The Planner’s Guide to Not Planning Your Career

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

You’ve heard it before: if you want to succeed, you need a long-term plan. A clear vision of where you see yourself in five, 10, or 20 years. The truth, however, is that the best laid plans rarely turn out the way we expect. The evidence? Think back five, 10, or 20 years.

My friend and I had a pact in college. If asked by a future employer where we see ourselves 10 years from now we would respond, “Who knows? I could be living in Zimbabwe.” Zimbabwe being the one place we had zero chance of ever ending up in. That was until years later – on a whim – my friend joined the Peace Corps and was, of course, assigned to Zimbabwe. By the way, I wouldn’t recommend answering the question this way. We were 22  when we thought it sounded cool.

When I entered the work force in the ’90s, digital media was not a real job. I was working for a media buying agency, buying local TV for Greenburg, Spartanburg and trying to convince clients that cable had value and that “this” major shift in media consumption was not the end of civilization (little did I know how often I would be having this same conversation in the years to come).

The truth was I never planned to be a media buyer; actually had no idea what it was until my first day on the job. My plan was to graduate from college and become CNN’s chief correspondent for Latin America primarily because I had no idea what else one would do with a journalism degree and the years of grudge work that it would ever take to become a “chief” of anything.

A few years after buying small, local markets – where invoices were written on yellow legal paper – I was appointed the company’s “digital expert,” really for no other reason except that I had a valid non-work email address and no one else wanted to do it. I liked technology and digital media gave me the opportunity to be creative and innovative in ways I could never have planned for.

It’s a fact. Most children born today will one day be working in a position that does not exist today. Think about jobs of the past. My dad was a furrier. We had a milkman. We used long-distance operators. This was only 20 years ago. Forbes predicts that jobs today like cashiers, fighter pilots, and construction workers won’t exist in the future. They’ll be replaced by teleports experts, gene screeners, and animal guardians. How do you plan for something that does not exist?

There is no fundamental issue with planning, except that it potentially can limit you. It’s like planning a road trip from New York to California and planning to make no stops except to refuel. Not only will you miss out on some great sites along the way, but you may feel differently about your decision once you get going. Plans are good in that they give us a sense of purpose and control, but they can’t be adhered to too strictly or they will become binding. In other words, the plan may overshadow your larger goal or ultimate happiness in the end. The plan can get you going, but then you need to operate with some flexibility in order to not miss out on other opportunities along the way.

Therefore, if an opportunity comes up that pulls at your heartstrings and is different from the path you have set upon, give yourself permission to try it out. Even if it doesn’t pan out, the risk of not pursuing it is greater than the risk of pursuing it and deciding it’s not right for you. We sometimes need to let go of the rationale – the plan – and let life take over.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.