A large number of clients contact me with the desire to create for themselves a five or ten year career plan. The idea of a structured, long-term plan originated with the philosophy of Karl Marx, and has spread from the centralized economies of the Communist world to virtually every large business and organization in the world. As a result it's percolated down into many individuals' view of what's needed to achieve success.
Of course in order to have long-term plans that work it's necessary to begin with two markers: where things currently stand, and where they should end up. And therein lies the problem that those clients encounter: they're uncertain about where they are ("I haven't discovered what I'm passionate about"), and as a result are even more uncertain about the target for which to aim. Furthermore, an economy, a business, or an organization can know where it stands with a far greater degree of precision than can an individual, because those entities are primarily concerned with easily measured metrics, ranging from GNP to net profit to grant income to the number of clients served. People need to (or should) be concerned with much fuzzier goals: happiness, fulfillment, a sense of security. And if they haven't experienced much of those, they're of course unsure of the way to find more.
A necessary first step in assisting clients looking for a long-range career plan is to help them to get a clearer idea of where they stand. Many hope that typical career-oriented tests will help them determine that, but in my experience tests are of limited help. They measure people's love for, and facility with, aspects of life which have already been experienced. But they are not much help in predicting love for, and facility with, unexplored territory, territory which in so many cases has formed the basis of second, third, or fourth careers. Or of supplemental endeavors that greatly enrich lives, whether a side business, a hobby, or a volunteer project.
So how does one go about getting a better fix on these untrodden paths? Author Herminia Ibarra, in Working Identity, does a superb job of describing the process of "crafting experiments," a way for clients to explore hitherto undiscovered interests.
The goal is to gain some experience in new areas by involving oneself in them in a preliminary way. I wrote about several ways of doing this in my blog post "Figuring Out a New Career"
However, even though you may have discovered a calling (something that allows you to experience "flow"* on a regular basis, or provides you with the three elements that Daniel Pink identifies as necessary for optimal career satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (see my blog post:)
a ten year (or five year) plan can actually be an impediment to achieve the happiness and fulfillment that most of us dream of. Why is this so? Because, unlike economies, corporations, or organizations, people are constantly expanding their experiences, acquaintances, and likes / dislikes, and rigid adherence to a plan developed at, say, age 25 may turn out to be unsuitable to the person ten years later. A perfect example is provided by a client who came to me for career counseling and life coaching last year. He came from a family of doctors, and all his life he'd wanted to pursue a career in medicine. He got into a prestigious medical school, graduated with honors and began his residency at one of the area's best hospitals, but at the beginning of his second year he realized that he didn't really want to be a doctor. It was the unseen and consciously unfelt expectations of his family that had propelled him on that path. It was agonizing for him to realize that he'd spent so many years pursuing a goal he ultimately discovered that he didn't want, but as we both agreed, better late than never.
Similarly, all of us are subject to the influences of family, friends, and, above all, our culture in plotting out a career path. A ten-year-old child might be asked numerous times "What do you want to be when you grow up?," and might respond by saying "I want to be an athlete (or a pop star or an astronaut, three of the four most popular choices of careers among children) These are choices suggested by the child's environment as highly exciting and appealing ones, but may have no relationship to the child's abilities. As people grow into adulthood they are subject to some of the same environmental pressures, although in a perhaps more subtle way.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with planning, and it can be invaluable in plotting a course from where you know you are to where you want to be. But if you have a reasonable degree of uncertainty, invest your time in exploring alternatives by crafting experiments, talking to people in fields of potential interest, etc. And remain open and sensitive to the changing factors that influence your values as you mature. The best ten year plan is malleable, one that's exquisitely attuned to the changes inherent in life.
*Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity