What if you don’t know where you see yourself in 5 years?

“So where do you see yourself in five years?”

It might be a question at an interview, or discussion with your manager. It might be a discussion with a friend over coffee, or with your spouse over a glass of wine. Once you could confidently answer, now you’re not so sure. In fact, you really don’t know how to respond.

Ouch. What does it mean and what can you do? Here is my take. It might surprise you.

When the next step is clouded in fog

I’ve been there. In fact, perhaps I am there! The moments in your career when you just cannot articulate a crisp view of where you would like to be in your professional life in five years’ time.

When I started my career, I was a business analyst in a strategy consulting firm. The progression was clear: analyst, consultant, senior consultant, principal/partner. Each grade had three sub-grades.

The trajectory was simple and it was straightforward to aim to hit a certain grade by a certain date.

where-do-you-see-yourself-in-5-years

When I become a partner however, the situation changed. My role had evolved but was still largely an evolution of my previous role, and the firm and its business was highly familiar. I realised that I was no longer able to answer the “5 year question” with confidence. One option was to stay and expand and shape my new role and grow it over time; the other option was to switch contexts and start a different trajectory in a different environment. In a nutshell: should I stay or should I go?

It was a frustrating time, no longer knowing where the bullseye was. But the fact I was asking myself the question gave me a strong hint the answer didn’t lie in “business as usual”.

In the end I moved to a large technology industry player: new experiences, new people, a new trajectory. It’s been a great experience and I don’t regret having made the move, although there have been disadvantages as well as benefits, and I still highly respect my previous firm.

5 reasons why you can’t say where you want to be in 5 years

So what might it mean? Here are five possible reasons why your future vision is clouded. Which of these fit your situation?

1. No way out. Well, there is a way out of course, but you feel trapped. This might be a case of golden handcuffs – you are comfortable and well-paid and any change is going to involve risk, discomfort and loss, at least in the short term. Whatever the cause, “no way out” means this: you think you’re going to be doing pretty much the same thing but don’t want to admit it.

2. No more rungs. You’ve made it to where you wanted in your career, but you’ve found a natural plateau. Perhaps you’ve got to the top of your organisation, or the jump to the next level seems unfeasible or unattractive. You’ve finished the linear trajectory from “associate” to “junior” to “senior” to “principal” or whatever. You now need to imagine a non-linear move: a different department, organisation or sector.

3. No more momentum. In this scenario, there are more rungs on the ladder, but you don’t find them worth climbing any more. Perhaps the next rung involves a degree of sacrifice that you are unwilling to make. For example, too many hours to honour your family commitments. Or perhaps the next role has a less-attractive set of responsibilities. The classic example of this is when an engineer’s promotion path involves less technical work and more people management, something they might not find motivating.

4. No more passion. Motivation has just gone. This is probably a conflict of values. You want you life to be about something, and your role or your firm is about something else. For example, you decide that marketing soda water is not the cause you want to give your working life to any more, but you’re not sure what alternative role would be both personally motivating and financially feasible.

5.No more vision. You just aren’t paying attention. You’ve been drifting, perhaps without even realising it until this question came up.

The real reason why you don’t know where you want to be

Behind these five reasons, however, is a simple and single reality. When we can’t envision what we want to be doing in the next five years, it means this:

You are no longer living your professional life within an overarching story.

We are story-formed people. We make sense of everything through stories. We find the most meaning and purpose when we connect with one of the story-arcs (subplots) of our life. For example – one story many of us are living is the “parent who loves and sacrifices for their kids”. We connect with that, assume that role, and embrace that adventure.

Our professional life is formed in a similar way. Who we are, where we have come from, what our quest is, where we are heading… these are all important questions for finding meaning in our work. Even if our job is tedious, it may be meaningful if we can connect it to the bigger picture: “I am working two awful jobs so I can put my kids through college”, say.

Putting it another way, our professional story is a subplot in the overall story of our lives. 

For example, when I was starting in consulting the story was all about growing in experience and seniority in my chosen profession. When I made it to partner, that storyline no longer fit and I knew the next chapter shouldn’t, for me, be about doing the same thing for the next ten years. I made a conscious choice to move from being a big fish in a small pond to becoming a smaller fish in a much bigger pond to learn and contribute in new ways.

Over time, the story we are living evolves. For example, I now have children and so my story is less about personal growth and more about supporting my family; I am also older and I want my story to be less about changed deals and more about changed lives.

When we can’t imagine ourselves in five years, I think it means that story of our professional life is starting to diverge from our overall life story arc.  It no longer makes sense to us. We can’t project forwards, because we have a sense that there is a deeper question to address: what kind of story do we want to write, and how does our work fit into it?

How to reconnect with your story

In the next post, I will look at how we can get unstuck and how we can go about connecting our professional journey with our bigger life story.  I’ll share two approaches that can provide some answers and a way forward, and illustrate with what it’s meant for me personally.

Are you able to confidently answer the “where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?” question? If not, what is the reason for that? How do you react to the idea of living your professional life within the broader story of your life?

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