Does Career Planning Work?

“He said, ‘You can’t plan it all out, you know. You just have to do what comes next. You can’t plan your career.'”

One of my clients was sharing about a conversation she had with a man who has been very successful in the field she’s pursuing.

This client and I had worked hard together. We had explored her stories and found these themes repeated again and again. It was as if her life was saying, “This. This. Do this!” and she had finally been able to embrace it.

Having found what she wants to do and why she wants to do it, she was strategizing where to start and how she’d go about it.

“What do you think about that?” She asked me. “It seemed like he almost disagreed with what we are doing. How would you respond to that?!?”

Does Career Planning Work?

It’s generally agreed upon that having goals is a good thing. Western culture applauds when people set audacious goals and follow through on plans to achieve them. It’s almost built into us to have lofty pursuits.

There’s something I’ve been trying to put my finger on about this. There’s a place for goals and plans, but there’s also a limit to them.

Oliver Burkman, in his book The Antidote, explores this idea through the lens of the 1996 Everest expeditions that tragically claimed the lives of 15 people in one day. There’s much that can be said about that day and what went wrong with the different parties who were all attempting to summit the mountain. But Burkeman boils it down to this:

The climbers pushed through to achieve their goals long after it was safe to do so.

Summiting Everest is all about timing. There are small windows when the weather cooperates long enough for it to be safe. The summit must take place in the late morning or early afternoon in order for the expedition to get back to base before nightfall brings a change in the weather.

On that day in 1996, the timing was off, and yet the climbers pushed through—a decision that cost them their lives.

This is a story about climbing, but it’s also a story about what a person will do to achieve his or her goals.

When Goals Fail

We’ve all seen “high achievers” and many of us have been them. But what does it take to be a high achiever?

More than anything, it takes sacrifice. The valedictorian puts school in front of everything else. The winning Olympic athletes put their sports before most other things.

We set goals, and make plans to meet those goals, and— like the Everest climbers— sacrifice the rest of our lives to achieve them.

The Importance of Uncertainty

For most of us, planning is a reaction to uncertainty. If we don’t know what’s going to happen, we make plans to fill that empty space.

As we explored in Fearless February, uncertainty is a difficult experience, yet also an experience through which we learn and grow.

Where goal setting and planning interfere with life is when we use our goals to alleviate all uncertainty— using our plans as tools to keep us from being present with life and all the good, bad, and everything in between.

Striking a Balance

I’m not here to throw planning out the window. It has its place. What I want you to think about is when goals and planning are a tool and when they are a crutch for you.

Some of you may need to set a few goals and start working toward them. Others of you may need to cancel your plans and let your life unfold a bit more instead of planning away the present moment.

I used to resist planning, but I’ve learned that there’s immense value in having goals in mind and holding them with open hands (which is why I make things like the Annual Review Guide to help you set those goals).

Navigating life and career with poise and grace requires the ability to adapt and change. [tweet that]

You don’t need a map or a plan set in stone. You need a direction. Once you have that, the only thing left is to take the next step.

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