Job market / Self awareness

Is there such a thing as too much career planning?

There is a kind of student who can tell you with uncanny conviction exactly how far their career will have progressed by any date in the future. This may be towards their ultimate aim of becoming something like the CEO of a multi-national or a partner in an internationally respected law firm. Should we admire them? Or should we pity them?

If you know where you are heading for, you are much more likely to get there.

There are advantages to having a career plan. There is that typical interview question which suggests that some career planning is a good idea. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’ It’s an important question and if you are effectively prepared for an interview you will have thought of a convincing answer.

Employers have several reasons for asking the question. A good answer will demonstrate that you have taken enough time to research the job sector and organisation to know what the options might be, and have enough self-awareness to know how they might relate to you. But nobody will appear at your desk five years from the day you started with the organisation saying: ‘Smith! This is not where you told us you would be!’ Even if your name happens to be Smith. They are interested in your ideas for the future; they are not expecting you to be able to predict it.

So having a good idea of your future possibilities is certainly to your benefit. And there are some students who are so effective at making long-term plans that things do work out as they had hoped. I would suggest however that a better approach is to have a clear sense of direction, but flexibility about how to get there. Do you have a good idea of what strengths and skills you have and would like to use, what you want to get out of work and what else is important to you personally? This is likely to be enough to get started on a career and to develop it. A very rigid career plan is not always a good idea.

There is a risk to being too picky when seeking to start a career

Of course it is not a good idea to apply randomly for anything – employers usually recognise and reject this kind of application immediately. But neither is it a good idea to have narrowed down the only thing that is suitable for you to a single position in a single organisation. There is a happy medium: to know your abilities, skills, values and so on well enough to be able to make well-reasoned applications to a range of opportunities.

You may find that something is not what you thought it was. I am thinking of someone I know who found after quite a long period of training that an area of work was not going to give any of the enjoyment he thought it would. At the time, it was a horrible discovery to make. Fortunately he recognised the value of an alternative that came his way by chance, which used some of his training in a different context.  He has been in that job, which he loves, for several years. A rigid five year plan would not have helped much here.

Your experience in your early career will help you to decide what happens next. Here’s another real example: I met an alumni working for Teach First who had joined this programme with the aim of developing leadership skills and to give something back, just for a couple of years before using the skills gained to go into business. But, unexpectedly, he got such a buzz for teaching that five or six years later he had no intention of doing anything else.

It’s not that unusual for external circumstances to remain relatively constant over five years; but it’s not especially remarkable for the opposite to happen. Adjusting your career plans to take account of these things may take you off in an unexpected direction. This could be a positive thing or it could be difficult – but here too, a five year plan that is not flexible could end up making things more difficult than perhaps they need to be.

The job market will change

The speed of change can be scary. If we don’t keep our skills up to date we may find ourselves with a set of skills which nobody wants any longer, like the father in the Rolling Stones song who is ‘still perfecting ways of making sealing wax.’ (I know, some of us have failed to keep up with changes in popular music). But the speed of change is exciting too – although you can’t do a job that hasn’t been invented yet, if you’re open-minded and keep learning you may find that it is the next opportunity for you when it is.

Be flexible…

You are less likely to miss the interesting diversions along the way, the ‘I never expected to be here but I’m so glad I am’ moments. You are more likely to notice if the destination you had in mind is changing so much that by the time you get there it won’t be what you had originally hoped. Your version of yourself will adapt, but not shatter, if unexpected situations are thrown in your path.

Career plans? Yes, highly recommended. Even more highly recommended are career plans which are flexible and which acknowledge (and perhaps even celebrate) the fact that things will change unexpectedly.


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