3 steps to answering the ‘where do you see yourself’ question

In the last post, What if you don’t know where you see yourself in 5 years?, I suggested that when we can’t envision what we want to be doing in the next five years, it means that we’re not longer living our professional life within a compelling story. The story that we used to live has ended, and we have yet to inhabit a new story. So … no vision, no goals, no purpose.

So what to do about it? Here are 3 ways to find a better governing story for the next chapter.

1. Reject dead-end storylines

Bob Buford, in his book “Stuck in Halftime” suggests that we can get stuck in our life if we exchange our early-career story (what he terms the “Rags-to-riches myth”) for a dead-end storyline. He goes into some detail about 9 such dead ends, which I summarise with just a few words each below.

  • Peter Pan – I can stay in my previous season of life for ever
  • Leisure World – it’s time to hit the golf course and take things easy
  • Gatsby – what is important now are the trappings of success
  • Former Great Person – changing direction will make me an irrelevant has-been
  • Harper Lee – I can’t replicate my crowning achievement if I change direction
  • Money – I need a bit more in the bank before switching courses
  • Solomon – I will focus my life on self-improvement rather than service
  • Low-commitment – let’s just dabble in various boards, non-profits and activities
  • Ageing – I can’t do it anymore; I’m over the hill

2. Try a few endings on for size

Imagine you are old and retired and telling your great-grandchildren the story of your life. First of all, recount the story so far. Think about the important features of your story: triumphs, failures, joys, times of pain. For example:

“Growing up I was always passionate about A and was heavily involved in that scene….

When I was B years old, C tragically happened… At university I also discovered a gift for D and a passion for E…

After school, I worked at Company F for a while and learned my trade as a G…

Things were difficult for a while when H happened.

After being promoted to J, I switched to Firm K and accomplished ….

At which point….”

Then think of some possible endings (or possible next chapters). Try them on for size.

“…I couldn’t think of a next professional step and decided to hang on in there for the next 20 years, whilst giving my free time to my family, my hobbies, and my local community”

“…I went part-time in order to launch a charitable foundation/start a business/write my book”

“…I decided to retrain as a L which was the dream that I’d always had”

Which endings resonate, inspire, excite? Which endings depress, demotivate? Try some more endings. Where do you see yourself?

3. Work through a new subplot in some detail

Imagine yourself as a character in a series of novels or sequence of films. There is an existing story going on (represented by your job, family, and other commitments). Now imagine a new episode is released, representing the next chapter of your life, the next five years – and start to envision out the story that could play out. Donald Miller has amazing material on this kind of thing, but in a nutshell:

Ambition. What is your desire right now at this point in the series? What is the problem that needs solving? What is the desire of your heart? My strong suggestion in this point is to think about serving others rather than serving yourself. It makes everything so much more meaningful.

Opening scene. What has to happen to get you off the couch and start this next piece of the story? What is the compelling, inciting event that gets things moving? You will need this because you’re stuck, and so you need a forcing function to get unstuck. What can that be? Perhaps you decide to attend a conference or pay for a training programme in a different field of expertise, or branch out and join a new professional organisation. Perhaps you agree a deadline with your spouse: to quit your current role within a certain timeframe. Perhaps you book a meeting with their coach or a headhunter.

Conflict. Every good story involves the hero overcoming some kind of resistance. Where is the conflict going to be in your story? Perhaps it is battling your own laziness and reluctance to move out of your comfort zone. Perhaps it is overcoming the doubts and fears of your own family as you look to start a new story in your life. Perhaps it is going to be the battle of establishing credibility and reputation in a new field. Articulate the conflict, and see it is as part of the adventure.

Climactic scene. Visualise what success in this new subplot looks like. Perhaps it is seeing your side hustle generate $X per month, and writing the letter to your boss to quit your day job. Perhaps it is accepting the offer of employment in your dream company in a new sector. Perhaps it is signing copies of your first book. Get clear in your mind at least one climactic scene that shows the journey is worth it.

What you are trying to do here is reconnect with the story of your life and place your professional journey within that. Then the risks and the upsets and the uncertainty and the struggle take on a new meaning, and stagnation suddenly seems a lot less fun.

What is the new storyline that awaits you in the next 5 years? Where do you see yourself?

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