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The Career Advice That Drives Everyone Crazy

Election (1999)Directed by Alexander PayneShown: Reese Witherspoon (as Tracy Enid Flick)Election (1999)Directed by Alexander PayneShown: Reese Witherspoon (as Tracy Enid Flick)
Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Enid Flick in the movie Election (1999), directed by Alexander Payne.© Paramount Pictures/Photofest

MPW Insiders is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How important is it to know where you want to be in five years? is written by Mary Godwin, vice president of operations at Qumulo.

I’ve never been a “5-year plan” kind of gal. What I have learned over the years that backs up my lack of doing 5-year plans is that you cannot anticipate, especially in today’s corporate environment, what changes will occur to your job, your company, or your industry as a whole.

Having a “cast in concrete” 5-year plan is a great way to drive yourself crazy. I believe that it is much more useful to think of your career as being on a flow chart, with “yes” and “no” gates at various check points. This approach forces you to develop a Plan B should you hit a “no” at any point along the path.

Here’s how I came up with this plan: Not long ago, I completely uprooted my life to pursue a job that was 800 miles away from where I had been living for 25 years. At the time, I really hadn’t thought through how disruptive this move was going to be. Seriously – I spend more time figuring out what restaurant to go to on Friday night than I did making that decision. So, it will probably be of no shock to anyone to learn that I spent several nights after the move on the phone with my “800 miles away” husband, with me “freaking out” when I realized the enormity of what I had done to our lives.

My salvation in getting through that time was what came to be known between my husband and me as the “2, 3, 4 Plan,” with each of the numbers representing the number of years that I would stay in the job. There was no “1” because we figured that I had to at least see the job through for one year.

After that first year, each of the following checkpoints is where the “yes” and “no” aspects of the flow chart came into play. If the answer was “yes” to both of the questions – “Is the company doing well?” and “ Am I enjoying my work?” then I would stay on at the company, in the new town, for another year. However, if the answer to either was “no,” then Plan B would be enacted and I’d move back home. The decision criteria for subsequent years were the same. The immediate benefit to me personally was that it laid out the terms under which I would move home – a light at the end of the tunnel. This was important to me, given my state of “what-was-I-thinking-ness?” As time went on, I was enjoying my work and the company was also doing well, so the “life raft” was no longer required – but reflecting back on my “2,3,4 Plan” ensured that I check in with whether or not I was still in the right place.

The great thing is that once you’ve made this commitment to yourself – that you will check in on your career at least once a year against a set of decision criteria – you can relax, focus on your work, and hopefully enjoy what you are doing. You already know what you will do if things change. You have your Plan B.