Many years ago (in 1986, to be exact), I was out looking for a job. I’d been a tech writer at Accountants Microsystems, Inc., (who’ve long since vanished from the scene) for a couple years. As a matter of fact, it was my first official job as a technical writer. I’d survived three layoffs at AMI but not the fourth, so I was on the streets. I was interviewing with someone by the name of Susan.
At one point during the interview, Susan asked the old “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question. (I’d never thought much of this question even before this incident.) Well, it’d been quite a while since I’d interviewed and I hadn’t thought about this for some time, so I thought… and I thought… and I thought some more. About 20 seconds had passed and I was still thinking about this very hard and Susan was looking very nervous and finally said hurriedly, “That’s okay; you don’t have to answer that!” and I burst out laughing and said “Actually, Susan, I just realized I have no idea where I’m going to be in five years and I’d like to tell you about it.”
I said, “Five years ago, I was a programmer and I really loved programming and I wanted to know more about programming and do more with it. If you had told me then that in five years that I would have given up programming forever to become a tech writer, I would’ve thought you were high. And if you told me that I’d give it all up in three years, never to look back, I’d have been sure of it. But that’s exactly what happened. So when you ask me where I’m going to be in five years, I can honestly say that I don’t know, but it’s going to be something bigger and grander and more glorious than I can possibly imagine.”
Ummmm, so, I didn’t get that job. (Susan didn’t think that not knowing where I was going to be in five years was such a hot flippin’ answer.) But five years later, in June of 1991, I thought about that interview. In the intervening five years, I’d become a freelance writer and had worked for Microsoft and a lot of other clients, I’d written and published a number of magazine articles and three books and was already working on books #4 and #5, I’d managed a writing department for a couple years, I’d won a number of writing awards, and I’d done training and some consulting for companies, and I had helped found and then run a very popular group for freelance writers in the Puget Sound area. Most of this had been great fun and it had certainly been profitable. I’d grown enormously as a writer and a professional, but there’s no way I could have predicted this from where I sat in June of 1986.
And, as it turned out, I wasn’t able to predict the next five years, either. Or the five after that, or the five after that, or the four since then that bring me up to the present. At this point, I figure if I can accurately predict next week, I’m doing okay.
So the point of all of this somewhere is that, when it comes to career planning, I’m reminded of several things:
- Be open to change. If you try to solidify your plans too much, you’re going to squeeze out every opportunity for serendipity to happen and you need serendipity in your life or there’s Just No Point.
- Be ready to grab a new opportunity and take a few risks. If you haven’t fallen flat on your face in a muddy heap at least once, you’ve probably never risked anything meaningful. (Writing that line makes me feel better about some of the flat-out failures I’ve had.)
- Things will happen you didn’t plan on. I’m going to post something about how to be immortal shortly that talks about this, but figure that there will be bumps in the road.
- While it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s also true that the unlived life is not worth examining.
I haven’t a clue where all this is going to end up, but I’m determined to have fun and make money along the way. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Addendum, February 7, 2011: The Oatmeal has an article on the The 6 Crappiest Interview Questions. The question about “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” question is the first one in their list. Amazing how that works out….