

Secondly, the world is changing so quickly, it’s impossible to predict what kinds of twists and turns the economy, technology, and society is going to make in the next five years.  This is captured nicely in the following quote from Sheryl Sandberg, who is currently the COO of Facebook, and whose career path includes stints as Vice President at Google, Chief of Staff for the US Treasury Department, management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and World Bank economist.

“I always tell people if you try to connect the dots of your career, if you mess it up you’re going to wind up on a very limited path. If I decided what I was going to do in college—when there was no Internet, no Google, no Facebook . . . I don’t want to make that mistake. The reason I don’t have a plan is because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options.”

Not only is “the world” changing, but your world is likely to shift as well. Personal changes such as getting married, having kids, or starting to care for aging parents make it tricky to predict what you will want and what will fit with your lifestyle and priorities five years from now. Will you want to live overseas, or be closer to relatives?  Will you want a full-time job with frequent international travel?  Will you need to earn a certain amount of income or require certain health benefits in order to care for your family?

And for those of us who are part of a dual-career couple, it’s not just our own five-year career trajectory we must keep track of, but our partner’s as well.

Alternative to a Five-Year Plan

Rather than force yourself to draft a Five-Year Plan to prove that you are strategic about your career, I think it’s more helpful to:

  • Identify the work you love to do,
  • Get clear on what you require and what you won’t tolerate in a job, and
  • Articulate what kind of life you want outside of work

This is the kind of work that I do with coaching clients.  But you don’t need to hire a coach to work through these.  In this PDF worksheet I’ve included some exercises you can do on your own.

Being aware of the three points above will make it easier to bring the things you want into your career. It will also help you evaluate opportunities that are bound to come your way – that is, if you are not fixated too rigidly on only a specific type of opportunity.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.  And don’t wait five years to do so.


Photo by renjith krishnan FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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