“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
This question is so common, it’s become an interview cliché. But the first time I was asked, I didn’t know about any of that, I was simply unprepared. I didn’t have a good answer, nor did I want to. Five years seemed like forever, and I hadn’t been living with any kind of long-term plans.
I was 28 years old, supporting my young family-of-four, with few resources and a lot of financial hardships. All I’d ever known was short-term jobs at hourly wages with few benefits. I’d attended twelve schools by 10th grade, and none since. I’d lived at 39 addresses. My world was all about the unexpected, the improvised, and the transitory.
But now I was in the midst of a major inflection point – one of those times where a few things just click into place, in ways that change everything forever. This had been the year we escaped poverty. And the job I was interviewing for was going to keep us out.
I hadn’t sought this job, a full-time-employee role at the huge company where I’d been contracting for the past six months. Jobs like this weren’t for people like me. But my managers wanted me to take it. They wanted to keep me on after the contract maximum expired. They wanted me to take on responsibilities they could only give to a regular employee. And, they wanted me to have a shot at a prestigious career with a stable, high-paying employer.
So, as my interview team did a perfunctory vetting to satisfy corporate bureaucracy, they were still persuading me to accept. They knew I wasn’t a typical applicant: apprehensive, and not used to their world. So I wasn’t entirely afraid to admit to my interviewer that I had no idea where I would be in five years.
I passed the vetting. I took the job. I prepared myself for this new world. No more time cards. No more overtime pay. Health insurance. Something called a “stock option”. And some very different duties and responsibilities than any I’d done before.
It all made me pretty nervous, and I confessed one last time to the contract supervisor who was becoming my manager that I just wasn’t expecting any of this.
With a Masters in English Literature, he loves to throw out a good quote, though I’m not sure if he thought he was quoting Allen Saunders or John Lennon when he replied:
“Life is what happens while you were making other plans.”
When You Aren’t Where You Thought You’d Be
I ended up staying at that job for very long time. The first few years there were some of the hardest I’ve ever worked. I had to adapt to corporate culture. I had to learn the difference between doing good work and being perceived to have done good work. I would have to fight for new opportunities, ones that were not so eager to land in my lap.
But mostly, I had to get past my shock at having found myself where I did not expect to be. Landing that job was an opportunity, not an accomplishment. What came next would be up to me.
When destiny wrests the steering wheel out of your hands, it can be tempting to just let it drive. In a corporate environment, where so much is outside your control, that can be doubly so.
Eventually, I learned how to form a new set of ambitions, ones that fit within that enterprise environment. I learned what to fight for, and what to let be. How to recognize ways the shifts in our corporate culture altered what goals were realistic. The difference between my performance review, my development plan, and my private agenda. To know when I had to put my head down and just do the work, and when I had standing to stand up for myself and make demands. And to know when I had to look outside of corporate walls, for the opportunities I just wasn’t going to find at my day job.
Sometimes setting a goal is the start of the journey. But sometimes you have to set out in a general direction, then see what destinations appear. Just don’t forget to set the goals along the way.