November 4, 2011

The Folly (Tyranny?) of Career Planning

So you’re, what? Twenty years old? Thirty? Maybe even 40 or 50? Regardless of your age, I can’t think of anything less likely to succeed than to make a career plan "for the rest of your career." I put that last in quotation because it’s a phrase that I hear from my clients of all ages. Yesterday I was speaking with a 61 year old who plans to work to 70, or at least nine more years. And even for her, I would prefer to talk about career planning concepts, rather than an actual career plan.

If this seems like semantics rather than strategy, you might be right. After all, we do use the terms career plan and career planning pretty interchangeably. Even so, I’ll make my argument and let you decide if there’s any nugget there for you to use.

First, my definitions, loose as they might be: To me, career planning connotes a process that is fluid and evolving. By contrast, a career plan sounds like a completed document to be followed, much like the roadmap that it’s always being compared to, as in, "I want a roadmap for my life."

To which again, I say, "Sorry Charlie. No lifelong roadmaps here."

The problem with life plans, career plans and road maps in general is that they can’t account for things that are always changing, such as one’s family, the economy, and road construction. Take, for instance the emerging career paths that involve social media jobs and green collar jobs. These concepts just didn’t exist more than a decade ago – how would last decade’s 20 year old have predicted the training or skills needed for this decade’s work options?

This is not to say that one should just launch out into the world with no planning at all, or that all training is moot unless the job already exists. Rather, the idea is to not become over-reliant on the (fleeting) security one derives from having a plan. Instead, it would be better to develop strengths in resiliency and networking, while also building universal skills such as communication, technical competence and a second language. Then, as each new field emerges, you’re likely to be in a better position to evaluate a move into that field, than if you were completely focused on following a plan you had laid out for yourself before the field was ever invented.

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