I Don't Have a Five Year Plan

A few nights ago, David asked me about my five-year plan. (Our pillow talk leaves something to be desired.) And I told him a version of what I've told every employer for the last five or so years: I don't have one.

I don't remember how the question came about, but it had a particularly professional tilt to it. Where do I want to work in five years? What do I want to be doing professionally? Do I want to remain in this field, or do I see a career change happening? What future career plans would make me happy? What five-year goals do I want to chase?

The answer is that I have no answers to any of those questions. And given the fact that I asked him on a Tuesday whether our plans on the weekend allowed for me to run my eight miles on Friday or Sunday, and given the fact that I'm planning for an April 2017 Boston trip in September 2016, and given the fact that I have a list of 101 things I plan to do by March 2018, that might come as a bit of a shock.

Of course, I am "a planner." By that, I mean I'm a person who seldom agrees to "wing it." I do believe that spontaneity is good for the soul, but I also believe in not leaving most things up in the air without at least a semblance of an idea of what will actually happen. I plan my week in detail in advance. I've been known to put dates on my calendar up to 18 months in advance. I plan each day the night before, or that morning at the very latest. I plan my workouts, errands, meals, and sometimes even my freakin' hair washing schedule as far in advance as I reasonably can. (Of course, "reasonable" remains a relative term here.)

I believe in planned spontaneity. If I have nothing to do on a Saturday, I will plan to wake up that day and decide then what I will do. But if I know I have to be at a certain place by 3 p.m. on a Saturday, and know that I want to get something done before then or go somewhere after it, I'm not going to "just figure it out" on Saturday. I'll know before I wake up on Saturday what time I plan to leave, where I'll put my car (I hate not knowing a parking situation before I arrive someplace), what I'll wear, and you get the idea.

But for all this nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty detailed planning, I can't tell you anything about where I hope to be in five years—personally or professionally.

Life has never worked out the way I have planned.

I learned a long time ago that I cannot plan my personal life. I cannot plan my relationships. I can not plan my circumstances. I've made plans about what state, city, apartment I want to live in—and those made more than 30 days in advance have invariably fallen through.

When I was in college, I was certain I'd graduate and march myself right into a school as a Teach for America educator. I was also certain I'd go back to my alma mater and revolutionize the English department. And I don't mean that I sat around thinking these were nice ideas I thought might happen. I made plans. I made shopping lists. I looked at apartments and made budgets.

Before I began college, I was in a serious relationship. There were two of-course-I-will plans I had during those couple of years. One involved my transfer to a school in a different state halfway through college, and one involved marriage.

Of course, this should all scare me away from making plans about my current relationship, but in this regard, I'm deciding to be cautiously optimistic. As for the rest of my life, though, I've given up planning anything beyond what I know to be true:
I have signed a year lease on my apartment...and I know leases can be broken.
I am registered to run the Richmond Half Marathon in November...and I have been since November 2015.
I have a list of people to buy holiday gifts for, and a budget to stick to.
I have a list of races I'd like to run next year, a pipe dream about a visit to the Kripalu Center for a yoga retreat, and a few dozen handfuls of items on a 101 in 1001 list I can try to work into my day-to-day through the next several months.

Where will I live this time next year? I have no idea. What will my salary be? No idea. What relationships in my life will be the most important ones, the ones that will help me decide that's next, where I'm going, what my options are, and what I really want to nurture in this life...I have no idea.

I have no single, focused professional goal.

This is a weird thing to acknowledge, but it's something I've learned to accept and stop feeling embarrassed about this past year.

