Most people I know love to make to-do lists. We love to plan our days, our weeks, our careers and our vacations to the last detail. Our culture worships planning. Everything must be planned in advance. We have diaries, calendars, blackberry notes, alarms, schedules, checklists, targets, goals, aims, strategies, and even mission and vision statements for our lives. Career planning is the most insidious of these cults precisely because it encourages a feeling of control over your reactions to future events. As that interview question goes: where do you see yourself in five years time? This invites the beginning of what starts as a little game and finishes as a belief built on sand. We guess what employers want to hear, and then we give it to them. Sometimes this batting back and forth of imagined futures becomes a necessary little game you play in order to 'get ahead'.
The overwhelming thought in most peoples minds when making choices is that we want to make a choice that fits with our values and beliefs – a choice that we can stand for in the future. But do we really know what we want in future? Will we want the same thing in future ? My guess is that people frequently don't know what they want and just make an educated guess based on what others are doing and our current perceived insecurities.
That's why career planning, or at the very least just deciding what you're going to do next, is so unpleasant. It's no fun at 18 years old when people ask what you want to do. There seem to be so many different options, each with myriad branching possibilities, many of which lead in opposite directions, but all equally tempting. Surrounded by these endless spiraling futures, it is no wonder that many a school-leaver sticks with what they know and follows in parental footsteps.
I do believe however that whatever career choices we make as an 18 year old is all reversible. An artist at 18 can still become a scientist at 45 and there are examples of doctors who do end up joining an investment bank. If not such a drastic and dramatic about-turn, most of us definitely have the choice to reframe and re-prioritise our career parameters like ambition, entrepreneurship, money, philanthropy, leave-me-alone-ism, power etc.
The problem comes when you still don’t know what you want in the throes of mid-life.
If it's hard at 18, it's even harder in midlife when people are theoretically better equipped to make their choice. In reality by your 30s wide-eyed optimism has normally been replaced by a more cynical outlook on jobs and the workplace. Now it's clearer what the downsides of certain jobs are. There's not only our own experiences of work but we also have friends at work, all of whom colour our perception of their careers.
Everyone has their own internal trade-offs. How much routine do you like: boring but safe? How much do you like travel: exciting but you'll be away from loved ones? How much do you care about earning more money: and taking a more boring/stressful/less fulfilling job? Would you like to be creative and nobody or mundane and somebody? Whatever the outcome of all these swings and roundabouts along with many more, the reason that deciding what to do with your life is so difficult is that it involves predicting the future and making choices. More so the mid-life choices are a lot more irreversible and they are the most difficult choices to make.
There's many reasons why it seems we should be good at prediction what we want. If I know that I'm enjoying what I'm doing now, then I should enjoy it in the future shouldn't I? On top of this I've got years of experience building up a set of things I like - cinema, books, sitcoms - and things I don't like - trips to the dentist, severe embarrassment and flu, especially not all at the same time. If I've got this huge bank of likes and dislikes it should be easy to predict my wants in the future. And yet, it seems we are often surprised by what the future throws at us.
Most of the times, most of us are very poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future. Most of the times our grandiose plans for our future when actually executed do not fill our hearts with the warm fuzzy feeling we always thought it would. We plan every moment, every detail, every angle to reach that global optima (to borrow a mathematical simili) and yet when we are at the top of the wave of that global optima and look down and back at our lives – we wonder what all the fuss was about.
This leads me to the key hypothesis which I believe might be the answer though I might be proved wrong ten years later. Let’s stop the search for the global optima and strive to find the local optima. Lets just do what we think is right at any moment of time. Lets just make the choice which makes us happy today and not worry about where this will lead us tomorrow. This can only be done in the belief that the sum of these local optimas and the feeling of residing on 65 peaks of local optimas in our life will give us more happiness than being constantly on the upward curve of trying to find that elusive global optima which we might or might not find.
At the very least we will begin to recognise that looking for happiness is a much less precise science than we once thought.
The argument about looking for local optimas applies to any area of our lives which involves making a prediction about what we might like in the future. Career planning becomes painful precisely because it's such an important decision and we come to understand that we have only very limited useful information.
The best strategy for career planning would then be to make your best guess, try it out and don't be surprised if you don't like it.