“Where do you want to be in 5 years’ time?” The question that makes you tremble & what to ask yourself instead.

Many people, including me, find it incredibly hard to set long term goals. In my previous job, I used to dread being asked the question “So where do you want to be in 5 years time?”. I would come up with some vague answer, based around what I thought they’d want to hear.

The problem is, if we don’t have an idea where we are heading, it’s really difficult to set short term goals and actions that feel meaningful and that we actually feel driven to work on. That can then lead us to feeling like we are ‘treading water’ in our life and never feeling truly fulfilled. 

In my previous company I used to help people with their personal development planning. This is how a conversation sometimes went:

“I see you’ve got Time Management in your development plan. Tell me about the reasons that’s important to you”.

“Well I occasionally struggle with my workload, so my manager thought I could look at the way I’m planning my time out”.

“How big an impact is this having on your career here?”

“I don’t really know where I’m heading with my career. Time management seems like a sensible thing to work on, whatever I want to do. I do know that I want to manage a team someday”.

“OK. What do you feel is the biggest hurdle you have to take a role where you manage a team?”

“Probably my lack of experience managing people. I need to build some skills in that area’.

‘What would that look like written as a goal within your development plan?’
… and so on… as we dig into creating an action plan that is aligned to a longer term personal goal.

It’s so easy to keep focusing on small actions/goals that make short-term improvements, but don’t get us any closer to feeling more fulfilled and satisfied with our career or life. If we can work out where we’re heading, we can then consciously spend less time on doing the things that don’t really get us there and more time focusing on the things that will; things that we will be much more motivated to do and feel more sense of achievement when we’ve completed them. 

So I look back now and I realise that the “dreaded question” was actually a really important one. But I genuinely struggled to answer it. A lot of my difficulty was around how the question was worded. It just sounds so big and important and final!  

It does work for some people. I had colleagues who knew the exact role they wanted to be doing in 1, 5 & 10 years time. But if you’re like me, and feel a bit overwhelmed with the question, rather than thinking about ‘where you want to be’, start with what you want your ideal career to look like from different aspects. Here are some ideas: 

“What difference do you want to be making for people (who specifically?) / your company / your industry / the world?” 

“Which of your strengths do you want to be utilising most?”  

“What do you want people to be saying about you and your contribution to others / your company / your industry / the world?”

“What do you want your working life to look like? How does it fit in with your personal life? 9-5? Flexible hours? Lots of travel? No travel?” 

“What do you need to earn?” “What do you want to earn?” (subtle difference!) 

Answering these questions on a regular basis (once a year at least) means that when you are setting yourself shorter term goals and /or planning your continuous personal development, you can ask yourself if they are helping you to achieve your ideal working life in 5 years time. And if they are, you might just find yourself super-motivated to work on them!

Working out what you need to feel fulfilled in a career can be hard. That’s where understanding your core values is vitally important and I’ll be covering that in a future blog post! 

Copyright © 2024 Heather Wright