It sounds so formal, a little daunting, the kind of thing you’d like to put off, maybe forever. When you are in the middle of something active and important—like making the best of a great job opportunity, or preparing to take the bar exam, or planning your wedding, career planning seems out of place. But in fact, everything you do in your life has a place in your career. You just have to link it all up, once and for all. You can change your mind, revise any and all of your plans, or chuck it all in the manner of Eat Pray Love (which was, by the way, a very well-planned plan). But you have to start with something. Yes. Sigh. Even–or even especially–in a recession.
A career plan starts with your life strategy, and includes your life partner’s strategy if you have a life partner and you intend to walk any part of the path ahead together. Or if you prefer to holler at each other from different paths from time to time. You can all change your minds—stuff happens—but articulating who you are and what you are about makes your intention real, and renders it far less debatable. It is, for the record, who you intend to be. Here are some examples of 21st century adult life strategies, useful in some parts of the world:
- Raise a large and well-adjusted family
- Retire as early as I can
- Travel the world
- Start a family business and spend all of our family’s time together
- Dedicate our lives to our church
- Make as much money as I can as fast as I can
- Change the world in a specific way
- Get the best education I possibly can; then give back
- Restore health and wealth to our community
- Give our children everything we can
- Seek adventure
- Make amazing art
- Serve my country
- Save enough money to buy a house
- Build our own house with our own hands
- Start a band
- Work from home
Everybody is different. I know that Daniel Pink doesn’t think about planning quite the same way that I do. But you don’t have to do what everyone else does, do it in a suit, do whatever you want to do on a timetable that makes sense to anyone but you, or make a lot of money at it. You do have to take responsibility for getting yourself where you want to go, and understanding that if you don’t head somewhere, it’ll be just your luck not to end up where you want to be.
I know people who have planned their lives and careers around things like staying sober, having day to day access to their parents, children, and grandchildren, building a substantial bankroll for an early retirement, writing a novel, and driving expensive cars. Whatever works for you, and you don’t have to apologize to anyone, or tell a living soul your reasons. The point of the plan is the alignment of your decisions with the place you want to be. The plan amplifies and highlights what is important, and sends background noise to the background where it belongs.
On to your career plan—how will you fund your life strategy?
Your career represents your economic life—if it does not produce income (or sustenance, as a missionary or cleric who has taken a poverty vow might receive) whatever you are doing is an avocation or a hobby, or maybe even an internship. And it may be important to your career or the ramp up to it, but it isn’t your career, at least not yet.
Your career plan answers three main questions:
Where do you want to go?
When you look toward the future, what do you see yourself doing, every day? The physical geography of where you want to do whatever you see yourself doing is part of the question. If you are committed to a profession or industry, you will want to be flexible about where you live. If you are committed to a community or region, you are better off being flexible about what you do. It’s not easy to become a movie actor while living in Pittsburgh, as an example.
What is on and along the road ahead?
Is yours a highly competitive field? Do you live in an expensive and challenging community with few jobs? Are changes in the industry or region expected in the future? What will it take to get your ticket punched in the field? What are the implications of age and experience in your field? Is travel or frequent relocation likely to affect the career or plans of your loved ones? To do strategy right, you have to look down the road and anticipate the terrain, the traffic, and the other travelers.
How will you get there?
This is the key question. It addresses the choices you make, the ones you are likely to have to make, and the things you will give up. Your timing, your family and friends, your health, your age, your financial resources, and other factors play a part in how you proceed. It’s important to establish your career identity. In doing so, you are best served by being clear and focused, so that there is no confusion about your values and what you stand for. Your career itself, similarly, should be an unambiguous series of decisions that sets forth and provides context for your unambiguous identity.
Strategic career planning is a process of identifying the big picture, and then illustrating to yourself how you will manage the details in order to make the picture real. Ideas can be energizing, dreams are important, and affirmations are helpful, but actively managing a series of steps will bring you results.