Image credit: Javier Allegue Barros
Something a lot of my clients mention when we first meet is that they never really had a career plan and that this something I can definitely relate to. Many of us follow subjects we enjoy or are good at in high school and that tends to set the direction we take for the rest of our time in formal education. Once we hit the job market we often find ourself following our guts, taking up options because they sound interesting or are better paid but rarely because they are laying a foundation for our big life plan.
Over the years many of us manage our careers with the precision of “hunt the thimble”, a party game where a blindfolded searcher has to find a hidden object being guided by temperature hints to let them know if they are getting ‘warmer’ or ‘colder’ in their pursuit. And, to be honest, this approach can take people a long way. The only time it becomes a problem is when we have to take stock and make some challenging decisions. Thats when people remember that they did have something they wanted to do and somehow they got totally sidetracked. Lockdown has had a silver lining where its unlocked peoples career hopes and dreams and allows them to wake up from the career trance they have been in.
Part of the problem is that we find it hard to conceive of the future and of ourselves in that future. FMRI studies now show that we think about our future selves in the same way as we think of other people, strangers who we are, let’s be honest, less likely to go out on a limb for. So, at a primitive, unspoken level, we totally deprioritise our future selves for whatever is temptingly on offer today. Studies in the US show that 53% of the population say they rarely or never think about the “far future” and 36% rarely or never think about something they might do in 10 years.
That said, the studies do find that some people do think about the future: from the same research in the US, 17% say they think about the world 30 years out at least once a week and 29 percent, consider a 10 year horizon at least once a week.
In my experience, both approaches have their pro’s and cons: non-planners surf the opportunities and are at the mercy of the wind and the waves in terms of where they end up. They are more likely to have trouble resisting temptations generally and may have poorer retirement plans, be less physically heathy, etc. They do build great resilience though and can adapt to change very quickly. On the other hand, people who believe it’s possible to plan ahead with any kind of certainty can struggle when their plans don’t materialise as expected. So, as ever, there is a happy middle ground we should all aspire to.
A great exercise to help the non-planners think about the future is to imagine its your 75th birthday and everyone who is important to you is there. Who is there? Someone you are close to gives a speech about all of your life’s accomplishments. What are they saying? Interestingly, you, at the age you are today, are also there. You can ask your future self for advice. What do they tell you?
25 years experience in helping teams build user centred products and services, now helping digital colleagues learn how to bounce back better than before from the challenges life throws at us from time-to-time.