I have made a living out of ignoring most traditional career advice and blindly believing that I'll reach my personal goals as long as I do work that I find interesting.
In the 10 years or so that I’ve been in the workforce, I have never once wrote out a five-year business plan or thought very hard about my career development goals. I didn't consider how long I should be at one position before moving to a new industry or what impact one job might have on the next. I’ve always set goals because I think goal-setting is pretty darn important, not to mention the key to designing a life that fulfills you (and also because I’m type A and there really is no other way to live). That’s been more of a roadmap, though. A framework, not a set blueprint.
So no, I don’t have a five-year plan. Heck, I barely have a six-month plan.
And I don’t think you need a five-year plan either.
If you’re skeptical, that’s okay. It’s understandable, given that nowadays, everyone and their mother says you must start planning your career before you even graduate high school. That to be successful, you should probably start writing your executive summary now, know when you're going to start investing in the economy and what industry you're going to spend the rest of your life in. Sure, go ahead and plan your life out to the hundredth degree and develop your eleventh five year plan. If you don't do it now, you might as well pack up and prepare for perpetual unemployment.
Let me be the first to tell you that that’s not necessarily true. I can’t speak for each profession and situation, but in my experience, having no career development plan has been the most valuable tool in my professional toolbox. My career hasn’t followed a linear A to Z path, but each experience has given me a new skill or nugget of wisdom that’s prepared me for the next.
Let me back up.
I, quite literally, fell into my career (marketing communications). When I headed to grad school, the only thing I knew for sure was that I loved to write. Grad school was sort of an expensive way to buy myself some time before bills, rent and the adult world came knocking on my door. It gave me a chance to think more specifically about what my goals were and where I wanted to go next career-wise. I earned a master degree in journalism while living in New York City, which allowed me an opportunity to explore internships in the media industry and hone certain skills.
My experience confirmed that I didn’t want a career in journalism. You know, that thing my degree was in.
By the time I graduated, I’d decided to move to Washington, D.C. I started with an unpaid internship and no real strategy, other than to find a paying job in the political and government communications world. Two internships and six months later, my boss at the time put me in touch with an old coworker of his at the Pentagon for an informational interview. That interview ended with me being asked if I wanted to join their public affairs team in a full-time contractor role.
I had no idea what that even meant, but I said yes on the spot.
That one conversation changed the trajectory of my entire career, eventually leading me to join a D.C. consulting firm. My professional development thrived, and I stayed a communications consultant for the U.S. Defense Department for over six years. How's that for a five-year plan?
At points, my career has felt like it was on a very obvious, purposeful growth rate. At other times, it’s felt like a random game of checkers. It has shifted and moved and pushed me into targets I was never expecting and certainly hadn't planned for. Sort of like one of those amusement park rides where, once the seatbelt clicks into place and the car pushes forward, you end up taking sharp curves and hills and following a track you couldn’t have predicted. People tell you that life throws you lemons, but nobody told me that my career would be a roller coaster ride.
I’m now a communications manager at a university, a role completely different from any of the work I used to do in D.C. But the skills I learned throughout my time as a consultant, not to mention the experiences and people I connected with before that, shaped my professional development and made me who I am today.
None of those career moves were due to a handy-dandy five year plan I’d written years prior. Rather, it was by imagining what else I might like to do with the percent of experience I already had, or how else I might want my professional development to grow in that moment. Thinking about how I wanted to feel versus what I should or shouldn’t be doing.
I have never felt like my career development was stunted by some lack of planning. Quite the opposite, actually.
A five-year plan would not have accounted for a major career change — like switching from consulting to higher education — and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to gracefully facilitate it. That’s because I’m not a fortune teller, and most likely — neither are you. There is no career or growth plan we could ever develop for ourselves that would have the capacity to anticipate how we might change over a set period of time and how that affects our goals.
The absence of a concrete five-year plan (e.g., “Must stay at ABC Company for X years, work way up to Z role and have XX economic growth by Y year…”) has helped me maintain more fluidity throughout my career. I've kept moving forward and sideways to gain skills and collect different types of professional experiences.
It has helped me take roles that fed my passions and nourished my soul through the different seasons of my life.
Whether your ultimate goal is economic development, professional development or something else altogether, what matters most is that you have the energy to pursue your passions. A high energy intensity and dedication can help you hit your personal and professional targets. You can draw from the library of your experiences to build a career you're proud of.
So don’t worry about having a five-year plan. Just start where you are, and allow yourself the freedom to discover where it can take you. You never know how people, a job and life overall will help you reach your goals!
Joelle is a writer, editor, and registered yoga teacher living in southern California with a passion for celebrating the messiness of life through storytelling. She holds a MA in Journalism from New York University and loves a well-written sentence, brunch, and staying active. To read more of her writing, visit her website www.joellezarcone.com.