The Answer to the Career Plan Question

Last week I asked some smart, accomplished, and well educated young people about their career plans.  College juniors or seniors, athletes.  Well-spoken, articulate.  Honest, apparently, because they individually, for the most part, said they were not sure what they wanted to do.  Maybe grad school; maybe law school.  Some said it more directly than others.  Some had a partial idea of a plan.  One had a long term conceptual plan, a good one, it sounded to me.

If this is you, I have some ideas for you.  Not career ideas—your bliss is your own, and I can’t tell you how to decide.  What I can tell you is that you should not leave a conversation with anyone who asks about your career plans without that person’s commitment to do something for you.  People who show interest in you are valuable resources.  “I don’t know” may be an honest answer to the question of what your plans are, but it is not the right answer.  Networking—in a very real sense—begins with a question like “What are your plans for a career?”

You need a plan for answering the question.

A search for a career or profession is not unlike sales—your objective is to find a need you can fill, using your unique talent and skill.  As romantic as the notion of a perfect career match is, you will never figure out what you want to do if you really do not know the answer, or know how to come to an answer.  What you will do—eventually—is respond to an economic imperative and decide what you will do to support yourself.  The person asking about your plans is there to help.  I don’t think you should waste such an opportunity, or postpone the chance to practice new skills that such an opportunity represents.

Your objectives in this situation are simple:  to start a conversation about you, to establish yourself as a memorable resource, to begin or strengthen a relationship, and to come away with a commitment from the person who expressed interest in you.

The first words out of your mouth should be, “Thank you for asking!”  All too often, people like me feel bad just for having asked, as the question is met with a grimace, a duck of the head, and a pained, “Oh, don’t ask. I don’t know!” Not a starter, for sure.

 The next words are, “I’m excited about my future,” said with a smile.  Excitement can be contagious. A future is something to be excited about.

 After that, “I’m looking at a few options, and I might really benefit from your help,”   moving toward asking for a commitment without putting anyone on the spot.

 You are right, the real question you were asked was “is there anything I can do to help you, inasmuch as I am in a position to help, and so far you have impressed me as someone I might want to help.”

 Here is where your plan is going to be useful.  By now, you know what you are good at, what others have complimented you on for doing well, and what your friends, parents, and teachers say about you.  This is where you specifically don’t identify a profession, because you haven’t yet chosen one, but instead you say:

 “I love to. . . . (Solve problems, build teams, learn new skills, work toward a goal, build relationships, plan the details of a project, research, write, coach, work independently, raise money, serve the public, work with kids. . .)

And I’m looking for opportunities in . . .(Business, Government, Nonprofit, Health care, Education, Law, this country, state, county, city, neighborhood. . . )

Where I can get started and work like crazy under someone willing to teach me how to be the best.”

Yes, there are decisions inherent in this plan that you have to make—so make them; just decide.  A decision like this at this time in your life is not a mistake; it’s a choice, for now.  You can’t be all things to all people, and you can’t pick everything.  You do have to know—and make some small commitment to doing—what you are good at, that others value.  If you are not sure, ask parents and teachers, friends, former bosses or coaches, or just decide on what you believe.  But you must choose, at least broadly, and at least for the  moment.

The important thing is to establish yourself as a reliable and willing professional-to-be who understands that every institution on the planet has an economic life that has to be sustained in order for it to deliver on its mission.  You, as the bright ball of energy you are, are up for providing your talents and skills in exchange for learning, and a paycheck.

But, if your dilemma, your “I don’t know what I want to be or do” funk is simply that the thought of work in a structured setting is a pain you might be able to avoid if you just don’t commit to a specific setting . . .   

If your declaration that you are good at so many things that settling on just one seems unfair to the others makes sense to you. . .

If you are thinking of going to graduate school or law school, or design school, or nursing school, just to delay, not begin, your yet-unchosen career. . .

If any of these rings a bell, realize that you have a time management problem.  Job-wise, we have only so many early career years in which to fall slightly behind or get slightly ahead of the other go-getters in our generational cohort.  These are earning years, whether the earning is real dollars, real influence, real learning, or real experience.  You cannot make the time up; once it is gone, it is gone for good.

Time rolls on, and things change daily.  What you had back then—your academic record, awards, achievements—soon begins to look less up-to-date, less fresh, less competitive in the market.  There is a crop of new graduates right behind you and one behind them, and so on.  There are no jobs that are great all of the time unless you truly love work and all the learning and growing it brings into your life, no matter how far from your perfect job or dream career you actually land. 

Career launching jobs are never perfect, and most entry level jobs are detail driven and feel very distant from the creative and stimulating academic life we have to leave.  But interesting people who land in uninteresting jobs make them perfect for now, by finding the learning and the fun in them for themselves and the others they find there.   That’s leadership practice that translates to leadership experience.

The first step in planning your career is not deciding what you want to do—it’s beginning the conversation about all your exciting choices, with the people most likely to help you get going.  It’s a start.

2 responses to “The Answer to the Career Plan Question

  1. Very interesting. I came across this website looking for tips on how to answer that kind of question in an interview, and the reading was worth it. It’s true that a lot of student don’t know what they are doing and postpone it during a long time. It was not after my 23th birthday that I realised what I wanted to study, and during my internship in 2009 that I finally had a good idea of the sector I want to enter !

    But it’s true that if you don’t know what you want to do, you’d better do studies that will help you whatever choices you make in the future. As a french student I never regretted those year of english litterature studies because I could go to the UK and I have now a very good level in english, but if I had knew before that I wanted to be in the Pulp&Paper sector I would have make more things to have a least scientific experiences to make my CV more interesting.

    Your article was great to read, thank you !

    Jenny, 25.

  2. Jenny, you are welcome. All kinds of experience and education are helpful in figuring out what we want to do–and what we’ll never be good at and won’t enjoy. The important thing is to starting trying out some options and to give new things a chance. Saying the words “I just don’t know” can suck the energy out of a conversation and make the speaker his or her own obstacle.

    Good luck!

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