• Ty Vuong

Return of the 5-year Plan

#lifeplanning #coaching #students #youngprofessionals #goalsetting #development #careergoals

I'm going to cut right to the chase in this post. Stop imagining yourself in a dream job! There, I said it. It seems like the complete opposite of what you've been told your entire lives, but I mean it. An imagined dream job is a complete waste of your effort and time for a few reasons as I will explore in this post. 1.) The treadmill of enjoyment; 2.) The changing self; and 3.) an unpredictable world. Instead I recommend returning to the 5-year-plan. Using 5 years as a good rule of thumb to keep doing what you're doing, work towards something new, or change directions entirely and anticipate.

Ok, let's get into this because I have a lot to say.


The journey through life is not a straight path. If you haven't heard that turn-of-phrase by now then stop where you are and figure out what I mean.

Those of us aware of this swirling, spiraling, cascading mess that is our journey through career exploration will be able to relate to this hand-drawn map

People who KNOW have determined their destination and will drive right towards it, they will follow their own path, they will need no guidance. Good for them. They will find out later they are just as lost as us.

Most of us HAVE DIRECTION we see some goal in the distance and understand that the path to it may not be direct, so our vision is broader and our journey a bit more complicated. But ultimately we are missing the variables that could lead to other destinations.

What I ask is that we all have VISION to broaden our horizons and realize that there should not be a single goalpost in the distance, and instead that we have a heading (notice how the character is not facing down and to the left) that can culminate in a few different end products, with pathways connecting them throughout. This isn't a one-way journey.

1.) The Treadmill of enjoyment

As explored in the book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, we are all on an enjoyment treadmill. As we seek out things we enjoy, once attained, we have some momentary spike in pleasure which eventually drops down to baseline as time goes on. For example I feel "meh", I find a piece of candy, I get excited and eat the candy; after 20 mins I am back to feeling "meh" or how I felt before finding the candy. There is nothing wrong with this system per-say, but if we overlay it on the concepts of work as explored by Zhou et. al there is a honeymoon phase of job satisfaction we experience with upward progression, that eventually falls back down over time. Just like the treadmill.

What this means for the 5-year-plan:

For those that have gone through life with a "dream" position in mind, when they attain this dream (either through KNOWING or DIRECTION) they will have a life satisfaction spike for a bit, but inevitably they will hit a wall in which their dream, which may have taken 30 years to complete, loses it's "new job smell" and they will start to explore other pathways. This can create a crisis (mid-life/quarter-life) or could lead to discomfort as we begin to dissociate how we should feel about this super awesome job we attained, and how we really feel...Meh.

A 5-year plan allows for a person to specify roles or job titles in their mind, but keeps things within a reasonable timeframe of the treadmill. The honeymoon period typically wears off at around 3 years, so having a role for 5 years is 2 years beyond the honeymoon period (plenty reasonable) before assuming a new path should be explored. I think it should be said that it could be detrimental to have a goal of becoming say CEO of Microsoft within 5 years. So a 5 year plan stresses manageable, attainable, etc. (SMART) goals.

2.) The Changing Self

As explored by Dan Gilbert in his TED Talk we, as humans, cannot accurately predict how much we will change over the course of our lives. The study Dan talks about is in 10-year chunks. Basically, people cannot predict how much they will change in 10 years, but can see how much they have changed over the past 10 years. This can be a huge piece when we are exploring our "dream" jobs. Often, we are encouraged to consider dream jobs as this stretch goal that could take decades to achieve for example the goal of becoming CEO of Apple. Even though time and time again when company CEOs share their story, often it does not include "I planned on being a CEO for a major fortune 500 company." (See How I built this Podcast). Instead their stories include phrases like, "I had a passion for..." or "I ended up enjoying..." or "I fell into... ".

We are, in a sense, egocentric when we predict the future. We use information that we have currently available to assume things that will take place down the road. Even for our own state of mind and personal preferences, we are making sweeping assumptions for what they will be in the future. (I know it is tough to grasp because it is fair to say that things in our control should stay the same because we can control them, but it is absolutely true that we change as time goes on regardless of whether we feel "in control" of it or not).

What this means for the 5-year-plan:

As we look back at those that KNOW or have DIRECTION, it is likely that they have the singular end goal in mind assuming that by the time they get there, it will be what they enjoy doing. I was able to see this play out, in real time, as my brother chased his goal of becoming a medical doctor. By the time he had reached his end goal, some 10 years later, he was already considering what his "next move" would be. His conversations included the financial investing and entrepreneurial avenues he had never discussed before. Ultimately he was thinking about what he could do, besides being a doctor, because it seemed his interests had changed over that time. Maybe he was overstuffed on Pancakes (see Pre-med studying/Pancake theory) and needed a change.

A 5-year-plan, as mentioned above allows for the creation of those SMART goals, and while it doesn't necessarily hinder people from making choices for 5 years out that they may change and not enjoy, it does set a more reasonable timeframe for those changes. It implies, within it's timeframes that this thing should be achievable and still within your interest ranges assuming we are making assumptions about the future based on what we feel now. In goes without saying, well I'm going to say it, things can change more in 10 years than in 5.

3.) An Unpredictable World

Much like how we cannot predict how much we will change internally, there always the macro view of this idea. We cannot, as a person, nor species, nor anything really, predict with the utmost certainty how the world will change around us and more complexly, how those external changes will change who we are.

It is the complementary ebb to the flow, the yin to the yang, the balance to the thermodynamic scales of entropy and order. I don't have a ted talk for this, I don't have a paper to prove it. But I think we can all just take my word that the world will change between the time you set your KNOWN destination, DIRECTION of life, or even VISION of your future, and when you ultimately get there.

What this means for the 5-year-plan:

In many senses a 5-year-plan encompasses this issue through the same way it balances the issues listed above. It is done by limiting an overly distant timeframe goal in order to capture potential changes as well as understanding that goals, passions, and pleasures can be changed, and, to some degree, are caused by external influences.


The TL;DR here is that by setting a singular stretch goal into our distant future we are making the mistake of assuming that we won't change, the world won't change, and the future goal will be worthwhile and hold our interest for the rest of our lives.

By now, if you've read through, you've seen that we, as people, DO in-fact change our likes/dislikes over time. We WILL in many ways lose our affinity to the "new job smell"/honeymoon period with our work, no matter how long it took to attain. And we also cannot quite predict what the world will have in store the further out we set our goals and destinations.

Instead we need to reel in expectations and reel in our predictions of our future to something within manageable and more predictable (notice how I am avoiding simply saying predictable) timeframe. A 5-year-plan is, in my opinion at this time (see what I did there), one of the best ways to still make goal-setting work in your favor while avoiding some of the pitfalls that we may fall into.

This perspective can also work no matter where in your career pathway you currently are. Students can set their goals towards graduation and achieving a starter job. New-to-industry workers can aim towards that next promotion. Middle and upper management can focus on skills to take them to the next level, or seek personal development for work/life balance. Top executives can plan "Legacy steps" (though I highly doubt this blog is being read by any industry CEOs.

Let's shake this assumption that we should have our life figured out by the time we are 14, or 18, and instead breed a culture of VISION to see that the path is not straight-forward and that there is more treasure out there than ever.

image credits: Me. Totally drew this... I know it's terrible

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