The folly of crystal balls

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (463 Words)

“So, where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

I’m willing to bet every person reading this has had that question posed to them at some point, most likely in a job interview, but possibly during an appraisal, or if you’re really unlucky, by a potential father-in-law at a dinner party. I’m going to call it out right now - it’s one of the stupidest questions you can be asked. It’s a test, of course - does this person have a plan? Are they committed to their career? Or, more accurately, can they make something plausible up on a whim, by accurately judging the kind of crap that I, the questioner, want to hear?

OK, so maybe there are some people out there who genuinely plan their career out 5 years in advance, but I also imagine they’re rather dull people to be around. I can’t recall for sure, but to my regret I think I may have asked this question myself in interviews many years ago, embedded as I was in an environment of conformity and convention which demanded certain inexplicable behaviours handed down from forefathers whose underlying reasoning (such as it was) was long forgotten. If I asked this question of a recruit now (and I wouldn’t, but if I did), I’d only be asking it as an ironic anti-question, since I now believe the only honest and vaguely correct answer is “How the hell should I know?”. At which point I’d probably give that person the job just for being honest and we’d figure out what to do next on the fly, which is what we’d have done anyway of course.

Because when it comes down to it, plans (of any kind) are one part fairy tale and one part straight-jacket. Not only are things not going to turn out the way you think now on any time scale beyond the life of your average housefly, leading to the very real expectation of self-abuse for not delivering on ‘The Plan’ (choral accompaniment), but by being fixated on past expectations you’re very likely to be less adaptable to change, and to pass up alternative opportunities that you didn’t expect. And that’s not a minor issue: the best opportunities I’ve ever had have always been unexpected, and my primary successes have been universally unplanned. Looking back, choosing and setting a direction in life at any point in time was important, but planning specific goals was not, because all the best stuff just kind of happened along the way.

So, if you do interviews, please stop asking this question, it’s meaningless. Everyone has a current direction, but let’s not kid ourselves about the immutability of that vector, or that the destination is knowable. If it was, life would be pretty boring anyway, right?