Is Career Planning a Waste of Time?

I’ve come across a brilliant and thought-provoking article contending that career planning is a waste of time (hat tip: Alexander at Positive Sharing). This may seem like a very controversial statement, but the author makes some good points that are convincing.

The article centers around the idea that it’s very difficult for us to know what we’ll need or want in the future. This seems to be true for both trivial and potentially life-changing decisions or occurrences. An example is used from a psychology study of students who get a free sandwich every day for participating. The students were divided into two groups, one that got to choose their sandwiches each day and the other who were required to choose for the week:

Amazingly, though, people choosing in advance assume that what they’ll want for lunch next week is a variety. And so they choose a turkey sandwich Monday, tuna on Tuesday, egg on Wednesday and so on. It turn out that when next week rolls around they generally don’t like the variety they thought they would. In fact they are significantly less happy with their choices than the group who chose their sandwiches on the day.

Those who made decisions based on their assumptions about what they were prefer in the future were not nearly as happy as those who were able to choose every day. This is interesting to me because in Western society we really are expected to have a plan for the future almost before we’re even adults. How many times do you remember being asked what you want to do with your life before you were even 18 years old?

The author’s conclusion is that “we are incredibly bad at knowing our future selves” and it’s hard to disagree. When I was in my early twenties it struck me that I had no idea what life would be like for me even six months into the future. Things had a way of changing for me very quickly and I saw that circumstances and perspectives evolved constantly. Yet, I continued to try to put together a long range plan for the future and these plans almost never came to fruition the way I’d expected.

So where does this leave us? The author ends with this advice:

The best strategy for career planning is this: make your best guess, try it out and don’t be surprised if you don’t like it. But for heaven’s sake don’t mention this in your interviews.

I can’t fault this, but, I have to admit it leaves me wanting more. I realize the truth of the observation about miswanting and not knowing my future self, but how can I make use of this knowledge in such a way that it benefits me?

One way that I can think of is to not make plans that are too long term and too inflexible. If you plan to get a new job that you’ll stay at for 20 years, it’s likely that your plans will change long before the 20 years is up.

Another way it to make very general plans with goals related more toward lifestyle than specific jobs and numbers. You might set a goal of having more free time instead of getting a job at a specific company for an exact salary range.

Your goal could also be to do something different for a living and to keep trying new things until you are able to find something you have a passion for. I think this is a very good goal to set if you’re young and just completing your education. If this is your situation, don’t stress about the exact job and salary you want, but focus on the experience. This is definitely advice I wish I could have told my younger self. In the end, I don’t think it’s what we have or what we perceive ourselves to be that’s most important; it’s what we do.

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