Career Path

How to Make Your 5-Year Career Plan

Experts say this critical step—taking a 30,000-foot view of career goals—is among the most often ignored.

4 min read

For most of her 20s, Julie knew she wanted to pursue a career in environmental policy. Now an assistant commissioner for a state department, with a PhD, the 33-year-old is having trouble deciding what comes next—working hard to try and become a commissioner, with the grueling ebbs and flows of office politics—or deciding to leave government service and look for an opportunity in the private sector. And it doesn’t help that everywhere she turns, it seems as if someone is asking her where she sees herself in five years. “I know I want to keep challenging myself,” she says. “But I’m not sure how that’s different from what I’m doing now.”

It’s a question we all get stumped by: where we see our careers in three to five years. Recruiters ask the question selfishly, to see how you’ve mapped out your career with their organization in mind. Friends and colleagues ask it out of curiosity, or to size up their own plans (or lack thereof) with peers.

“Too often, people associate success with a certain job instead of a feeling.”

Part of what makes answering the question so daunting is that many people have already achieved certain goals. But career consultants say that by mid-career or beyond, the question really isn’t about a job. “Usually people associate success with a certain job instead of a feeling,” says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Hamaria Crockett. “But it’s really about a type of lifestyle or feeling that you’re looking for.”

Another problem: It’s drilled into us from childhood that we should box up answers about what we want to be into neat packages. “We’re taught to be very one dimensional in our career,” Crockett says. “Nobody as a child said I want to be a policeman and a florist and a writer.” The reality is, often in life, we do want to do more than one thing, and once we give ourselves permission to think beyond limits, we can figure out our next goals.

The executives who are best at taking the 30,000-foot view spend a surprisingly successful amount of time being introspective. Last year, Millie Tran, an editor at the New York Times, put together a slideshow to help her figure out what she was going to do with her life, and she quietly disseminated it to friends—until her colleague wrote about it in a column (with her permission, of course). We tried answering some of the thought-provoking questions from her presentation, which has now made the rounds, and to put it mildly, it’s tough. “What do I care about?” and statements like “If you find it hard to wake up excited about going to work in the mornings, ask yourself why,” left us puzzled for days.

Crockett, who coaches clients in Dallas, offers up a similar exercise. She asks clients to write where they are at the bottom of a sheet of paper, and where they want to be at the top. Often what happens is the person doesn’t write “CEO of my company” at the top, but rather something about what makes them happy—such as “being able to take month-long vacations.” “Once you’re mindful of what you’re really trying to accomplish, you can figure out the steps to get you to that place,” she says. “A lot of times people don’t allow themselves to have more than one option.”

Of course, when doing such exercises, being truthful about what you don’t know is just as important, if not more important, than knowing what you want. It doesn’t mean you don’t have ambition. You might just still be in the process of figuring out what that ambition is. To quote Confucius, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”

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