Do career plans work? (The career plan myth)

I reached my late 20s before I met anyone who had a career plan. And not only did my new colleague have a career plan, but it was also a highly structured five-year plan that had a date by which career milestones and marriage and children would be achieved.

It was a pivotal moment.

Firstly, I’d never seen such a plan before and, secondly, it was linear, unidirectional and absolute. It had a starting point, an endpoint described in minute detail and the journey from A to B was highly prescriptive. It was also a pivotal moment because I found it quite frightening that a seemingly smart person could be so lacking in imagination and absolutely convinced that their plan was the answer to career success – and life happiness.

Sure, there was a vision, but there was no space for seizing opportunities as they appeared, no leeway for trying new things and seeing where they took you…which had been my approach.

For me, I walked or skipped along my career path, looking around and seeing what was here and there. I had a guiding vision of doing interesting things that challenged me and a mission to explore. If I got bored or saw something I wanted to try, I went and investigated and sometimes changed course. I explored what was possible. Yes, there were some dead ends, but I was quick to course-correct and overall, I kept moving forward, building insight, knowledge, experience and skills, doing good work and enjoying myself. I switched sectors, took some risks and even changed careers. All without a plan.

Having moved from arts and charity events to corporate events at an American investment bank (a ‘Why not try it for a bit? The money would be nice…’ decision), I met a whole new species – extremely ambitious people. They had goals and plans. And worked relentlessly. I worked hard, very hard. I went above and beyond a lot, but these people were driven to achieve on a whole new level. Smart as they were – and they were some of the smartest people I have ever met – I found them surprisingly one-dimensional and, being frank, mostly uninspiring in their thinking. They did leave an impression though.

Having left the corporate world and doing what I do now, when I write CVs with my clients or help them articulate their professional impact, I help them construct a narrative, a clear, accessible story that draws the reader or listener into a guided journey, one that creates arcs between key points and appears to flow naturally.

But career histories are rarely a neat and tidy story, moving along a single onward line.

Peripatetic is how one client describes her career journey. Rambling (‘multilinear’ for the CV), varied, layered and, my favourite, ‘a bit stop-starty’ fit for others, but however clients perceive them, I’m struggling to think of examples where it’s been a singular trajectory…perhaps only in accountancy and medicine where qualifications, levels and pathways are externally and rigidly defined.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to give a career talk at my former college (yes, I’m that old) and was invited to speak to final-year students about career planning and preparing for the world of work. Rather than the usual show and tell style – this is my job, this is the reality, this is how I got here – I was invited to talk about creating a career plan.

Being me (‘leans into innate strengths’ for the CV), the ‘what’ is never enough, I need to know the ‘why’ and explore that fully before I start producing content, especially when producing advice for an audience.

As my brain started to ask questions – What is a career plan? What do we mean by that? What would be useful to show? How do they work? – I started drawing, thinking about how to present a career journey visually on a slide. This was my result.

Why didn’t I show a clear story of connected points and arcs between them? Because I felt that the one gem of wisdom that it would be powerful to share was that:

There is no right way to create a plan, especially not in the arts where the norm can be multiple projects, roles, gaps and collaborations, not a singular job.

Now, I’m not saying career plans are bad. No, not saying that at all. In fact, I create and shape them with my clients, but they are more like frameworks and guidelines to operating within than a ‘do A then B then C and you’ll achieve ever-lasting happiness and success’ plan.

If you want to move on or up, feel stuck or are just mildly bewildered about where you find yourself, it’s highly impactful and empowering to look at where you are, where you want to get to and how you want to get there.

You can read more about that on another blog.

Clarifying your current reality, exploring possibilities, determining a destination and then mapping out how you might get there gets my clients unstuck, mobile, able to take decisions and move forward. But the difference between these career plans and the five-year plan of my former colleague is that they are realistic and driven by values, with success defined in the client’s terms.

They are still ambitious, but they are flexible. Still structured but with room to seize opportunities and – critically – to evaluate and re-set along the journey as knowledge, insight, skills and experience grow. (And they rarely include married by a set date).

If you are curious about how a career plan could help you or want to break free of the unidirectional career plan myth, then why not get in touch? Let’s have a conversation about what might work for you.

Email louise@careertherapy.co.uk
LinkedIn Louise Newton
Photo Maksym Ostrozhynskyy on Unsplash

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