Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why You Really Don't Have to Have a 5-Year Plan

I’m organized. Logical, too. I have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, and even a rough idea of where I’d like to be in 25 years.

I don’t do it out of obligation. I’ve always been this way. Before I ever set foot on Tufts’ green campus as an undergrad, I’d already had all my classes mapped out and knew which classes to take to cover multiple requirements. I also made a backup plan that would allow me to graduate in three years—you know, just in case.

At a glance, it looks like I really have it together. And don’t get me wrong, I definitely do (I think), but it’s not because of all the plans I’ve made. In fact, to be honest, I haven’t kept any of those original plans. Not a one.

It was a realization I made while studying career counseling theories—John D. Krumboltz’s Happenstance Learning Theory, to be specific. He posits that unplanned events are to be expected because they’re inevitable and, in fact, necessary to every career. How many successful people actually followed a plan to get to where they were? Maybe a handful. Most were (and continue to be) superbly hardworking and just really good at recognizing and acting on opportunities that come their way.

On the role of the career counselor, Krumboltz writes, “The goal of career counseling is to help clients learn to take actions to achieve more satisfying career and personal lives—not to make a single career decision.” Pretty straightforward on all counts, but to me it was also pretty revolutionary.

There’s no mention of five-year plans, no clear-cut steps toward a singular career goal, or even a sense of urgency. Ultimately, the goal of career planning is not to have a step-by-step plan, but to maximize the opportunities for you to learn and to be in the right mindset to take advantage of opportunities as they come. In other words, it’s all about putting yourself out there, trying new things, and creating your own luck.

This all makes sense because, well, we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t even know what jobs will be created or eliminated 10 years from now. So, even though I’m all for plans because it’s comforting to me to have one, it’s not the plans that are important. What’s important is keeping busy—meeting people, volunteering, experimenting with new hobbies, trying out side gigs—whatever you can do to maximize the opportunities you’re exposed to and then having the boldness to go for one when it feels right.

As the talented Shonda Rhimes said at her excellent commencement address to Dartmouth’s class of 2014:

I think a lot of people dream. And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing… Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you're paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn't matter. You don't have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn't have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just do.

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.