To plan or not to plan that is the question
February 8, 2009 3:29 PM   Subscribe

Help me come up with a five year plan or dissuade me from making one in the first place.

I recently made a major career change into a completely different field (arts to politics). It's been an exhilarating, interesting, difficult, emotional and on the whole rewarding process. I am happy with the direction my life is headed, but I still feel like I am in transition and needing help navigating.

I know the kind of work that interests me (civic engagement), but to some degree don't feel entirely done exploring my new field. And I'm also not sure I have a full picture of where my interest could lead.

I've been going through rounds of interviews and the questions I'm being asked are causing me to do some outside reflection. The question that looms largest is, "Where do I see myself in five years?" And I seem to have difficulty answering it.

So I am wondering what other people have done to help answer the same question. What books did you turn to? What other resources did you use? Blogs? Life Coaches (though frankly the thought of that doesn't appeal to me, but maybe it should)? What other questions did you ask yourself that helped you answer this bigger one? Or maybe you don't think this is a valuable question to ask at all. If so, why?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What are the logical steps one would take to advance in your new career? If there are many alternatives, which ones interest you the most? Research people who hold those positions, research their roles and responsibilities.

It would help to know which level of civic engagement interests you- ie local, county, state etc...
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:50 PM on February 8, 2009

I would go through the same process you used to decide to change careers to think about where you want to be in 5 years. To me, a 5 year plan is a great way to remind you to keep moving forward. I also always looked at it as dynamic. It would change regularly, but I always want some goal to aim towards.

I also think that a five year plan might not be the same as the answer to an interview question of the same. I would answer the interview question as if I was thinking about a natural progression in my field. My personal five year plan would include decisions that were affected by my outside life. For example, if I were just married, I might have a five year plan to move into a role that required less hours so I could help at home with planned for kids while I would answer the interview question as if there were no outside influences whatsoever and I could devote 12 hours a day toward my work goal.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:18 PM on February 8, 2009

Five years ago, my five year plan dictated that today I would be a dad and a practicing attorney. Today I am a divorced pastor and community organizer.

I am very, very wary of five year plans. Why focus on building a ship to take you up the river when a perfectly serviceable inner-tube can carry you downstream? They provide a kind of security blanket for some folks but they can be a boat-anchor as well. When you focus too narrowly on your five-year plan you'll miss the completely bizarre, unsuspected opportunities that may open up before you - that specifically require you to abandon your five-year plan. Sounds like you've already opened yourself up to some amazing, transformative changes in your life. Where would you be today if you'd followed your five year plan from four years ago?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:52 PM on February 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

I tend to get freaked out and immobilized thinking that far in advance -- feeling "tracked" or "professionalized" before I know what I actually want. Both of these feel counterproductive to doing actual work, intellectually, personally, or professionally. My solution was to go by "two year plans" instead. Then, by the second year, you "readjust" and make another plan!

I don't recommend saying this in professional contexts. If asked (again) I would probably say something like "I hope to be happy and satisfied in my job / making a real contribution to the world" --- and then talk extensively about how excited you are about this new field, why you picked it, and what you've learned so far.
posted by puckish at 6:04 PM on February 8, 2009

(I say that kind of flippantly, but mean it totally seriously -- at least, the first part)

Which is just to second what baby balrog said above.
posted by puckish at 6:06 PM on February 8, 2009

Five years ago the Bush administration was pushing to privatize Social Security with the idea that the stock market would actually increase our savings.

A lot can happen in five years.
posted by pianomover at 6:42 PM on February 8, 2009

Five years ago I returned to Canada after spending ten years living away. I had really no understanding of Canadian culture (my native culture) or business etiquette or whatever. I had been a teacher in Japan (I had my own school and employed four instructors), but there were no teaching jobs in Canada at that time, so I had to do a career change. I became a "writer". When I discovered that there were few writing jobs, I became a "speech writer", and immediately got a temporary job in government.

I wanted a fulltime, management job in government, with benefits. I knew it would take a little time, but, after 3 years, I got that job. I also knew that I wanted to start working as a translator. I became a translator, and found out that, for most, translation doesn't pay much. I decided I wanted to get paid a top-tier salary for translation. I found contracts that paid me top-tier hourly rates.

I think five-year plans are good for general goals - I am going to buy a house, I am going to work in this industry, I am going to achieve this goal.

The trick is, making sure that

a) your goals are realistic, and that you understand the implications of your goals. For example, I really wanted to be a translator. Then I discovered that translators aren't paid a heck of a lot.

b) that achieving your goals will actually give your life meaning. For example, I discovered that I didn't like translation all that much. I had worked hard to get into a field that I didn't really like. However, I did like doing script rewriting, and copywriting. It's something I would like to do in the future. It's one of my goals. However, it's a little hard to break into the market living where I do.

c) you are able to change course to deal with unexpected events. While advertising myself as a "writer", I learned that there was a lot of writers out there. I became a "technical writer" (thus achieving another one of my goals from the original five year plan) and discovered that I totally and absolutely hated technical writing, and didn't really have the skills (html and basic website design) that would make me competitive.

