The Five Year Fallacy

If people honestly answered the interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?”, would their chances of being hired be better or worse?   There is no shortage of advice on how to best face this question, though the answers can be confusing if not contradictory, here and here, for example. And when a question spawns 170-million Internet entries, it is hard to see it as the magic bullet that separates one candidate from the rest.

Over time, I have become convinced there is one and only one true answer to this question – “I don’t know.” Because you don’t. The question is asked in a vacuum, but no one lives in a vacuum; people live in dynamic environments where the unknown is ever-present. As it is, tens of millions of people are in jobs that may not be around in five years and that’s with technological advancement that is known. What about the forward steps that are still to be realized?

Even the military, which plans so much that it is said to have a strategy for an alien invasion, recognizes plans are great to have. Until their first contact with resistance.

You want a plan? Here it is: take care of the now and the future will work itself out. That’s it.

  • You can control how you perform at work, what type of spouse and parent you are, and whether you take care of your health.
  • You cannot control if the company gets sold, if your job becomes obsolete, or if a parent gets at terminal illness.

Five years ago, I didn’t expect to be doing what I am. Five years prior to that, I did not expect to be entering graduate school. And five year earlier, I was in a career I thought would last until retirement. But life’s funny that way; get too comfortable and the fates toss a banana peel in your path. If you have not experienced the unexpected, you will.

Most of life happens in a Bell curve. There are high achievers, stragglers, and the mass in the middle that one colleague refers to as “the at-leasters.” That means they are doing at least enough to maintain their current standing; some could reach the higher level with a bit of focus and coaching, some are content to just be and are more likely to have dreams than plans but that’s another discussion. The point is, each of these groups is engaged in the present. The future is out there, of course, but it tends to happen to us more than we to it.

When bad things happen, even to good companies and good people, quality individuals are on the loose. Finding good people keeps many an employer up at night. If you are known for doing solid work, for being professional and reliable, then you are far more likely to land upright than someone with a reputation of mailing it in. And if a parent becomes terminally ill, that fast track you imagined being on is going to slow down.

Having goals and dreams is part of the human experience, and I am not going to tell you to chuck them all and live life by the seat of the pants. But you have to have some perspective. You may still do and become everything you aspire to, but it may not come on that timetable that is in your head. Along the way, chances are you will learn something new about yourself and perhaps about what you really want. And that’s what I mean about taking care of the now.

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