To Plan Or Not To Plan?

I recently asked a group of professionals how many of them had a long-term career plan.  About half said yes, about half said no.  Perhaps you would expect that the go-getting dynamic characters would be the “yes” group, and the plodders would be the “no” group, but it wasn’t the case.  There were plenty of able, ambitious people in the group who couldn’t really say clearly what their long-term career goal was.

Traditionally, career guidance assumes that having a long-term goal is a desirable state, progress towards vocational maturity.  We expect teenagers to be able to work out what they want to do for the rest of their lives.  We write action plans, detailing short, medium and long-term goals.  When a client doesn’t have a long-term goal, we struggle.  What should we write?  How can the client plan?  Is there a plan at all?  We feel there is something wrong with our guidance if the client emerges without a long-term goal.

And clients tend to book career guidance sessions because they feel they want a long-term plan.  The more high-achieving the client, the more pressure they feel to have everything mapped out.  Clients tend to leave a guidance interview with a goal.  But when you start to follow-up those same clients, you find them split, between those who have more or less followed the plan, and those who have ended up doing something different, perhaps because circumstances changed, perhaps because another opportunity presented itself or perhaps because when they started to research in a little more depth, they found out things that put them off.

I only need to look around at my friends and acquaintances to see that real life career planning is rarely so neat as identifying a long-term goal, a progression route and moving towards it in a series of logical steps.

Of the people who have planned in this fashion, many are now established in the more traditional, structured professions but complain that they are stuck in a “sausage factory”, moving onto the next step without ever thinking about whether it is the right one.  They diligently climb each rung of the career ladder, yet when they finally get to the top, will they like what they see?  Or will they just feel they put all their effort into climbing the wrong ladder?

A much more common pattern is to make decisions without much of a plan in mind.  Many of my friends chose university courses because they liked the subject, took a job because it sounded interesting, went travelling because they wanted the experience, had children by mistake and then went part-time, jacked in a job because they couldn’t stand the boss, got made redundant, found a better job through personal contacts, retrained because of an advert they saw in the paper, moved to a new city so they could afford a house.  It’s a random hotchpotch of decisions, each one seeming right at the time but not leading towards any long-term goal.  And yet some of my friends are extremely successful.  Most of them have jobs that they enjoy and pay the bills.  So they must be doing something right.

Modern approaches to career guidance are divided on the benefits on having a long-term career goal.  The  Neuro Linguisitic Programming approach (often used by life coaches, amongst others) is clear about the benefits of knowing what you want.  A common NLP technique is to visualise how your life would be in five years, if everything had gone as well as it possibly could.  What sort of work will you be doing?  What will you look like?  Where will you live?  Making this visualisation very clear, and returning to it creates a long-term focus.  And by focusing on what you want, you will pay more attention to things around you that could help you achieve your goals.  Your energy will be directed to where your focus is – your long-term goal.  The more you visualise your goal, the more you will move towards it.  It’s a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s certainly true that without any goals at all, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same old things and never moving on.  Lots of people do the same job year in year out, feeling bored, but never finding the incentive to do anything different.  They get comfy, they enjoy the security and don’t feel motivated to trade this security for challenge, variety or fulfillment.

There is something very inspiring about allowing yourself to dream about what you really want to do – what you would do if the mortgage, the kids, the pension plan and the bills weren’t an issue? What you would do if fear of failure didn’t get in the way? What you would do if you had plenty of time and money on your hands?   A lot of the time, we don’t allow ourselves to dream about things that seem unrealistic, fearing that it will only lead to a sense of frustration and failure.  But sometimes, allowing yourself to dream can lead to small actions (or even big actions) that actually do take you in a new direction.  The challenge can be to find a manageable, bitesize action to get started with.

An alternative approach is “Planned Happenstance” (see, an approach to career planning which encourages people to plan without having long-term goals.  The “happenstance” is a reference to the role of chance and luck in real careers – jobs found through acquaintances, random adverts responded to, life changes that we have no control over, experiences stumbled into.  However, there is an acknowledgement in this approach that we do “make our own luck”.  And this is where the “planned” comes in – we can consciously seek out experiences that we enjoy, network with interesting people, research things that interest us, develop our skills and interests, do plenty of the things that we enjoy most.  By doing all of this, we put ourselves into situations in which opportunities are likely to come up.

There are a lot of advantages to this approach – by concentrating on doing things we enjoy, we are likely to be moving into fulfilling and enjoyable work.  By networking and seeking out new experiences, we are putting ourselves in line to discover the “hidden jobs market” – the 70% of jobs that are never advertised.  It’s also approach that is more likely to lead to being “in the moment” – just enjoying the present, rather than deferring happiness until some distant goal is achieved.

I’m not sure that NLP and Planned Happenstance are entirely inconsistent.  It depends on how specific you are about your dreams.  If you use NLP to identify that your dream job is to be the HR Manager of your company, that is pretty specific.  But if you use NLP to identify that you want a job where you can be an expert, have good work-life balance, have enough money for a bigger house or help others to sort out their problems, your goal is pretty broad and there is plenty of room for Planned Happenstance in there as well.

Both approaches encourage people to move in the direction of things they want and enjoy, to seek out people and experiences who can help them.  Both approaches encourage a proactive stance, looking out for opportunities and making the most of them when they present themselves.  Both approaches encourage a focus on developing skills – in research, networking, managing emotions and communication.  And afterall, the world of jobs and careers is always changing, and surely it is these skills that will enable people to better manage their careers, to find themselves doing work that they enjoy (and also paying the bills while they are at it).


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