“Tell me. Where do you hope to be in 10 years?”
Most of us have answered some variation of this question during a job interview. And many of us have asked this question of ourselves. But in my experience as a career counselor, it’s actually a deeply unhelpful way to think—particularly for a young person who’s just starting out. In most cases, it’s neither important nor realistic to have a five- or ten-year plan. In fact, having a fixed plan can do more harm than good.
Asking recent college graduates to think about their lives this way is a relic of a long-gone economy. When companies were stable, pensions were common, and households relied on a single income, five- or ten-year plans made sense. But according to statistics from the US Department of Labor, the average person holds 10 jobs before the age of 40—a number likely to grow in the next decade. And in today’s business climate of corporate restructuring, outsourcing, and rapidly advancing automation, even the most informed politicians and business leaders don’t what know the world—let alone the job market—will look like in 10 years.
So if the 10-year plan is a thing of the past, how should we prepare ourselves for an uncertain future? The answer lies in making the most of your present opportunities while positioning yourself for your next move. Training yourself to spot opportunities, think creatively, and strategically grow your network will do more for your career than any 10-year plan ever could.
If you’re used to obsessing over the future, the first step to breaking out of this mindset is to learn to pay attention to the present moment. If you’re too focused on making partner by age 30 before you’ve even gone to law school, you may be setting yourself up for unnecessary emotional turbulence. It may turn out that a career in law isn’t the right fit. This is nothing to agonize over; it’s only natural that life won’t go exactly according to plan. The real danger is that you’ll be so attached to your 10-year plan that you insist on grinding through law school and taking a job at a corporate law firm even when you know you’d rather be doing something else.
When you’re young, the most important thing you can do for your career is develop the ability to think creatively and spot potential opportunities before they arise. That way, you’ll know yourself well enough to leap on an opening when a friend tells you they’re starting a brewery, or use your law degree to pursue a career as a Supreme Court reporter. The good news is you can hone awareness of the present pretty easily.
First, find a simple mindfulness practice to incorporate into your daily routine. For me, I’ll simply repeat one word or short phrase (for example, “present state”) for 8-10 minutes on my drive to work. Every time I catch my mind wandering, I redirect my attention to breathing slowly and rhythmically repeating the word, focusing on the tenor, pace, and sound of my voice.
Any practice that prioritizes focus, done consistently, will increase your present state awareness. Take drawing classes, actively listen to an audiobook, wash the dishes in silence, or step outside and write down a list of the sounds you hear. Start with one daily practice, and build from there.
Cultivating a sense of mindfulness will eventually help you connect with your deeper thoughts, feelings, and intuition. As Jennifer Earls, an expert in the intersections of career counseling and mindfulness, puts it: “ Mindfulness exercises allow you to step outside your rational mind and examine what you really want.”
No matter what field you work in, the more value you’re able to create for others, the more valuable you then become.
In his book Choose Yourself, James Altucher suggests building your “idea muscle” by writing down 10 new ideas a day … about anything, from cookie-flavored frosting to a new system for responding to emails.
The goal isn’t to come up with 10 brilliant business ideas or discover 10 ways to help your company increase its profit margins every day. It’s simply to help you become better at generating ideas. The more you’re able to come up with good ideas on the spot, the more valuable you become in every situation—and the more adept you’ll be at shaping a career to fit your strengths and interests.
Daily brainstorming might sound intimidating. But in less than two months of the practice, I’ve identified new revenue streams for friends’ businesses, created a new position at my organization using an untapped funding source, generated new project and article ideas (including the one you’re reading), and come up with countless solutions to my clients’ career challenges.
The key to getting better with idea generation is to take the pressure off. Don’t worry about how to apply them at first; just train your brain to explore new possibilities. As Altucher says, “If you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20.”
Once you’ve gotten your ideas muscle into shape, start researching potential organizations that align with your interests and generating new ideas for them. Next, curate a list of your best ideas, and send them to mid- to senior-level people along with a friendly “no pressure” invitation for coffee.
Reach out with the expectation you won’t hear back, and don’t take it personally when you don’t. You’re not going to blow everyone out of the water with your creative genius, and that’s okay. If you’re able to build a meaningful connection with even one of every six professionals you target and find a mentor or two in a target industry, you’ve positioned yourself well for your next move.
Mike O’Connor is director of career discovery and the education career community at Williams College. Visit his website Wake Up, Be Awesome, Go to Sleep.