Professional goals I've had throughout my life include:
  • Be a kick-ass attorney and help children remain safe and protected during domestic legal matters
  • Be an elementary school teacher and have the most inventive, creative classroom in school
  • Be a high school English teacher and inspire juniors and seniors to appreciate language, cherish vocabulary and grammar, and continuously pursue a relationship with literature and words for the rest of their lives. (This one hung around the longest, and it's the one I revisit most now when particularly distressed about the state of my career.)
  • Be a stay-at-home mom.
  • Be an author of books that make people laugh, gasp, and cry.
  • Be a sports writer on the beat of the New York Giants for a major NYC-metro paper.
  • Be an essayist who rubs elbows with the likes of David Sedaris.
  • Be a yoga teacher who somehow manages to make an entire living solely from yoga instruction, which is actually basically impossible as long as I live where I live.
  • Be a travel writer with a major magazine. 
  • Be an editor with a major publishing house in NYC.
And yet, none of these things have occurred, nor have I reached a place of wanting to fully commit myself to the steps and processes that would make them happen. When I left my job at an educational publisher last year, I tacitly accepted the fact that my career would be at the mercy of other people if I intended to become a freelance writer. Skills and networking and hunting down leads are only part of the process. The other part of the process is what happens TO you. And I don't say that to be passive or to suggest I have no control over my life or career. It's just true. I am far from the only writer trying to make a living on the internet or in the NYC metro area, and it comes down—sometimes—to needing someone else to just pick me.

And in the last year of doing everything I'm supposed to do, everything I know how to do, and then just waiting to be picked, I realized that I don't really have all that much ambition in my career. And I should, I suppose, feel bad about that, but I think it's better to be honest than not.

The things I've felt most excited about planning have never been career-related.

Of course, I want to do good work. I want to earn a living and be able to support myself. I want to be respected in the workplace and do my part to make sure the economical landscape is friendly to women and girls now and in the future. Beyond that, though, I don't stay awake at night dreaming about being a CEO, or a this or a that.

I get goosebumps thinking about places I will go and things I will see. About having good friends and good relationships with my family members. About learning new skills and trying new things and enjoying my life. About teaching great classes that people benefit from, about crushing PRs and being strong in fun races. About being a good partner, and having a good partner to share life with. The only long-term goal I've ever kept is a simple one: be happy, be healthy.

For me, it's always been about the whole life. 

And work is and, as far as I'm concerned, has to remain just one facet, one piece, one singular element of a whole life.

I've always sworn that I would not live to work. I don't care much about money beyond it's ability to meet my basic needs and afford me some creature comforts, all of which fall well within the range of what's available to a person with a modest and appropriate five-figure salary. Money doesn't motivate me to do things that I wouldn't otherwise do. My last year as a freelancer has made me realize a lot of things that I don't want to do, and has helped me feel comfortable imagining more possibilities for my future than ever before.

Over the last five or so years, I've had a lot of fun opportunities that were never, ever a part of my plans. And I accepted them and largely enjoyed or benefited greatly from them. If I had a five-year plan for my career five years ago, my life would look nothing like it does right now. And though that life isn't perfect, there are things in it that I would miss if I didn't have them. Or at least, having them now, I know they are the things that are the most right for me.

When interviewers or employers or apparently my boyfriend ask about my five year plan, my answer is this: I could never have planned for any of the circumstances I'm in right now, and sticking to my former plans would have meant missing out on a lot of wonderful personal and professional experiences. So I can't bring myself to make a plan, about anything, because who knows what is out there waiting to happen to me, if only I remain free to receive it?

I don't know what my life will look like in five years, and I consider that a good thing.

I don't know where I'll live. What I'll do. Who I'll live with. What I'll look like. What my hobbies will be. Sure, I have an idea of what 2016 me wishes would happen. But I hope 2021 is more exciting, happier, more adventurous, and more beautiful than 2016 me can even dream up.


  1. A. Freaking. Men. I love this and I love you. You are one of the most driven and goal-oriented people I know, and you're proof that have long-term or deeply-seated goals doesn't necessarily correlate to working hard (and vice versa). I have told many employers I had. I idea what I wanted to do, and I'm sure that turned some of them off but I think others got it (especially when I explained why I was hesitant to put all my eggs in any one basket in the midst of a big career change). And yes to the end - I don't even need to tell you how far off course I am from what I would have planned, but it seriously makes me sad to think about all the things I would have missed. The unplanned things have been my favorite things.

