5-Year Plans Won't Kill You
Mapping out where you'd like your life to go doesn't mean you have to sign a contract; it means you have a guide for living out your potential.
Here I am, sitting in my college apartment, finishing off my cup of English breakfast tea, frantically trying to get Zoom started on my computer. I have a meeting with Corey Ciocchetti, a professor whom I admire. As I finally get the meeting started, I’m prepared to have a nice, heartwarming, inspiring conversation. I’m not prepared to be challenged.
Has anyone ever told you to make a 5- or 10-year plan? Have you ever, in response, said “that’s a silly idea” and moved on? If so, we’re in this together. My defense (other than “that’s a silly idea”) is to explain that since I’m happy now, and I didn’t plan to be here 5 years ago, that must mean that I don’t need to try to plan 5 years ahead from now. Yes, I’d have some type of direction, but I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. So far, it’s worked out fine. Right? Maybe. Maybe I’m missing something.
Back to my apartment Zoom meeting: Corey doesn’t hesitate to tell me what I’m missing.
“We’ll meet again next month and I want you to tell me where you’d like to be in 5 or 10 years.”
Um, okay. Bold of you to ask. What if I don’t know? What if I think I know and I’m wrong? How about the fact that I’m happy now and I didn’t make a plan 5 years ago? Take that, Corey.
Corey does take it. And he throws it back to me.
“That’s fine if it’s worked for you before.” Corey says. “But you can’t let your potential go to waste because you wandered aimlessly through your life.”
Woah. I’d not realized how deep the connection is between living out potential and having a plan to get there. The idea of human potential is a soft spot for me; I believe so deeply in the importance of each individual on this earth becoming all they can be. Yet, here I am, not acting in accordance with my own beliefs? I don’t like how this feels.
Out of this discomfort comes clarity. My conversation with Corey helped me see how I was selling myself short by not admitting the hopes I have for where my life could end up. Not only does setting a goal help us break down the steps to get there, talking about the goal with people who care about us helps us refine both the goal and the steps to get there. Corey saw that, and he saw I had more to give. Here’s the deal: I do have an idea of where I want to be in the future, and the idea is more concrete than my generic, feel-good answer of “I just want to be fulfilled and purposeful.” I hadn’t recognized I was limiting myself in those more specific pursuits by not admitting to anyone, not even myself, I want to pursue them. Because, while the generic answer is the truth, it’s not the full truth. Why have I been afraid to admit to myself—and others—what I really want?
Author and clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson often talks about the importance of setting an aim. Once we choose our course, we can focus on the most immediate step which follows. With every action, we can ask ourselves “does this lead me closer to my aim?” If the answer is yes, we follow through. If it’s no, we do something else. As we go, we may ask that question and realize our original aim isn’t quite what we want anymore—not because we’re giving up, rather because our growth over time has shown us the aim which is even closer to our true full potential. Then, we can simply shift the aim.
A plan for where we want to be in 5 or 10 years could be considered an aim. So, why do so many of us choose not to set an aim like this? Peterson would say we are afraid because if we define an aim, we automatically define the terms of failure, too. We don’t like failure, so we set a vague enough goal that we can “win,” no matter what. This is where Corey’s point about potential comes in. If we don’t set the aim, we probably won’t achieve as much as we could. We don’t even know what it is, exactly, we’re trying to achieve. It’s pretty hard to win a game if you don’t know which game you’re playing.
After I weakly defended my lack of future vision for my life, Corey shared another way of looking at a 5-year plan: think about it as a thought experiment. Maybe even write out three different potential paths. While I am taking Corey’s thoughts to heart, my push-back is that we may not know now what will be best for us in five years, but as we go forward we will identify what is best for the next step; still, we probably could have a good idea of two or three directions our lives could take. By brainstorming potential paths and narrowing down to both what is realistic and ambitious, we can make decisions in the present which give us optionality to pursue any of those future paths as we go. You’re not signing a contract; you’re creating a visionary aim. It’s okay if it changes. In fact, it should; we grow and our plans change as we grow. Each of us has a purpose to live out, and we should act like it.
Here’s what I’m doing with Corey’s challenge: I’m first going to remind myself of the purpose for my life. I’ve done self-reflection exercises like this before, but I’ll revisit those. Then, I’m going to write out a few hypothetical directions my life could take from this point forward. I’m going to make them specific.
Where do I want my career to be? Where do I want to live, ideally? What type of family do I want to build, and when? What will my hobbies be? How will I spend my weekends?
Then, I’ll choose the path which best aligns with my purpose (we’ll talk about finding our purpose in the coming weeks, so stay tuned). I’ll start making decisions which lead me towards that path. And when, inevitably, life looks different than my plan, I won’t be intimidated; I’ll shift the path, and continue to simply take the next step. I hope you’ll do the same. After all, the next step is the most important one.
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