It’s Time to Stop Asking “What Do You Want to Do in Five Years?”

Posted on November 11, 2020




Today’s Buzz is by Tim Gomez– connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter!

What I am watching:  Emily in Paris

What I am listening to: 90s Alternative Rock Hits

What I am reading: The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What is the “next” position for you? What is your 5, 10, and 25-year plan?

This question has been asked of almost all of us. The question comes up in formal performance reviews, in conversations with colleagues, and during a coffee talk with managers. The question is important and it is one we indeed need to think about. Like many of you, I also find that I ask myself this question quite frequently. I would also argue that we think about this question too frequently.

Over the last two years, my answer to the question has remained consistent: I honestly don’t know.

We are often chided for using “I don’t know” as an answer to anything.  This is especially true when we live in a world that communicates in absolutes. But it’s a long road to get to the stage of knowing that you don’t have an answer to a question. It is an even longer road becoming comfortable with having “idk” as an answer.  I would contend that this is the most important answer to the question of “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Here are some of the reasons that I believe that.

We Have No Idea “Who” We Will Be In Five Years

If someone asks you “the question” when you are 25 years old, they are asking you to project about 20% of your entire life into the future. When someone asks a 25-year-old what their career goals are, they are being asked to project more than double their entire time on this planet. It’s no wonder this is a difficult question to answer, or at least answer reasonably and honestly.

As one of the few creatures alive with the ability to mental time travel (i.e. think about the future), we have a natural proclivity to think into the future. However, we absolutely know that human beings are incredibly optimistic about our future. Our memories are compressed ZIP files of the most salient and (mostly) positive events in the past.

We then use this file as a database with which to draw conclusions about the future. This is why we always imagine future events (vacations, time off, achievements, etc.) to provide more utility than they actually do. It’s why we envision that a promotion will provide a huge boost in overall happiness when science has shown that this boost of happiness lasts around 6 months. It’s the same reason that our Disneyland vacation often provides less utility than the anticipation and excitement leading up to it. We are seduced by future happiness.

Time Travel

We have a capacity to project ourselves into the future, but we make a critical miscalculation that we seldom acknowledge. When we envision ourselves in the future, we don’t envision our future self but rather our present self in a future setting.

This is a crucial blunder that can and often leads to lower levels of happiness when the future eventually arrives. We are different people by the time we arrive in the future. We are, simply put, not Tony Stark having the ability to take our same, current body and mind into different time periods.

From a practical standpoint, it is difficult to know who we will be in five years because so many things can, and will, change. Our values, priorities, expectations, social settings, goals, desires, and personalities will all be different five, ten, and twenty-five years from now. You may become a parent. You may realize that you want to move states.

You may no longer be able to sit staring at a computer screen for 10 hours a day. You may realize that duties outside of work will impact your ability to give your entire life to your career. You may even realize that *gasp* local government isn’t the right domain for you.


I would never argue against planning for the future – it is a critical component of our lives and it is one of the things that allows us to have a celebrated existence on this planet. However, we need to establish a more critical lens when we reflect on “who” or “what” we are going to be in the future. In short, we spend so much time thinking about the future when the real value is in the present.

The Present Is What Really Matters

One of the most easily identifiable flaws in our capacity to reason is the acknowledgment that we often desire things that we don’t have over things that we do possess. This is not in contradiction to the Endowment Effect which states that we consistently overvalue objects in our possession for no other reason than we own them.

We overvalue ourselves, our contributions, and things that we possess as one of the prominent negative side effects of our shared meritocratic philosophy.   We also have a tendency to seek out that which we don’t have.  It’s why the next NFL head coach will likely be a mirror image of the coach that was replaced.  Pay attention to how often head coaches flip flop from the former defensive coordinator and former offensive coordinator.  It’s also the reason that many Arizona natives see little value in the Grand Canyon but can’t wait to visit the Statue of Liberty.

The only way to mitigate this tendency, like most mental failings, is to be aware of its existence.  Acknowledging a problem is the first step in solving the problem – and we have a problem with idolizing a future state.  We are consistently, and sometimes aimlessly, projecting ourselves into the future at the expense of the present.

If we are constantly forced to think about what we are going to be in the future, how can we possibly enjoy the present? Wouldn’t the present just be a precursor to a (we hope) brighter future? Simply an appetizer to the actual “real” meal that we came for?  Of most paramount concern is the fact that “the question” anchors us to a new ideal that what we are looking for is in the future – and it also devalues the present.

