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Why Career Plans Are Dangerous To Your Career–And What You Should Do Instead

Posted on: Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

I have nothing against the people at Garmin, Tom-Tom and the other makers of free-standing GPS devices. I hope, for their sakes, that their companies thrive forever.

But, I wouldn’t bet on those companies–or that industry–surviving in its current form.

And therein lies a tale about why you want to be doing less career planning and instead want to be taking more control of your work life.

Consider the following to be career planning advice designed for people who don’t read career planning advice.

What we were taught is no longer true.

You had heard the traditonal advice about how to plan your career even before you had one: Determine where you want to be in five (or 10 or 20) years and work backwards from there, figuring out what courses to take and/or what assignments you should fill in order to get the job that you covet.

The advice used to work well when the economy was stable; the rate of change was far slower, and competition was far more localized.

That, to state the obvious, is no longer the case.

If you don’t know what the world is going to look like five years from now, it doesn’t make sense to try to predict potential external factors in planning your career.

All you are doing is making guesses and you could end up looking pretty silly. (“Let’s see, it’s 2009 and I am associate marketing manager for the Eastern regional of a company that makes stand alone GPS devices. The world is always going to be willing to carry or deal with an extra device like a GPS that plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car. No car manufacturer is going to want to go to the trouble of offering ‘navigation’ as a feature and who could possible come up with an app that does what we do? My future is secure.”)

“So, I am going to plan on being a regional manager in two years and the head of marketing for my company in five. Yep, that’s my plan.”

Well, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Am I saying that career planning is a waste of time? Yes, at least the way it was taught to us.

Let’s deal with the exceptions first. If you want to work in a field that is fairly predictable — say nursing or teaching—then plan away. The courses you need to take to gain an entry position are well known and so is the career path and the things you need to do to advance. So, simply figure out where you actually want to be in five years, and work backwards, just like all the career planning manuals tell you.

But for the rest of us, that is not a good approach. (Need proof? Think about this: Rent many movies from a freestanding video store lately? Bought any maps or a new set of encyclopedias. How about a CD? Placed a call from hotel room–through the hotel switchboard–or used a pay phone for that matter.)

In an environment of high uncertainty traditional career planning is both potentially a waste of time and, quite frankly, dangerous. A career plan can lead you into a false sense of confidence, where you fail to see opportunities as they arise and miss taking smart steps you otherwise hadn’t planned for. You can be so committed to the plan that you miss the opportunities around you.

You need an alternative. Let us suggest one.

Instead of trying to predict the perfect job and the best path to get there, begin with a direction in which you want to go (“I never want to manage people again.”) and complement that with a strategy to discover and create opportunities consistent with that desire.

In an uncertain world you can’t even come close to saying what a specific job might be, but you can say what’s valuable and important to you. Who are you? What matters to you? Is it working in a specific industry? Does it involve a lot of travel or none. The answers will point you in a definite direction.

Having considered that, what are your means at hand, your talents and skills, who you know, what you know? And how do you get started on concrete actions that are consistent with these desires? Some of those will take the form of looking for a job, but others might simultaneously entail starting something of your own. As you act, different opportunities will present themselves.

So, the process looks like this:

1. Determine your desire

2. Take a step toward it

3. Incorporate what you learn from taking that step

4. Take another step

5. Learn from that one

6. Repeat until you have a job, your own business, or have achieved your goal

It’s not career planning. It’s acting your way into a future you want.

(Adapted from an article by Paul Brown, Forbes Magazine)

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