As an anxious introvert, I love planning and loathe surprises. Unexpected changes, even if they’re good, can throw all of my plans and to-do lists out the window. Planning makes my serotonin-starved brain happy in a way that few other things can, and I’ve gotten really good at it.
Which is why it’s so unsettling to not have an answer to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Planning for a life I no longer had
Not having huge life goals never bothered me until a couple years ago, when a former boss really started pressing the subject. The pressure came from a caring place, and it distressed me to be asked the same question over and over again, and still not have an answer.
So I started trying. I thought about where I was at the time (professionally, personally) and tried to think of places/situations I might want to find myself in down the road. What mattered most to me? Where did I “see myself” in five years?
I was in the middle of trying to come up with my Grand Life Plan when my current life went tits up — so for awhile, my only goal was finding a job that could pay the bills.
Then, just when I thought I’d found something that would not only pay well but also give me room to grow, it fell apart as well. This collapse wasn’t as catastrophic, but it yanked me back almost to the same place I had been just a few months previously. Plus now I was angry.
Fuck the Grand Life Plan. What had it ever done for me? Here was all this societal pressure to “choose a career,” this magical path that would take me to…what, exactly? Financial stability? Professional fulfillment? Happiness? I had none of these things, plus I had seen any plans I had crumble right in front of me. How the hell was I supposed to plan for five years from now when couldn’t even say what I’d be doing tomorrow?
Ditch the Grand Life Plan
It was around this time that I heard one of my favorite former college professors say something incredible:
I hear too many people saying, ‘Well, I need to know what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life.’ Nope. Just the next few years, and then it’s gonna take you somewhere. I think you may have been given the impression that you decide on a career and then you have that career the rest of your life, and everything falls into place like dominoes. That’s kind of a huge lie.
It feels like you’re supposed to everything that you’re supposed to do, and you’re supposed to have a life plan. Ditch the idea that you have to know what you’re gonna do. You have to start looking for opportunities and next steps that will take you to a place that you like better than where you are now. And after that, it’s always that kind of, ‘What now? Where are there opportunities? How do I advance?’
Hearing this was a revelation. It had never occurred to me that changing jobs was anything but total failure, a sign that I wasn’t strong enough to stick with something, even if I didn’t like it and it wasn’t what I wanted.
I’m not sure where this belief in a single lifelong career comes from. Maybe it’s something I picked up in school (“You need to do well so you can go to college and then get a good job”), or from my family (“What do you want to be when you grow up?”).
I don’t fault the people in my life for saying and asking these things — they wanted me to be able to take care of myself and be successful — but I think it’s time to adjust how I respond to them, and how I do my own life planning.
My plan is no plan
I don’t know exactly what I want, so I took my professor’s advice and searched for “opportunities and next steps” that would take me to a place that I would like better than where I was. It took me about six months, and fortunately I think I’ve found that place.
During the interview process I was confronted with my favorite question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
I said I didn’t know, and that I preferred it that way. I want to leave things open-ended, give myself the chance to see what all my opportunities are — there’s probably something out there that’s a million times more exciting than anything I could plan for myself. Why risk missing out on that by making something as practical as a five-year plan?
This fits in nicely with my attempts at focus and presence, and I believe is helping my tired, hamster-wheel riding brain finally find some measure of peace.
I don’t know where I’ll be in five years (or even one), and for once I’m not freaking out about it. And that’s pretty damn awesome.