We are also keenly aware that it is the present that makes the future possible.  Why else would someone eat kale chips over Lays?  Why would you stay and work extra on an assignment instead of turning in to watch TV?  We do this because we know that present effort begets future reward – and we hope that reward is comparable to our effort today.  We get in trouble when we solely take present-day action for a future reward and when that reward doesn’t measure up to the merit that we are giving it in the present-day setting.

What is Today?

Mr. Krabs is surely one of the foremost philosophers of our generation.

Being happy and purposeful in the present will take us far.  There is an entire field of study that is dedicated to proving that positivity can lead to both individual and societal well-being.  Positive psychology, and Shawn Achor’s incredible book The Happiness Advantage, have contended that the primary ingredient for future success is to be happy now.

This assertion is in direct conflict with how many of us were raised and how many of us currently think.  We generally believe that achieving X will lead to happiness or utility.  In short – if you work hard, you will become successful and once you become successful, then you will be finally happy.   But that is not the case.  Positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative.  We can, and must, retrain our brains to be happy in the now.  These retrained brains will be able to capitalize on increased productivity and performance.  And you might just accidentally enjoy yourself along the way!

To accomplish this, however, we must not only acknowledge that there is a present but we must be present for the present (see what I did there?).  We must recognize that we don’t have to only live for our future happiness – as fleeting and ill-defined as it is.  If we continue to do that, we will not only never be happy in the present but we will be perpetually running on the hedonic treadmill – condemned to always chase that “next step”.

We can and will continue to make present-day choices for future rewards.  We must.  But we cannot let it be the primary mode of thinking.  It can and should occupy our mental space.  It just shouldn’t operate the majority of it. We must ward off against the allure of allowing this frame of mind to be the dominant one in our daily lives.  If we continue to operate in this way, life will be nothing but a series of past events and future rewards.

That doesn’t sound like a good life.

What Constitutes a Good Life?

Eudaimonia is the Greek word that is translated to “happiness” or “the good life”.  Aristotle identified it as the term for the highest form of human achievement – the ultimate thing to strive for.  In fact, it could be argued that it is the central and all-powerful quest in which the entire field of Philosophy has been trying to understand.

Studies in normative ethics, political philosophy and epistemology are wholly concerned with how to understand what eudaimonia is and how to achieve it.  So, don’t feel too bad if you can’t answer the question of “What does it mean to have a good life?”  It’s a rhetorical question because it’s almost impossible to answer.

People hold various views on what is important in life – and we see it on display every election cycle.   The theory of contributive justice says that we are most happy, and most human, when contributing to the common good and are recognized by our peers for the contributions that we make.  The fundamental human need is to be needed by those that we share our lives with and to contribute to something more than what we are by ourselves.  Attaining meaningful work is an important ingredient in human flourishing.  And for many of us, this can be achieved in our present career.

Philosophers and economists contend that the purpose of our existence is to maximize our own utility.  But we know that having a meaningful life includes maximizing the utility, or happiness, of those around us. It is in this way that I feel like government employees, especially local government employees, are truly blessed.  Not only do we get to enjoy the contributions of our own through our work, but we also contribute to the greater whole of civic life in an entire community.  If we are looking for fulfillment in our lives through work then local government continues to be a great field to find it.

I would offer an alternative view on “the question”.  I would contend that we need to be more like Sherlock Holmes and use a process of elimination. It’s difficult for any of us to fully list out what we want that makes us happy much like it is for any of us to have a conclusive definition of what makes us healthy.  But just because we can not establish a simple answer to these ultimate questions does not mean we don’t know pieces of the puzzle.  We may not know what does make us happy, but we know what does not make us happy.  Using this viewpoint on “the question” we may not be able to answer “What do you want to do in 5 years?” but we may have an answer to “What do we not want to be doing in 5 years?”  to have the ability to eliminate options requires experience in both life and a career.

Let’s Change the Question

I have more than I deserve – and this is why I feel wholly comfortable in answering “idk” to the question of “Where do I want to be in five years?”  I have a career with an organization that I enjoy, in a position that is fun, doing work that is meaningful, and a position that with the financial opportunity to provide a good life for my family.  I am valued for my contributions, and I value the work that I do myself because it maximizes my current set of skills, identity, and preferences.  Will it in the future?  I am not sure.  But I am sure that I don’t want to continue worrying about the future and ignoring the present.  Our lives and careers are ephemeral – we need to make sure to enjoy the process along with the destination.

Instead of asking “Where do you want to be five years from now?” we should be asking more fulfilling and easily identifiable questions. We should be asking:

  • “What do you feel your strengths are and does this current position allow you to utilize those strengths?”
  • “What areas do you wish you were better at and how can we get you trained in those areas?”
  • “What do you think makes a fulfilling life and does this current position allow you to achieve it?”

What other questions do you think we should be asking each other?


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