I did find a niche for my skills and abilities, though. I became a contract "project manager" and "researcher". I had to learn to do survey design and basic statistical analysis, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I became part of a community that I really love, doing a job that I really love, trying to accomplish a mission that I really believe in.

However, five years ago, I could never have known that I would end up where I am now. But I knew I wanted a government job, and a managerial level, with benefits. Which is cool, but the best thing is that I'm doing a job I believe in. It's my mission.

Figuring out your mission is more important than the five-year plan.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:36 PM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

My problem used to be that I have really BIG IDEAS! and awesome long term GOALS! but because these are both appealing and far off I tend to alienate myself from my own future.

What I mean is I have a few running narratives in my head, some of which I've articulated to friends and family about what I want to do. Everyone agrees these are fine goals, achievable and rewarding... and because the conversation (both external and internal) stops there, I tend to not follow through. For me, having the goal, or the vision, was soothing, it made me feel like I was at least thinking ahead if not actually moving in that direction.

Having a plan means connecting where you are today with where you want to be in the future, but there is more to it than that. A plan means that a point in the future is dependent upon actions you're taking today, or this week, or next month... the plan ties the future goal to the present.

The problem with a five year plan, is that it's locking you into five years. It has that temporal component hanging over it.

The good thing about such plans is that they can get you toward your BIG IDEA! goals... whether they are starting a business or a family or whatever...

The problem some people run into is that they think, "I need a five year plan, because that's what all the self help books tell me I need," but they don't actually have an end.

Start with an end, and work your way backwards. That becomes your plan. Maybe it takes five years, maybe you can knock it out in one, or ten... the point is when someone asks you, "What's your five year plan?" Look them in the eye and say, "I know what my goals are, but I'm not locking myself in to any artifical schedule, because I know that oppurtunites show up when you least expect them."

Or tell them to go fuck themselves with their HR-handbook interview bullshit.

Take all this for what you will... it's taken me about 52 one-hour weekly sessions with my shrink for me to get to this custom tailored advice. YMMV.
posted by wfrgms at 10:31 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

A five-year plan... wow, that place has got some cajones... For the few business / corporate that asked the question (and if things were proceeding fairly smoothly), I would smile and inform that I would continue to grow, both personally and professionally with whatever opportunities arose during those five years. At this time, I believe working with your company could be of mutual benefit, yadda yadda yadda... AND THEN turn around and ask the company for their five year plan (or the interviewer, if you're feeling brave). It hardly seems fair to have a company that can't come up with one to ask it of you....

FWIW, my five-year plan after graduating college in 2004 was to move to a larger city nearby, find a job related to my Business major I enjoyed, get married, buy a house, etc. etc. Today? I teach English in Seoul, South Korea, living in an apartment, no plans to get married, etc. etc. - almost the exact opposite of what I 'planned' and am having the time of my life :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:16 AM on February 9, 2009

The question about five year plans in interviews is less about specifics, and about showing that you've thought about your future, and what you want to get out of it.

In other words, it's about filtering out those interviewees who just want the job to make some money, then bugger off two weeks after joining.

So you don't need a plan as *such*, you just need to show depth of thinking and an awareness that there is a future, and that you need to do some thinking about it eg what kind of thing do I want to do?
posted by almostwitty at 5:43 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm. My thinking on this subject comes from AA philosophy. AA has a lot of funny little sayings which are essentially mantras for alcoholics to cope with everyday life. But it has a lot of applicability to this situation also - and especially whether you should have a five year plan. "First things first" and "One day at a time" are probably the best known phrases that really help people who don't want to live in the moment. (And who use either the future or the past to escape the present.)

I would say that, if there are things you'd like to accomplish on a scale that would require you to start planning now, then make a schedule for yourself. Both of those phrases would really suggest that you break down your larger goals into bite-sized pieces and then do "the next right thing" to make that happen on a day-to-day basis.

If you have goals like that, then I think a five-year plan can be useful. If not, then it could simply be an escape strategy or - as others have mentioned - an anchor.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:50 AM on February 9, 2009

What greekphilosophy sed.

5-Year plans are amorphous, vague things that have a tendency to impart massive psychic weight.

I think the best idea is to definitely work backwards and plan day-to-day that imparts a small measure of satisfaction and direction that one day will build to where you thought you'd end up in the first place.

Don't look at it as "I have to do this in five years or I'm nothing!"

Try this instead, "Today I called so-and-so, went to such-and-such meeting, added this contact, read that article, etc." And make each thing you do point you onward.

Give yourself room to be motivated, yet flexible. Make sure whatever you do in five years is definitely something you're seriously passionate about, that will always inspire and challenge you. That way the day-to-day work will light you up and more importantly, will enable you to retain all of your experiences and use them more constructively when you finally reach that five-year plateau.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 6:59 AM on February 9, 2009

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