“So where do you want to be in five years?”
It’s a question popular in job interviews, performance reviews, and informal conversations with mentors. The query is so common, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook the reality that it is also an insane thing to ask another human being.
For one thing, a lot of people have trouble predicting whether they will want Thai or Indian food for dinner, let alone foreseeing the far-off needs and desires of their future selves. For another, while it can certainly be useful to set goals, too much planning ahead can promote a sense of dissatisfaction with whatever we have at the moment, and distract us from focusing on the present.
That’s why it was so refreshing to hear Saturday Night Live star Aidy Bryant offer up an alternative way of thinking about the future at The Cut’s How I Get It Done conference in New York City yesterday (March 4). “People since the day I got hired at SNL have been like, ‘What’s next? Where you headed?'” Bryant said. Her response as a new recruit: “I guess right here? I just got here, I’m so stressed to be here.”
Rather than cave to the pressure to map out the details of her career arc like a psychic football coach, Bryant put her energy into getting good—really good—at her current gig. “I always felt like I wasn’t super angling to get out,” Bryant said. “SNL is a really hard place to work; it takes a long time to get comfortable there. So I really put my head down and tried to figure out what I was doing and do my work.”
As Bryant threw herself into the world of SNL, other opportunities started coming her way. Guest hosts would invite her to participate in their projects. She got a recurring role on Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls and took small parts in movies. In other words, rather than trying to hew to a predetermined career goal, she took the time to dabble in different areas and figure out what she liked.
One might think of Bryant’s approach to career development as that of a cook, as opposed to that of a baker. A baker type will pick a professional objective—say, “run for political office by age 35.” The business is their cake, and to get there, they’ll devise and follow a recipe: Go to law school, make law review, get involved with local government, etc. When the baker pulls the cake out of the oven—getting elected to state legislature, for example—they’re already at work mixing the ingredients for their next, even more ambitious pastry, gunning for a congressional seat by age 40.
Then there are the cooks, like Bryant. A cook isn’t any less ambitious than a baker. (Getting on SNL is pretty tough, as you may have heard.) And like a baker, a cook has a vision: A stew! (Working in show business!) But there’s more room for improvisation, for saying to yourself, “Would this taste better with anchovies? What if I added paprika?” You’re rummaging around in your fridge—or in your current professional milieu—trying stuff out, because you’re not sure what your stew is going to look like in the end. You just know it’s going to keep evolving.
That’s what happened to Bryant, who eventually decided to co-write, co-executive produce, and star in the upcoming Hulu TV series Shrill, which debuts March 15. “I don’t know that I was searching for my next big thing,” she said. But when she heard that Shrill, based on Lindy West’s memoir about finding self-worth and empowerment in a misogynistic and fat-phobic world, had been optioned, she knew immediately that she wanted to get involved. “That’s my story,” she said, “I knew how I wanted that story to be told.”
Whether you’re more of a cooking or baking type, there’s wisdom to be found in Bryant’s attitude toward her career—both in devoting yourself to the opportunities you have right now, and in understanding that some of the opportunities that will excite you in the future can’t be planned out in advance. And there’s another upside to refusing to plot out your next big gig: If you’re talented, the longer you stick around in a given role, the more respect you accumulate.
“I don’t know that I’m going to leave SNL,” said Bryant. “In the past couple years, I finally feel really comfortable there and, you know, can not work as hard. I can cut corners because I’m not cutting my teeth there anymore. There’s a great joy and comfort in being like, I’m one of the senior cast members here now, and I worked my fucking ass off to stay here.”