Over the last year or so, many people have reached out to me and have asked “What are you going to do after school? Are you going to pursue college? Get a full-time job?” I have had to answer this question many times over, and most of my responses have either been “I am not sure”, or an inarticulate reflection of my passions. The truth is, I don’t have an answer to this question. I am writing this today for those who are in my position — who have not planned out their career — in order to add clarity to the situation, and use my experiences to reflect on how I have planned my careers.
When I say that I don’t have an answer to this question, it may sound bad — I have not considered by future. On the contrary, I have actually considered my future in a lot of depth. Over the last few months I have been reading and writing about self-improvement, and have started to rebalance my work and personal life to ensure that I am both happy and productive as much as possible. This question is not about whether I have considered my future in general: it is about whether I know what I want to do professionally.
It has been difficult for me to tell others that I do not know what I want to do next year, or in the next five years. However, as more people have asked me this question, I have started to become more comfortable with the notion of telling people “I don’t know.” It is fine to say that you don’t know — indeed, not knowing allows you to account for your evolving interests. I would rather be truthful and share my actual thoughts, then manifest a poor career plan for someone else’s edification.
Many people have started to realize that I am not sure what I want to do in the next one or five years, but I have not taken a lot of time to reflect on the main reasons I don’t have a career plan in place (hence my writing this essay). The first thing to understand about not having a career plan is that it is not culturally accepted — most people expect you to have a clear plan for the future. This can be mitigated though by understanding your motives behind not writing a career plan, and explaining them in more depth. There will always be people who seem offended or disappointed that you have no plan, but if you know how to explain your work and principles, then people will become more accepting.
I don’t have a career plan for one main reason: serendipity. A lot of the successful innovations society has realized have been accelerated by luck, hard-work, and serendipity. People have met someone who could change the direction of their company. Or perhaps they ran into a venture investor at a dinner party with their friends which ended up with a term sheet. Career plans don’t account for serendipity — they are your telling the world you want things to go a certain way. Indeed, a lot of my professional developments have been caused by serendipity. I didn’t plan to become publicly traded a year ago — I just listened to a podcast episode about someone who had. I didn’t plan to become an independent researcher — I just started to write some brief research and major industry members started to take notice.
Writing a career plan locks you into a certain path. Had I have proclaimed “I want to do X”, then all of these great developments likely wouldn’t have happened — I would have ignored them because they were not on my plan. I would have been on a fundamentally different path today if I had ignored the opportunities I have realized over the last year. In addition, career plans do not account for changing desires. One year ago I was pursuing entrepreneurship, and now I am pursuing research. My desires have changed as I have been granted new opportunities, spoken with researchers, and worked hard on writing about ISAs. If I had a career plan, I would have likely spent most of my time trying to stick to it — applying for X college, getting an internship at Y — rather than exploring new opportunities. Career plans may cause you to pursue a path you are not truly interested in, just because you had spent so much time working toward building a certain plan.
Humans are also notoriously bad at predicting the future. To explore serendipity from another angle, you should understand that things will not always go your way. Perhaps you don’t get into X college that you wanted to, or Y research lab was not interested in hiring you — there were likely hundreds of great applicants and they could only choose one. Or maybe your interests have changed and you now no longer want to pursue a certain career. If you have a career plan, you start to hold too much stock in a singular path, and deviating from said path can make you feel as if your entire life has been derailed. This is because career paths are cumulative — if you don’t meet a certain goal, it will likely affect your ability to reach the next goal. I do not have a career plan and therefore if one venture fails, then it will not cause my entire life to go off-track. I will just keep going and pursue another venture or opportunity.
Rather than writing a career plan, I instead think in the moment and plan for the short-term. Most of my research has came from ideas I have had the previous night, which I have then explored in more depth the next morning — often leading to an article, or valuable notes to help advance my understanding of the area I am exploring. I don’t know what I am going to be doing in three months, because planning ahead like that wouldn’t allow me to account for serendipity. I am focused on what good I am going to do today, and perhaps this week or month, rather than what good I will do over my entire life. My circumstances will likely change, I will be given new opportunities, and my interests will evolve as I learn more about new areas. Career plans would lock me into a certain path, which would prevent me from living my life to the fullest extent possible.
I know what I am going to do today. And I have a good idea of what I will be doing tomorrow, and also this week. But I don’t know what I am going to be doing this time next year. My personal style is to focus on the immediate future — which I understand is quite a contrarian opinion — but I have found that it has given me more freedom and allowed me to pursue better opportunities. I have previously tried to plan out my career, but I realized that I was not good at predicting the future, and that my life was changing so quickly that writing a plan provided me with little benefit.
I am not saying that career plans are bad for everyone. Indeed, career plans are least optimal for those pursuing a non-conventional path — starting a company, pursuing independent research, working in a high-growth tech company. However, for those who want to pursue law, accounting, or medicine, perhaps a plan would be good. Industries with ladders have a clear sense of career progression: you get an internship, finish college, move up to a full-time position, become a middle-level manager, and continue your way up. If you think a career plan would help, by all means, write one. If you are pursuing a career in law, for example, you could plan what school you want to attend, how you will work there, and what internship you want to pursue and ultimately accept. However, don’t spend your next few years carving a meticulously crafted plan that does not account for serendipity.
I am most scared of pursuing a path that I am not fully invested in. A career plan would make it more difficult for me to pursue the things that provide me with a lot of value. These are my prime years, and planning them all, in my opinion, will not be a productive use of my time. Perhaps in a few years I will have a plan, although it is unlikely because I prefer to live in the moment and embrace every minute than to get stuck on a career ladder.
In sum, don’t plan your career. Focus on staying in the moment. Think about today and tomorrow. Pursue any great opportunities, irrespective of whether they are on your “plan”.