  2. oh no, i was nodding along until you said 2021, i don't want to think about what year it will be lol.
    i am the exact same as you. i think there are 2 (or more) different types of planners. those like you and me, and those that plan their whole lives, but not so much the little everyday details. i plan what i am doing on the weekend, where i want to travel next year and the year after and in 10 years. i plan what i am going to eat, what i am going to wear, what i am going to pack, what time we need to leave to get somewhere.. i HATE when people are like 'we will figure it out' LOL no how bout we figure it out now? the only thing i can figure out on the day of is like... nope, nothing. i want it all planned. but i have never cared about the 5 or 10 year plans and i am 100% not career driven. i have zero ambition, i do not want to be a CEO or even anyone's boss. i want to enjoy my work, do it, and go home. and i feel like 90% of the world (or at least, the internet) doesn't get that? like 'if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough!' well i guess my dreams aren't big enough, because being healthy and happy are my dreams and goals, and that is not scary. and also yes to where i am now vs where i'd be if i followed all those big plans. i've learned, for the most part, to let life take me where i'm gonna go with big things, but i get to control the little things.

  3. Interesting! I hate that question in interviews, because it's like, "Well... if I get this job my plan will look quite a bit different than if I don't so how do I even answer that?" I'm kind of going in the opposite direction. Life used to be very spontaneous and unplanned and now it's getting more and more solid. I wanted to freelance and at least try to run my own business and I figured timing that with kids would be great. So baby on the way and freelancing in the works and that's probably the next 5 years unless I get utterly sick of it and want to go work for someone full time again. I also have vague ideas that by the time my kids get to college age I want to be teaching in some capacity, both because I like the idea and by then will have experience to share, and because they'll get free tuition. I also know that unless we make a change soon, we're probably going to be in Delaware for a long time, because we're only getting more strongly rooted here as time goes on, with the house and me picking up more local clients and so on. But outside of the strong, this will happen things (like being a mom come 2017), it's still loose. Ryan and I could split up, we could move, I could find an amazing job that convinces me freelancing isn't worth it (I still check job listings every so often just in case). In the end, all of my plans are more of a "Here's how I currently would like things to go down."

  4. Frequent reader, infrequent commenter here. :) Bless you for posting this! I am in the same boat, and it's something I've been struggling with. I recently enrolled in grad school (after years of mulling it over), realized I was putting a lot of time and effort into something just because it would mean a little more money down the road, and ... quit. I'm a planner, too, so my family and friends were fairly shocked, but it just didn't make sense to sacrifice all the things I enjoy about my life for more cash in the future. Thanks for making me feel like it's OK not to have a plan.

  5. Ugh I hate when people ask what your 5 or 10 year plan is. You cant spend your entire life trying to plan things out because life happens and plans change. I found myself nodding along with so much of what you said. I am not very ambitious with my career as well and I have moments of guilt about it. The thing is, I am just not doing anything I am passionate about. Perhaps if I were, my feelings towards work would be different. The thing is, I just dont know WHAT it is that I want to do when I grow up. Annnnnnd I am 33 years old so that is a very scary thing to admit. I have ideas about what I might enjoy but like....I just dont know how to make them happen or if it is even what I really want. The thing is, even if you figure all that out...something in your life could change to make it difficult or not work.

  6. Ok, I thought for sure I was the only person who actually planned out when to wash my hair! But back to your point...I agree with all of these and am there with you, particularly being embarrassed of not having any professional goals. I feel like I *should* have some, but I don't. I feel like I was a completely different person now than I was 5 years ago, and expect the same for the next 5. I couldn't have even imagined my current life 5 years ago. I try to make 1 year plans (with the exception of that looming 101 list), but even that doesn't include where I'd like to be or what I'd like to be doing professionally because I don't really know what it is that I want in that regard. My one-year plan is more like experiences I want to have and places to go because all that requires planning ahead and budgetting, and people I'd like to be with because that requires constant communication starting now. Thanks for making me feel sane about NOT planning out the next 5 years!

  7. I love this so much. You know I'm a planner girl at heart (and in life) but a 5 year plan? Get out of here with that nonsense. First of all, it's soooo boring. Secondly, it NEVER works out. Life happens! And that is the truly beautiful part. If you had talked to me in my Jr year of high school, I was going to enlist in the Navy. Recruiter was at the house and everything. If you asked 2nd grade me what I was going to do - be a teacher (summer off! and stationary galore!) If you asked graduating me - Spanish major. A year later, psych major. Today - Happy. That is the ONLY 5 year plan I can stick with for certain. I will be happy.

    Also, Kripalu IS happening! Let's plan this out

  8. I have tried to have a 5 years plan, but I've never really wanted to have one! I like to plan things in advance like a few months out - but other than that, I feel like I would jinx things which is weird I know! 2021 is pretty scary to think about - like it's the 20's in 2000's LOL! I loved reading this post - I think as long as you're happy in your everyday life - for the most part- and you plan for emergencies and things like that - all is good! xo, Biana -BlovedBoston

  9. I do love the idea that if you had followed a plan, you may not be where you are now or would have missed out on some things. I can completely relate to that. I don't even have a dream goals wish list like you do, so I really should get to thinking. I'm glad I'm not the only one, as we have talked about before, working for something major, career-wise. I'm starting to think a job that just affords me to live my life outside of the office in a way that makes me happy is enough.

  10. I identify so much with a lot of this - I am a planner in many ways but I have never had or followed a career plan or even a personal plan in ways many people have personal plans (marriage/kids/living/etc). I made the best choices I could at various points, which led me to some good and not so good things. I have things I want to do, I have dreams, and sometimes those things get done or come to fruition.

    Sometimes I wonder if that's subconsciously on purpose - because if I have a day planned and something is not in my day and it's stressing me out I can't do it. Like, I always dreamed of owning a shore house...if I had a personal plan and it wasn't in there last year, I would have been unable to pull the trigger on that. Since I had no plan or timeline, we jumped in feet first and that's where we are.

    I'm very much about the whole life - I have never and will never define myself or anyone else by what they do for a job. I want to know about what books you read, where you like to go on vacation, what makes you feel connected, what you like about where you live, what things make you laugh. I could really give not much of a crap about what people do in their 9-5.

  11. as an old 40yr old hag, i've learned that you can't "plan" life; you deal with it and live it to the best of your ability.

    that said though, i did have a 5yr plan when i was just getting out of college: 1) pay off my college loans and 2) get a house, all within 5yrs from graduating. whatever way i accomplished those 2 goals were not planned but that was a fucking hard 5yr plan, let me tell you.

    other than that, i only put in the effort to live a happy and healthy life. i once dreamed of becoming an executive but then some bad things happened which made me realize that life isn't only about work and money and power; it's about love and family and happiness. you can't get money and power without sacrificing love, family or happiness and to me, the latter is way more important. i guess it all depends on one's priorities!

  12. Totally with you on this, lady! I mean, I have an IDEA of where I WANT to be in five years and could totally recite it to you now. BUT, I know it's just a want, not a for sure or a will be and that's whats tough for me.

  13. Well. As a first-time visitor to your blog, this was one heck of a post to read. I've often snickered at this question when it comes to job interviews and more often than not, I always say "I hope I'm somewhere that makes me happy, both professionally and personally." When they, usually, ask if that includes being there, my response is "I can't honestly say as I am not an employee here at this moment. I have a lot of interest being here, so I hope it's somewhere I'd want to remain in the future."

    It's such a loaded question ...

    I'm the same way as you are with some of these items. I wish, when I was younger, that I had bounced around a little more. I've accomplished some of my career goals (sports writer who covered professional baseball, albeit at the minor league level is one I'm so happy I had the chance to cross off), yet there are others I know will eventually disappear of the goal list and to the "would have been nice" list.

    An excellent post and read. Glad I stumbled across your blog. :)

    P.J. at http://www.hoohaa.com

  14. I love this so much. I have one professional goal and that's to land a year round, full time job in camping. And that's as specific as it gets, it doesn't matter to me what my job title is; director, programmer, co-ordinator, facilitator...it's all the same in my books. I used to be SO focused on the 5 year, 10 year, 15 year plan and looking back I spent a lot of time planning and worrying about making those plans happen when in reality it's out of my control.

    I really appreciate your focus on parking...I go through the same thought process when I'm going somewhere. I need to know where I can park, how much parking is available and then factor in the parking situation into how early I need to leave in order to get there on time!


Post a Comment

I'd love to hear from you. Please make sure your settings let me reply to your comment by email.